From The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians “Antonio Salieri” by JANE SCHATKIN HETTRICK, JOHN A. RICE
(b Legnago, 18 Aug 1750; d Vienna, 7 May 1825). Italian composer, mainly resident in Vienna. A major contributor to and shaper of Viennese musical life from 1770 to 1820, he also composed successful operas in Italy and Paris, and won admiration from German operagoers as a composer who, in the words of one contemporary critic, ‘could bind all the power of German music to the sweet Italian style’.
Born in Legnago in the Veneto, Salieri studied violin and keyboard with his brother Francesco and with a local organist, Giuseppe Simoni. After the deaths of his parents between 1763 and 1765 he was taken to Venice, where his musical education continued. The Viennese composer F.L. Gassmann, in Venice to oversee the production of his opera Achille in Sciro in 1766, noticed Salieri’s talent and ambition and took the youth back to Vienna with him. Under Gassmann’s direction he began an intensive programme of musical training. Described by his student Anselm Hüttenbrenner as ‘the greatest musical diplomat’, Salieri won the friendship of people who could help him build a career. Having earned Gassmann’s paternal affection, he developed close relations with Metastasio, Gluck and Joseph II. Opportunities to write operas soon offered themselves to Salieri. When Gassmann was in Italy in 1769, Salieri set a libretto originally intended for Gassmann, Le donne letterate. Having proved himself a talented composer of opera buffa, he turned to serious opera. Armida, on a libretto by Marco Coltellini, was performed in June 1771. Salieri’s ability to deal effectively with this Gluckian music drama would later, in the 1780s, make him a leading successor to Gluck as a composer of serious opera for Paris.
Salieri’s success in Vienna owed much to the support of Joseph II, who was also helpful to him in Italy and France through his influence with his brothers Leopold (Grand Duke of Tuscany) and Ferdinand (governor of Lombardy) and his sister Marie Antoinette. As early as 1771 Joseph sent a copy of Armida to Leopold, reporting that it had been performed with great success in Vienna. The following year he asked Leopold about the possibility of Salieri writing an opera for Florence. When Gassmann died in 1774 Joseph appointed Salieri his successor as Kammerkomponist, an appointment that led to his also being made, at only 24 years of age, Gassmann’s successor as music director of the Italian opera in Vienna. With Giovanni di Gamerra, the newly appointed theatre poet, he collaborated on two operas for the court theatres; the comedy La finta scema (1775) and the Gluckian spectacle Daliso e Delmita (1776). Neither was well received.
Joseph’s reorganization of the court theatres in 1776, with its shift of emphasis to spoken drama, left Salieri with little opportunity to compose operas in Vienna, and he turned his attention to Italy. Between 1778 and 1780 he wrote five operas for theatres in Milan, Venice and Rome: these were comic operas, except for L’Europa riconosciuta, commissioned to celebrate the opening of La Scala in Habsburg-ruled Milan. Of the comic operas by far the most popular was La scuola de’ gelosi, on a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà (Carnival 1779, Venice), a work that did more than any other to spread Salieri’s fame throughout Europe. In 1780 Joseph II commissioned him to write a Singspiel to be performed by the Nationaltheater’s German troupe: one of only two operas in German by Salieri, Der Rauchfangkehrer (1781) enjoyed considerable success until it was overshadowed by Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Salieri’s exploration of operatic genres continued in 1782. Gluck, too weak to undertake the composition of a work commissioned by the Paris Opéra, handed the commission to Salieri. Armed with a letter of recommendation from Joseph, he went to Paris for the first time to oversee the production of Les Danaïdes (1784). Its success led to commissions for two more French operas, and during the rest of the decade Salieri divided his time and energy between composing tragédie lyrique in Paris and opera buffa in Vienna. The second of his French operas, Les Horaces, failed when it was given in 1786, but the following year he achieved one of his greatest operatic triumphs with Tarare, on a libretto by Beaumarchais.
