Antonio Salieri, Much More Than A Composer In The Shadow Of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When it premiered in the movie theaters in 1984, the film “Amadeus” received media attention for introducing great classical music from the 18th century to a large diverse movie audience, and shining a spotlight on the relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791) and Antonio Salieri (18 August 1750 – 7 May 1825).

The movie, nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winner of 8 Oscars, including best actor for F. Murray Abraham in the role of Antonio Salieri, is actually an adaptation of the play Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, first performed in London, 1979.

Not only is the screenplay written by Shaffer known to be highly fictionalized, but the Hollywood movie version provided Antonio Salieri with what we can call one of the most mistaken personality profiles in the history of classical music.

“Amadeus” starts with the character of Salieri at his late age already hospitalized in a mental institution. He admits to a priest to killing Mozart with arsenic, and follows with a vivid description of their relationship. The film ends with Salieri naming himself to be “patron saint of mediocrity”.

Actually there are an incredible amount of misconceptions and distorted facts about Antonio Salieri’s personality, as well as the relationship between him and Mozart. When Salieri arrived in Vienna in 1766 as student of Florian Leopold Gassmann, he was already an accomplished pianist, violinist and singer. Director of the Italian opera from 1774 to 1792, Salieri was also able to write opera in three languages: Italian, German and French. He dominated Italian language opera in Vienna and helped to develop and shape many of the features of operatic compositional vocabulary. Salieri was a pivotal figure in the development of late 18th century opera, as was well a very powerful influence on contemporary composers. Antonio Salieri was also one of the most important teachers of his generation. His students include Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt, Hummel, Czerny, and even Mozart’s own son.

There is no evidence that Salieri poisoned Mozart and nowadays it is widely accepted that Mozart’s died of rheumatic inflammatory fever. We can also positively say that Antonio Salieri was never mediocre.

Being that both Mozart and Salieri were composing in Vienna at the same time, there was of course competition between them. According to the biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Mozart’s rivalry with Salieri could have originated in 1781 when Mozart applied to be the music teacher of Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, and Salieri was selected instead because of his reputation as a singing teacher (the same incident happened in the following year, when once again Mozart failed to be selected as the Princess’s piano teacher).

Salieri and Mozart were for the most part friends, respecting and supporting each other’s work. There are reports Salieri came to visit Mozart on his deathbed and was one of the few who attended Mozart’s funeral. We also know that Salieri even tutored Mozart’s son Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart in music.

While the movie “Amadeus” shows Salieri as jealous and bitter, there is actually evidence that demonstrates his generosity. Salieri often taught all his lessons for free, apparently in gratitude to the kindness that Gassmann had shown towards him as an orphan.

Although Antonio Salieri was relatively more successful and appreciated on his own time than Mozart, his music started to disappear from the repertoire between 1800 and 1868. In large part due to the popularity of “Amadeus”, Salieri’s music has enjoyed a revival in the 21st century.

Amadeus (film)
By Milos Forman
Released in 1984