Antonio Salieri, classical music composer

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Antonio Salieri


Antonio Salieri was an important figure in the development of late 18th-century opera. His stage works, written under the influence of Gluck's reforms, were highly successful during his lifetime. However, as musical styles transitioned from the late Classical into the Romantic, Salieri's works slowly disappeared from Europe's operatic stages, disappearing completely in the decades after his death. Yet, in no small part to the dramatic, albeit inaccurate, portrayal of his character in Peter Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus and its 1984 film adaptation, interest in Salieri's music has grown in recent years.

Born on August 18, 1750 in Legnago in the Republic of Venice, Salieri's first musical instruction came from his older brother Francesco, who had studied with Giuseppe Tartini, and the organist of the Legnago Cathedral, Giuseppe Simoni, himself a former pupil of Padre Martini. In 1763-64, Salieri lost both his parents and eventually came under the guardianship of Giovanni Mocenigo. He continued his musical lessons with Pescetti and Pacini, and through the latter came to the attention of Florian Leopold Gassmann. Impressed by the boy's talents, Gassmann took the young Salieri to Vienna and personally took charge of his musical education.

Under Gassmann's care and tutelage, Salieri's musical abilities flourished to the point of impressing Emperor Joseph II, his future employer and patron. He also became acquainted with Metastasio and Gluck, both of which became informal advisors and teachers. His big break as an opera composer came in 1770. With his teacher called away, Salieri was approached to compose an opera buffa to fill a gap in the program for carnival season. The resulting work, Le donne letterate, was only moderating successful, yet was enough to establish Salieri as a capable composer and to bring him two new commissions.

Well on his way to establish himself as an innovative and effective opera composer, Salieri scored his first major successes with Armida in 1771 and La fiera di Venezia in 1772. The former followed in the steps of Gluck, while the latter's innovative scenes became a model for later composers, in particular Mozart. With these successful operas, Salieri succeeded Gassmann as assistant director of the Italian opera company following his teacher's death in 1774. However, the company's bankruptcy three years later, threatened to derail Salieri's career. With partial subsidies from the Imperial court, Joseph II reopened Vienna's opera theaters with the new mission of presenting only German language works. Despite working in Vienna, Salieri never fully mastered the German language and certainly felt ill-suited to compose works in it. Thus, the demand for Italian works in Vienna was suddenly gone.

In 1778, however, Salieri received a commission, with the help of Gluck and Joseph II to compose an inaugural opera for La Scala in Milan. Joseph II further granted him a one year leave, which was later extended, allowing Salieri to make a lengthy tour of Italy. His next substantial success, however, came with his first opera for Paris, Les Danaïdes, a five-act tragédie lyrique. The commission for the opera was actually gained through Gluck, who, until even after the opera's premiere, was believed to be the principal composer of the work. Fearing the Parisian critics would react negatively to a work by a young composer, it was not revealed that Salieri was the sole composer of the opera until after it had received great acclaim from both critics and the concert-going public. The opera was immensely successful and ran for nearly half a century in Paris. Indeed, a young Hector Berlioz mentioned a performance of it in his Mémoires. The Parisian stage gave Salieri yet another success with Tarare in 1787. Following even further in the reforms of Gluck, the opera is in essence an anticipation of the operatic ideals of Richard Wagner. Its success prompted an Italian translation under the title Axur, Re d'Ormus, which became Salieri's greatest international success, reaching even beyond the European continent to South America.

However, just as Salieri was reaching the height of his fame, both the political climate of Europe and changing styles in music conspired against him. The death of Joseph II in 1790 left Salieri without his most ardent patron. The upheaval of the French Revolution, the decay of noble reforms into radical revolutionary ideas, and the eventual French occupation of Vienna was a particular blow to the composer, and he ultimately decided to leave the operatic stage in 1804. For the remaining years of his life, he functioned solely in his capacity as Kappellmeister of the Imperial Chapel. His compositional efforts, accordingly, were focused almost entirely on sacred music. Though his music was falling out of style, he remained active as a conductor, and was one of the most sought after teachers in Vienna, with his most famous students being Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt. He suffered from dementia during the final year of his life and died in Vienna on May 7, 1825.

Composer Title Date Action
Antonio Salieri 26 Variations on the theme of La Folia (1st part) 08/13/2012 Play Add to playlist
Antonio Salieri Overture to opera Armida 08/13/2014 Play Add to playlist