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Mozart and Salieri, a Whodunit

by on 30 April 2020

Lies, Damned Lies and Rumours

Mozart and Salieri, a Whodunit

Reflection by Mark Aspen

Michelangelo killed to gain the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. Was this just an idle rumour? Some whispers at the Vatican at the time thought not.

The current global contagion has proved a breeding ground for idle (and not so idle) rumours that are spreading faster than Coronavirus itself. Some of the more ludicrous come from the whisper machines (“It is caused by 5G wireless networks.”), to what we should expect to be authoritarian sources (“Could we try injecting Dettol?”). A quick trawl of YouTube will yield dozens of conspiracy theories that could easily take in the more gullible.

These thoughts made me recall seeing, quite a few years ago, a short opera at Covent Garden, a production in the quirky old Linbury Studio in the basement of the Garden, long before the new posh state-of-the-art theatre opened in January last year. It was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, which was a beautifully performed and strikingly staged piece of theatre.

MozSalSketchThe libretto of Mozart and Salieri is based on a rumour that Antonio Salieri poisoned the younger Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart because of artistic rivalry, a rumour that was still doing the rounds over a century after Mozart’s death, when the opera premiered in the soon to be demolished Solodovnikov Theatre in Moscow early in December 1898. Set in Vienna, where Salieri basks in his acclaim as a composer, it is apart from a dumb and blind fiddler, a two-hander. Along comes the upstart Mozart, whom he sees as idle, but secretly he jealously admires Mozart’s work. At the end of the first scene of this one act opera, Salieri plans to poison Mozart and he invites him out to dinner. The second scene takes place at the inn where they have dinner. Mozart is, not atypically, agitated. He had been commissioned by a mysterious masked figure, clad in black, to write a requiem. Mozart knows that Salieri has been working on his opera Tarare with the polymath playwright Pierre Beaumarchais as his librettist. He believes (correctly in fact) that Beaumarchais is involved in espionage and all that went with it at the time, and asks if the rumour is true that Beaumarchais once assassinated someone with poison. Mozart is reassured that genius and murder do not go together, even as Salieri drips a potion into Mozart’s drink. As Mozart plays some of his Requiem on a harpsichord, Salieri weeps. Mozart starts to feel unwell and leaves the room, whilst Salieri recalls the rumours about Michelangelo. A genius can’t commit a crime, or can he?

Now, hold on a minute; doesn’t this plot all seem rather familiar? Many readers of Mark Aspen Reviews will have seen Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus, or at least Miloš Forman’s film, which followed five years later, and played even faster and looser with the facts than AmadeusPromo1the stage version. A recent production by Teddington Theatre Club was described in these pages as “sensitive and revealing”. The basics of the plot are the same as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, but in both stage and film versions Peter Shaffer tells the story from Salieri’s perspective, recalled three decades later from his demented death-bed. There is a larger cast than the opera, including the Viennese court and the women in their lives, more details that allow more intrigues of sexual and power-play. Both versions again play fast and loose with the facts and, although (rightly) receiving wide critical acclaim for their artistic excellence, both attracted the venom of historians and musicologists for succeeding in shredding the reputations of both Salieri and, to a much lesser extent, Mozart.

Where then did this, some might say libellous, twist come from, to be legitimised in theatrical works? The answer is from someone whom many consider to be the greatest Russian poet and playwright, Alexander Pushkin. Mozart and Salieri is his short verse drama, written in 1830, thirty years after Mozart’s death and merely five years after Salieri’s.

Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri is clearly the prototype for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera. The plot is almost identical and it has FigaroPromo2the same economy of characters. In the original play however the blind fiddler appears in the first Scene and Mozart invites him into the room. The fiddler plays a poor rendition of voi che sapete, Cherubino’s aria from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. It seems even a lowly busker knows Mozart’s works. Already though in a soliloquy before Mozart had arrived, Salieri has admitted to himself, “I am an envier. I envy; sorely. Profoundly now I envy.” Mozart is presented by Pushkin as much more equitable. Mozart says of Beaumarchais, “He was a genius, like you and me. While genius and evildoing are incompatibles. Is that not right?” immediately before drinking the poison.

These portrayals of Salieri, and by Shaffer, of Mozart are factual proven to be unfair and blatantly untrue. Contemporary documentary account show that, while there was some good-natured rivalry between them, Mozart and Salieri’s relationship was one of mutual respect and cooperation. Salieri often conducted Mozart’s work and was a music tutor to Mozart’s son, Franz. One authority has noted that “it may prove difficult to dissuade the public from the current Schafferian view of the composer as a divinely gifted drunken lout, pursued by a vengeful Salieri”. The chief music critic of the Sunday Times, speaking after the launch of the film railed against “myth-mongering”, baulking at the portrayal of Mozart as “two contradictory beings, sublime artist and fool”. Other factual distortions in Shaffer’s version is that Salieri was not celibate; quite to the contrary, he was married, had eight children and probably two or three mistresses. Moreover, Mozart’s Requiem Mass, in fact unfinished, was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg, not by an agent of Salieri disguised as the spirit of Mozart’s father Leopold.

Salieri_by_Joseph_Willibrord_Mähler

Take a look at the portrait of Salieri by Joseph Mähler. You will see the face of a modestly proud and kindly man, not a jealous monster. Equally, Johann della Croce’s famous portrait of Mozart shows a calm and intelligent face, not a petulant brat.

Mozart-Detail Croce

Why then the misinformation spawned by Pushkin and spilling over to Rimsky-Korsakov and Shaffer? I think the answer lies in the Russian political climate at the time. Pushkin’s plays were not performed contemporaneously in Russia. Even his famous Boris Godunov had to wait forty-one years to escape the clutches of the Tzar’s censors. Why? Because it was critical of an earlier Russian ruler, Boris Godunov. Written as the new Emperor Nicholas I came to the throne amid mutiny and civil unrest, it was not in the spirit of that time. Nicholas’s autocratic reign brooked no dissent. Mozart and Salieri is believed to the only one of Pushkin’s plays that was staged during the author’s lifetime. It is an allegory on the danger of unchecked rumour mongering. The doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” was imposed on Russia to counter the bubbling unrest in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, in a time of uncertainty, a time when rumours and “fake news” abounded.

In the final words of Mozart and Salieri, Pushkin has Salieri asking, “And [Michelangelo] Buonarotti? … Or is it a legend off the dull-witted, senseless crowd?”

In a time of uncertainty, poisoning, be it by human agency or that of a virus, seems to create rumours. It this is so, Mozart and Salieri is currently very pertinent.

Mozart and Salieri was published in 1832 as one of Pushkin’s four short plays called The Little Tragedies. Uncannily, another prescient play in this mini-anthology has the title Пир во время чумы, A Feast in Time of Plague. Now, there’s another thought for reflection … …

Mark Aspen
April 2020

Photography by Sarah Carter and Clive Barda
Images by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, Johann Nepomuk della Croce and jszm

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  1. A Feast in Time of Plague: a Morality Tale | Mark Aspen

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