In 1783 Joseph replaced his German troupe with one specializing in opera buffa. The new company made its début on 22 April with La scuola de’ gelosi, heavily revised for a cast that included Nancy Storace and Francesco Benucci. Returning to Vienna in 1784 after the première of Les Danaïdes, Salieri busied himself with composing and directing Italian comic operas at the Burgtheater. Joseph’s practice of commissioning operas from some of Europe’s leading composers, Paisiello and Martín y Soler as well as Mozart, meant that Salieri faced competition that must have threatened and inspired him. Lorenzo da Ponte, recently engaged as house librettist, was his principal collaborator; he also worked with G.B. Casti. Salieri insisted on extensive revisions of Da Ponte’s first libretto, Il ricco d’un giorno, including the introduction of several ensembles, the reduction of recitative and the alteration of poetic metres within aria texts. By working so closely with this inexperienced poet, he probably contributed to the strength of the librettos that Da Ponte later wrote for Mozart. His collaboration with Casti resulted in the two-act comedy La grotta di Trofonio (1785; see fig.2) and a one-act satire that incorporates music of Sarti and Tarchi, Prima la musica e poi le parole (1786).
When Salieri returned to Vienna from Paris after the production of Tarare in 1787, Joseph commissioned him to prepare an Italian version of the opera for Vienna. Axur re d’Ormus, with a libretto by Da Ponte, follows the general outline of Tarare but omits much of Beaumarchais’ political allegory. Much of the music is derived from Tarare, but more often than not diverges from the model. Performed in 1788 to celebrate the marriage of Archduke Franz to Princess Elisabeth of Württemberg, Axur was presented 100 times in the Viennese court theatres between 1788 and 1805.
In February 1788 Joseph granted the position of Hofkapellmeister to Salieri, who had frequently acted in that capacity since 1775 for the ailing Giuseppe Bonno. Salieri succeeded Bonno in March 1788. He remained in this office until his retirement in 1824, his tenure the longest in the history of the Hofmusikkapelle. The appointment began a new phase in his career – in the next decade he devoted himself increasingly to the administration of the court chapel and to the composition of church music.
After the death of Joseph II (20 February 1790) and with the accession of Leopold II, rumours circulated that Salieri was to be dismissed or had submitted his resignation as Hofkapellmeister. What Salieri seems to have asked for, and received, was relief from the daily chores of rehearsing and conducting opera, in exchange for which he agreed to compose a new opera each year for the court theatres. His duties in the opera house were assigned to his pupil and protégé Joseph Weigl. The 1790s left Salieri without the steadfast patronage of Joseph II, without the opportunity to write operas for Paris (cut off from him by the Revolution), without the theatrical talent of Da Ponte and without the stimulating rivalry of Mozart. In 1794 he renewed his contact with De Gamerra and together they wrote three operas for the court theatres: Eraclito e Democrito, Palmira regina di Persia and Il moro. The first and third were only moderately successful (with fewer than 20 performances in the court theatres), but Palmira achieved the greatest success of any of Salieri’s late operas. His last Italian collaborator, C.P. Defranceschi, provided him with librettos for three operas performed in 1799 and 1800, including Falstaff (1799). Salieri’s last complete opera, Die Neger, was given to sparse applause in 1804.
As Hofkapellmeister, Salieri attended closely to the selection of new instrumentalists and singers, filling such posts as organ builder, overseeing the acquisition of instruments and keeping the music library in good order. Hofkapelle records for the period from 1820 to Salieri’s retirement in 1824 show that for regular services under his direction he most frequently chose masses by Albrechtsberger, Joseph and Michael Haydn, Georg Reutter the younger, Eybler, Leopold Hofmann and Mozart. He served as president of the Tonkünstler-Societät (founded by Gassmann to support musicians’ widows and children), directing many of its concerts. In 1815 he was responsible for planning and directing musical events for the Congress of Vienna.
Salieri, who benefited so much from his teachers and mentors, devoted much of his energy to teaching, especially after retiring from operatic composition. As a teacher of singers he specialized in the development of brilliant coloratura sopranos; Catharina Cavalieri and Therese Gassmann (Florian Gassmann’s daughter) were among his pupils. With Beethoven, Schubert and many other young composers who came to him for lessons he emphasized the setting of Italian poetry (especially that of Metastasio) to music.