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ClassicsOnline Home » SALIERI: Overtures
By Mark Pappenheim
It is ironic that the name of Salieri should have become familiar to
modern listeners largely through the fictional treatment of supposed rivalry
between him and Mozart in Peter Shaffer's study of jealousy, Amadeus. Salieri's
deathbed confession in 1825 that he had murdered Mozart was rightly seen at the
time as a sign of mental derangement. The rumour, nevertheless, suggested to
Pushkin a subject for one of his Little Tragedies, later to be
transformed by Rimsky-Korsakov into the opera Mozart and Salieri. The
music, however, of this once distinguished composer, the teacher of Beethoven
and Schubert, has remained relatively neglected.
Salieri was born in 1750 at Legnago, a town on the borders of Venice and
the Austrian dukedom of Mantua. He was the eighth child of a merchant, Antonio
Salieri, by his second wife and studied the violin and harpsichord with his
elder brother Francesco, thirteen years his senior and a pupil of the violinist
and composer Tartini. Salieri continued his studies with Giuseppe Simoni,
organist at the cathedral of Legnago and a pupil of Padre Martini. On the death
of his mother in 1763, followed shortly after by the death of his father, he
lived for a time in Padua where an elder brother was a monk, then to be taken
to Venice by a family friend, Giovanni Mocenigo, a member of one of the most
distinguished Venetian families. There he studied with Giovanni Pescetti,
assistant director of music at San Marco and a former director of music at the
King's Theatre in London.
In 1766 Salieri met Florian Leopold Gassmann, successor to Gluck at the
ballet in Vienna and six years later to become Court Kapellmeister, visiting
Venice during the closure of the theatres in Vienna. Gassmann was impressed by
the boy's abilities and took him back with him to Vienna, seeing to his further
education there, introducing him to the court and providing opportunities for
friendship with the Court Poet Metastasio and with Gluck.
Salieri's first opera in 1768 for Vienna, La vestale (‘The
Vestal’), has been lost. His first surviving comic opera, Le donne letterate
(‘The Learned Ladies’) was successfully staged at the Burgtheater in 1770.
Four years later, on the death of Gassmann, he succeeded to the position of
Court Composer and director of the Italian opera. His career continued with
operas also in Italy and contributions to opera in German for the newly
established German opera in Vienna, while between 1784 and 1787 he won a name
for himself in Paris. In 1788 he succeeded Giuseppe Bonno as Court Kapellmeister,
a position he retained after the death of the Emperor Joseph II in 1790,
while retiring at that time from his position at the Italian opera. He remained
Court Kapellmeister until 1824. By 1804, however, the year of his Requiem,
Salieri had virtually ceased to compose, finding himself out of sympathy
with contemporary developments. He continued to be respected for his
achievement and valued as a teacher, with pupils who included, in addition to
Beethoven and Schubert, Czerny, Mozart's former pupil Hummel and Mozart's
second surviving son.
Il talismano (‘The Talisman’), an opera buffa with a
libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, was staged at the Vienna Burgtheater on 10th
September 1788, four months after the first Vienna performance there of
Mozart's Don Giovanni. Based on Goldoni, the opera deals with the story
of the daughter of a Governor abducted by gypsies and given a talisman with
magic powers of transformation, a subject Salieri had tackled in a
collaborative venture for Milan ten years before. The striking overture is a
call for attention.
Eraclito e Democrito (‘Heraclitus and Democritus’), described as an opera
filosofico-buffa, was first staged at the Burgtheater in August 1795. The
ancient Greek philosophers of the title appear as contemporaries in a plot that
makes fun of the addiction of a father to philosophy and his wish to marry his
daughter to one or other of them, an ambition that he fails to realize. The
overture contrasts the laughing Democritus with the gloomy Heraclitus.
Cesare in Farmacusa (‘Caesar in Farmacusa’), an opera eroico-comica, was
staged at the Körntnertor Theatre in Vienna in June 1800. The plot deals with
the story of Julius Caesar's capture by Cilician pirates, as recounted by
Plutarch, embellished with additional female characters, a pirate-bride and
Gigi, a slave in Caesar's service with her comic lover, Tullus. The overture
provides a graphic storm, according to established musical conventions, leading
Salieri's first collaboration with Da Ponte was in Il ricco d'un
giorno (‘Rich for a Day’), the tale of two brothers, one mean, the other
prodigal, and the latter's success in his rival proposal to the notary's
daughter, Emilia. The work was mounted at the Burgtheater in December 1784.
