About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mozart and Salieri

Last week we went to a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony. We usually get two invitations a year to open rehearsals and since it's now summer and school is out, I was able to go! Ricardo Muti was conducting and the program being rehearsed was Schubert Symphonies number 1 and 6 and the Mozart Bassoon Concerto with David McGill as soloist. Rehearsals are always interesting to watch, even when you can't hear what the conductor is saying to the orchestra, but Muti's are especially fun because he loves to talk to the audience.

In talking about the Schubert and Mozart works on this program, he brought up the fact that Antonio Salieri was Schubert's teacher. He added something along the lines of, "This was not the fictional Salieri, but a different Salieri." This real Salieri had in fact been very helpful to Constanze Mozart after Mozart died as well as being a respected teacher, according to Maestro Muti. Muti blamed the bad reputation that he has today on Pushkin.
Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang A. Mozart

Pushkin! I have seen Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus twice, once when it was fairly new and again more recently. I've also seen the movie a number of times. I've also read the play, but I don't remember ever hearing that Pushkin was the first to have the idea of an evil Salieri driving Mozart to his early death. So I looked it up on the Internet. There are lots of discussions of Pushkin's short play, titled Mozart and Salieri, and you can even find the complete text, in English. It is twelve pages in all. Salieri is depicted as the well-trained, ardent, but uninspired musician, who admires Mozart's work and praises his genius. Mozart is immediately shown to be less serious, laughing at the way an old man mangles an aria from Don Giovanni on his violin. Salieri invites Mozart to dine with him, deciding that he must poison Mozart because Mozart is so superior to every other composer that none can ever match him. Mozart creates exquisite music that affects everyone who hears it and then he flies away, leaving no successor, so the sooner he dies, the better. A confusing argument; I think he is saying that Mozart is going to ruin things for everyone else, who all appear second rate in comparison.

The fictional Mozart and Salieri as drawn by Pushkin are clearly the basis for the characters in the play and movie Amadeus. Both Pushkin and Shaffer are using these fictional characters to explore ideas -- how does mediocrity respond to genius? What does genius look like? Why can't everyone with the desire who works hard also be a genius?

In Amadeus, Salieri hounds Mozart to death (no poison) by being the mysterious figure who commissions the Requiem, causing Mozart to believe that the Requiem is somehow intended for his own funeral. Salieri is driven to do this by the dichotomy between Mozart's incredible music and his silly behavior and scatological humor. Near the end of the play, however, Salieri obliquely tells the audience that he made the whole thing up. Unfortunately, what everyone remembers is that Salieri "killed" Mozart and that this fictional Salieri is, in the character's words, "patron saint of the mediocrities."

As Maestro Muti stated, Salieri has been unfairly maligned over the centuries as the evil nemesis who did Mozart in. Mozart has also been unfairly depicted, reduced to a child-like genius, his music somehow completely divorced from his personality. Amadeus helped with that misrepresentation, but didn't start it.

Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a one-act opera using Pushkin's play. The opera is also titled Mozart and Salieri, and it is performed now and then. There are several youtube recordings, including this version by the Chamber Opera Theatre of New York.  The opera is about 45 minutes long. You can also get the complete score and parts as a free download from IMSLP, in case you want to follow along or stage your own production. IMSLP, the International Music Score Library Project, posts thousands of music scores, all in the public domain.