Salieri vs. Mozart: Wrongfully Attacked?

By Eric Shiraev

The composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) could not have even thought about becoming one of the most noticeable victims of character assassination after his death. He had a dynamic and fruitful musical life while serving as Kapellmeister to the emperor of Austria. Yet Salieri is known today to most people as a man who had something to do with the death of Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791), perhaps the most celebrated composer of all times. Ask a few educated people to quickly tell you what association comes to their mind first when they hear the name, “Salieri”. Most probably, you will hear “Mozart” and then “death” or “poisoned” mentioned in the same sentence. However, historians almost categorically say that all the evidence suggests that Salieri did not kill Mozart. Yet why does Salieri remain on an everlasting list of big-time cultural antiheroes?

In fact, Salieri during his life was a man of a good reputation. Not only did Salieri and Mozart know each other well. They were closely acquainted as composers, cooperated on musical projects, and apparently liked each other. There was no “beef” between them. Something negative about Salieri’s reputation began to surface years after Mozart’s premature death. First, a malicious gossip that Salieri poisoned Mozart moved around Vienna. In 1830, the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote a play, Mozart and Salieri, based on the premise of that rumor: in the play, Salieri poisons the innocent man, a musical genius.

Pushkin took a step further: He describes Salieri as an untalented and jealous competitor of Mozart. This play in the late 19th century was turned into a short opera, which for decades remained and continues to be well known and appreciated among operagoers. Perhaps the most significant blow to Salieri’s reputation was done in 1984, when Miloš Forman (1932-2018) directed Amadeus, an Oscar-winning film and a global blockbuster. Salieri in that film was depicted as a neurotic, obsessive, and moralistic man, angry at his deceased father, unhappy with his musical mediocrity, and extremely envious of Mozart’s fame.

Salieri, a real person, in fact, in his time, was not mediocre. He was a successful composer actively and passionately engaged in the musical life of Europe. He wrote some forty operas. He mentored dozens of composers, including Beethoven and Schubert. So why did he become a target of such vicious misconstructions and posthumous character attacks?

Musical critics, historians, and psychologists attribute the allegations against Salieri to at least three causes. The first one is very specific and refers to Mozart’s own psychological propensity for suspiciousness and mild paranoid obsessions: during his lifetime he imagined multiple plots against him contemplated by his envious ill-wishers. The second possible cause is connected to nationalism that was growing in 19th century Europe. This seemingly unrelated reason should make sense when you realize how important it was for a person of prominence at that time to be associated with a particular country or nation. Salieri, on the contrary, was cosmopolitan. Born in Italy, he spent most of his life in Austria and France, so that he could not be fully identified in the eyes of the public with either nation. Some people find solace in attacking others who in their eyes do not strongly feel about their religion or nation. And the third reason is psychological. In the minds of many people, a tragic death of a beloved public figure—especially when the circumstances of the death are unclear— must be attributed to a plot.  A “villain” must be associated with this death. Thus, this alleged villain’s character must be attacked and tarnished as a form of vindication.

Unluckily for Salieri, his public image was vulnerable to attacks according to these three criteria. Unintentionally or not, several prominent individuals who wrote about Mozart and speculated about the causes of his death have created a public image that linked Salieri to the alleged vicious act. As a result, Salieri’s reputation has been stained in the eyes of many people for generations. But restore his reputation we must.

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