La secchia rapita (‘The Stolen Bucket’), an opera buffa, was
staged at the Burgtheater in 1772. The libretto by Giovanni Boccherini, brother
of the composer, based on the earlier work of the poet Alessandro Tassoni,
deals with a war between Modena and Bologna over a bucket, stolen as a trophy
by the former. The gods of Olympus are persuaded to intervene in the contest,
providing an opportunity for heroic satire also in music of mock solemnity.
Salieri had his greatest success in Paris in 1787 with Tarare, a
collaboration with Beaumarchais. This was revised the following year, with an
Italian libretto by Da Ponte, staged in January at the Burgtheater in
celebration of the marriage of the Emperor's nephew, the future Emperor Franz,
under the title Axur, re d'Ormus (‘Axur, King of Ormus’), an opera
tragicomica. Da Ponte has left an account of his frantic work on the opera,
undertaken at the same time as Don Giovanni and a libretto for Martin
y Soler. The story of tyranny and injustice, with Axur's jealousy of his
successful general, Atar, and seizure of the latter's mistress, Aspasia, is
resolved with the reuniting of hero and heroine and the death of the King.
Les Danaïdes (‘The Danaïds’) was Salieri's first opera for Paris,
staged there in April 1784 and attributed by the theatre management to Gluck,
with a libretto based on the latter's collaborator Calzabigi. The daughters of
Danaus are ordered by their father to marry the sons of his brother, Aegyptus,
and murder them. Hypermnestra refuses and spares her beloved Lynceus, who then
takes his own revenge. The opera ends with Danaus and his daughters in eternal
torment, an outcome suggested as the overture proceeds.
Don Chisciote alle nozze di Gamace (‘Don Quixote at Camacho's Wedding’), a divertimento
teatrale, was a collaboration with Giovanni Boccherini, staged in Vienna in
1770 with choreography by Noverre, but winning little success. The episode in
the novel by Cervantes deals with the outwitting of the rich Camacho by his
rival Basilio in the suit for Quiteria.
With a libretto by the future Court Poet, Giovanni Battista Casti, La
grotta di Trofonio (‘The Cave of Trofonio’) suggests, in its overture, the
cave of the magician of the title, in which the studious Artemidoro is
transformed into a carefree fellow and his friend Plistene into a serious
philosopher, to the annoyance of the girls they are to marry. Matters are put
to rights, only for the girls to undergo the same fate, although all ends
happily. The opera was mounted at the Burgtheater in October 1785.
Il moro (‘The Moor’), an opera buffa, was staged at the Burgtheater on
7th August 1796. The moor of the title, now rich from the proceeds of piracy,
seeks an Italian wife, provoking the greed of Orgone, who seeks to offer his
daughter, who is herself in love with the moor's secretary. The situation
changes when the moor's true wife appears from Africa, accompanied by his
eleven children. The overture includes the percussive element necessary to
depict the protagonist.
There are operas by Lully, Handel, Haydn and Gluck, among others, on the
enticing subject of Armida, the enchantress of Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (‘Jerusalem
Set Free’). This was Salieri's first opera seria, staged on 2nd June
1771 at the Burgtheater and the overture provides a programmatic outline of the
plot, in which Armida bewitches the crusader Rinaldo on her magic island,
eventually destroyed through her own rage at defeat.
Staged on 22nd October 1800 at the Kärntnertor Theatre, L'Angiolina,
ossia Il matrimonio per sussurro (‘Angiolina or Marriage through
Whispering’), an opera buffa, has a libretto based on Ben Jonson's play The
Epicoene or The Silent Woman. Changes in the original plot allow Angiolina,
in love with a rich old man's nephew, to pretend marriage to the old man, whom
she then plagues with her noisy behaviour to induce him to give up any such
plan. The scene is set by a sparkling overture.
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