Friday, October 13, 2017

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)

No. 261 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast261



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Today’s Blog and Podcast features a montage of works by the Italian Classical master Antonio Salieri. Born in the northern Italian town of Legnano in 1750, Salieri came to Vienna aged 15, where he was introduced to his later mentor, Gluck, and to the emperor, Joseph II. Salieri was invited to join in chamber music sessions with the emperor, and soon found himself launched on a career in the imperial court.

In a Guardian article by Erica Jeal, she writes that it's hard to say which view of Antonio Salieri is more firmly embedded: that he was the tormentor who drove Mozart to an early grave or that he was a lousy composer. If Salieri wasn't the enviously wrathful schemer portrayed in the 1984 film Amadeus, who was he? What is certain is that by 1781, when the 25-year-old Mozart set up home in Vienna, Salieri, six years his senior, was an established star.

An ambitious young composer such as Mozart could conceivably have wished Salieri out of the way, but the other way round? Hardly. So what if Mozart collaborated on Le Nozze di Figaro with Beaumarchais, the doyen of the Paris stage? Salieri was already working on Tarare, to a libretto by Beaumarchais himself, a work that would be a hit in Paris.

And if Mozart's collaborations with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte bore greater fruit than Salieri's? Well, no matter - it was Salieri, after all, who could claim credit for bringing Da Ponte to Vienna. However, if what Mozart's wife Constanze reported was true, there was one incident that might conceivably have sparked a rivalry. She claimed that Salieri had been offered Da Ponte's libretto for Cosi Fan Tutte - and had rejected it as being not worth setting. When Mozart got his hands on it, a humiliated Salieri had to eat his words.

It was only after Mozart's demise that Salieri began to have any real reason to hate him. Unlike that of any before him, Mozart's music kept on being performed - he became the first composer whose cult of celebrity actually flourished after his death. Salieri, however, had outlived his talent. He wrote almost no music for the last two decades of his life.

He did have an impressive roster of pupils: Beethoven, Schubert, Meyerbeer and Liszt - not to mention Franz Xavier Mozart, his supposed adversary's young son. But the composer who had once been at the vanguard of new operatic ideas was not necessarily teaching his students to be similarly innovative; we can only be grateful that Schubert ignored his diatribes against the "intolerable" genre of Germanic lieder.

In somewhat ominous fashion, the montage starts with a piano piece by Mozart setting six variations on a theme on the Salieri aria "Mio caro Adone" from the Finale (Act II) of the Opera La fiera di Venezia. The young composer was still in his teens when he wrote this work and must have held some admiration for Salieri at the time.

This raises an inevitable yet perhaps unfair question: how does Salieri's work differ from Mozart's? One might say that Salieri’s music feels more mature and textured, whereas the latter very often placed a strong emphasis on melody. But it is best to simply evaluate Salieri's works based on this short sampling.

What makes Salieri's Variations on "La follia di spagna" noteworthy is that it is one of only very few sets of successful orchestral variations that was written before the late Romantic period, when the form became more popular after Brahms' 1873 Haydn Variations. Salieri's take on the famous Portuguese (not Spanish, as the title suggests) theme, the score calls for strings, woodwinds, brass, harp, percussion, and tambourine, all featured at some point over the 26 variations.
The montage next features a pair of concerti for groups of instruments and orchestra, reminiscent of the concerto grosso genre from the earlier baroque period.

One might hear echoes of Le Nozze di Figaro in the beginning of La Veneziana, where the strings play together wonderfully. Actually, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the spirit of The Marriage of Figaro drew on inspiration from the teacher.


I think you will love this music too.