Mozart & Salieri
Program note from 2016 premiere in NY
In both reality and in the false ideas in the public’s imagination, the picture of Antonio Salieri is filled with contradictions. He was an Italian who lived in Vienna for over 60 years. He was one of the most successful composers of his time, with important performances in Vienna, Paris, Milan and other major cities, whose music has rarely been heard since his death in 1825. He was a renowned teacher, who instructed Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt, and a musician who was generous with his talents, often advocating for the works of Mozart and who conducted them often, as he did the works of Haydn, Gluck and several premiere performances of Beethoven’s works. Yet, he is immortalized as a third-rate plodder, a schemer, a jealous colleague and possibly a murderer! If correcting the record were a goal, one would be hard pressed to know where to begin.
To begin at the beginning, however, Salieri was born in 1750, which means he was only six years older than Mozart, not the substantially older colleague he is depicted as in the film Amadeus. While it’s true that Mozart perceived a rivalry during his first years in Vienna in the early 1780’s, by the end of the decade the two appeared to be quite collegial and Mozart himself writes that, at the premiere of The Magic Flute, Salieri sat in his box and murmured “Bravo!” or “Bello!” after virtually every number.
Yet, the legend grew that Salieri had done his best to squelch Mozart’s career and his undermining of the great genius contributed to Mozart’s early death.
As early as 1830, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play on the subject in his collection of Little Tragedies exploring the seven deadly sins. Pushkin’s beautiful poetic language, though in the form of a play, comes across more as a meditation or an interior reflection on events, wherein this fictional version of Salieri seeks to justify his feelings. From his point of view, he labored and sacrificed and lived an upstanding, morally just life, but the reward he sought to earn – musical genius – seems to have been given to the wrong man, a light-hearted imp to whom immortal greatness comes without effort.
The rich emotional probing in the text and the striking contrast between the two protagonists prompted composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in 1898, to choose to set this text as a chamber opera, one which has entered the standard repertoire within Russia. The music Rimsky-Korsakov writes evokes the classical style without being slavishly imitative. When Mozart sits down to perform an example of his work at the piano and, especially, when he shares with Salieri and excerpt from his Requiem, the music convincingly replicates Mozart’s compositional style.
In preparing this concert, my aim was to bring this wonderful work home to an audience as directly as possible, which meant performing it in English. I hewed as closely as possible to the literal meaning of the original words, while selecting sounds grateful to the voice, which match the musical line as naturally as possible. In order to have the scenes play as two small acts with an intermission between them, I have reinstated before the second scene the fugal intermezzo that Rimsky-Korsakov originally composed but later removed. And it seemed only fair to allow the original composers to speak for themselves; thus we have at the beginning a short overture by Salieri that demonstrates he was capable of producing charming, light-hearted music at odds with his current image as a severe old grouch. Finally, we end with a short Mozart symphony, full of the expected verve and grace, written in 1773 when he was only seventeen.