By Martha Feldman
In the late 20th century, a new postmodern image of Mozart (1756-1791) swept into public consciousness, bringing in its wake new interest in the court composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), who was still then largely unknown. All this was thanks to the power of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and the success of the subsequent filmic adaptation by Milos Forman (1984). The newly imagined Mozart was a vulgar, obscene genius, tormented by his purported archrival. But if recent publics have tended to regard all that as historical fact, Shaffer most definitely did not. Witty and ironic, his Amadeus is a modern fantasia spun from threads of old gossip, which claimed Salieri himself believed he had caused Mozart’s death.
The rumor mill that ground this out was most active in Salieri’s demented old age. In 1823 when the composer was already institutionalized with dementia, he insisted the gossip was untrue. Two years later a German newspaper brought new attention to the idea as if meaning to deny it: “Our worthy Salieri… suffers all the infirmities of old age, and his mind is gone. In his distorted fantasies he actually claims to be partially responsible for Mozart’s death—a bit of lunacy which surely no one but the poor delirious old man believes.”¹
What, then, is the backstory of Amadeus? And in what kind of Vienna did it exist?
Vienna already knew Mozart well when he arrived there for good in 1781. He was the whiz kid who had dazzled the courts of Europe and the young man who had conquered big opera houses in Italy and Germany, concert halls in France, and royal salons everywhere. Already as a teenager he’d achieved the highest possible level of professional acclaim with three successive operas for the Habsburg archduchy of Milan. None of these triumphs led to a permanent position outside of his native Salzburg, a place Mozart found provincial and suffocating but to which he kept having to return. Only after an exultant Munich production of his Idomeneo (1780) did residency in Vienna become a reality.
Mozart arrived in Vienna still in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg, whose court he accompanied there from Munich. Immediately he began making numerous attempts to resign from Salzburg service, but all were ignored, effectively denying his release. About this (and all other matters professional and personal) his father forever fussed and fretted; and being himself a loyal musical servant of the Salzburg court, he also suffered consternation and shame that his son should stray off without official permission.
But stay in Vienna Mozart did. His Viennese residency in his last decade of life coincided almost exactly with the rule of Emperor Joseph II (1780-1790)—as famed for enlightened reforms as for austerity. Joseph was a friend of music, but no fan of the luxurious spectacle typical of royal courts during the old regime. In 1776 he’d gotten rid of lavish Italian opera—the kind Mozart had so happily written for Milan and Munich—and largely replaced it with a German national theater. Yet it was German theater that generated Mozart’s first major Viennese commission, the Abduction from the Seraglio (1781-82), contracted by the director of the Imperial Theater, Count Rosenberg-Orsini.
Meanwhile Mozart began making himself into a new-styled media star, playing his own keyboard concertos, replete with ornamented cadenzas and ornaments, in subscription concerts hosted by posh aristocrats. He also fell in quickly with the Weber family (previous acquaintances in Mannheim), and shortly married one of the daughters, Constanze. Contrary to the maligning images of her that have circulated in old popular and scholarly lore, Constanze was a down-to-earth, capable wife, and as a semi-professional singer became her husband’s lifelong musical soulmate and protector. For his part, while Mozart was no toady of the court (he never did win a full-time post), he profited from a continual flow of commissions, pupils, publication royalties, and concert ticket sales, winning good bread for the family, apart from a couple of tough years of 1788, when the Turkish war was at its apex, and 1790.²
What was unprecedented about this historical Mozart, then, is not that he was a pauper but that he spent his Viennese years largely self-employed, at the service of no one. When he first met Salieri, the Italian was suffering from the suppression of Italian opera. The playing field leveled when Italian opera was restored, after which only two real sources of rivalry between him and Mozart, both fairly typical of composerly relations. For one, they had to share a couple of high-profile prima donnas--the “flexibly-throated” Cavalieri and Ferrarese, Mozart’s Fiordiligi. For another, both worked with court librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose Così fan tutte Salieri gave up trying to set, only to have Mozart triumph with his in 1790.³ To boot, Mozart’s other Viennese da Ponte opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786), was more successful than Salieri’s operas of the same period.
Yet in 1788, Salieri gained the position of court composer, which he’d previously been covering for the ailing Giuseppe Bonno. Did Mozart care? Financially it was a rough year. But no, probably not. He was succeeding well as an independent agent as virtually no previous composer had done, and independence suited his proud, well-bred, elegant personality. In 1791 the two composers tripped happily out to the suburbs in Mozart’s carriage, along with Cavalieri, to see Mozart’s Magic Flute, which Salieri called an “operone” (a superb opera). It was October 1791. Mozart died less than two months later. One hundred ninety-one years hence Shaffer has Salieri declare at last that he is making his “last move… A false confession—short and convincing.” And we have every reason to believe him.
¹ Quoted in Volkmar Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791, trans. by Timothy Bell (Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 408.
² See Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, 133-41.
³ John A. Rice, Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera (Chicago, 1998), chap. 14.