History Lesson

Does a Song Prove That Salieri Didn’t Kill Mozart?

The discovery of a song written by both men may finally quash the rumors that Mozart was killed by his contemporary and competitor, Salieri.

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Was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart murdered by Italian composer and contemporary Antonio Salieri?

Rumors have persisted since Mozart’s death in 1791. But the idea truly went global nearly 200 years later with the appearance of Peter Shaffer’s fictionalized account of the life and death of Mozart as seen through the eyes of his contemporary and competitor Salieri in Amadeus, first the Tony award-winning play in 1979, and the then the film of the same name by Milos Foreman which won an Oscar for Best Picture in 1985.

Scholars have largely and uniformly debunked the theory, including Shaffer’s portrayal of Salieri as an envious and murder-obsessed mediocrity, but the notion endured. Now the recent discovery in a Czech museum of a new song written collaboratively by Mozart and Salieri may silence the rumor-mill for good after 225 years.

The song was discovered early this year by German composer and musicologist Timo Jouko Herrmann in the Library of the Czech National Museum. It was written in 1785 during one of Mozart’s most productive periods leading up to his death in 1791.

“It’s a joint composition by Mozart and Salieri… a really valuable work…long thought to have been lost,” Czech National Museum spokeswoman Sarka Dockalova told the AFP.

The song is called “Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia,” which translates to “For the recovered health of Ophelia”.

The Ophelia mentioned is most likely Nancy Storace [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Storace], a highly acclaimed English soprano of the late 1700’s for whom the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro was written in 1786, and the song was most likely written to celebrate Storace’s return to the stage after an illness that caused her to lose her voice for over 5 months.

The words to the song are by Lorenzo Da Ponte who wrote the libretti for Mozart’s most famous operas, Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan Tutte (1790).

On Tuesday, the Museum released a video of the piece being played for the first time in over 200 years.

In the history of recently rediscovered works, a joint composition by Mozart and Salieri ranks near the absolute top. And not just musically.

Rumors of Salieri’s involvement in Mozart’s death began almost immediately after Mozart’s passing on December 5, 1791 just shy of his 36th birthday.

Mozart is said to have told his wife in the months leading up to his death that he believed he had been poisoned and although his wife, Constanze, did not believe it the stories persisted. Salieri himself was well aware of them.

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Rossini even reportedly joked with Salieri about the rumors when they met in 1822, which speaks to how widely the rumor was known, its staying power and, quite possibly, how incredibly lightly it was taken.

Things took a dark turn in 1823, when Salieri attempted suicide and supposedly “confessed” that he poisoned Mozart. Although he did attempt suicide in 1823, there is little evidence that such a confession actually occurred although the belief that it did at the time was high.

He was 73 at the time, in very poor health and hospitalized for dementia. It was also rumored he recanted the “confession” before his death in 1825, but again little to no evidence exists either way. But the damage, it seems, was done and the story had a life of its own.

In 1830, a scant 5 years after Salieri’s death, Russian novelist and playwright Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play about Mozart and Salieri, which was adapted into a one-act opera in 1897 by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

In both versions of Pushkin’s tale, Salieri is a straight forward murderer, inviting Mozart to dinner and poisoning him.

Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus and Milos Foreman’s brilliant film version of the play are less straightforward.

In Shaffer’s version, although planning to kill Mozart and steal his final composition, Mozart dies before Salieri can finish his plan to steal Mozart’s requiem and claim it as his own, thusly cementing his place in the history of great composers.

There is little to no evidence to support the historical Salieri had any such plan or even inclinations.

Amadeus especially highlights Salieri’s “mediocrity” as a composer as the main factor in his wanting to murder the far more gifted Mozart and steal his work. This too is highly misleading.

Though no Mozart by any stretch of the imagination, Salieri was a highly accomplished and innovative composer in his time and counted amongst his students throughout his life: Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and even Mozart’s own son Franz Xaver Mozart.

This again speaks to how little the rumors were taken seriously as it was deemed highly doubtful Franz would choose to study with the man he believed responsible for his father’s death.

Although Salieri failed to match his earlier successes and composed little to no new music in the final 20 years of his life, his music found a minor resurgence in the early 2000’s with famed mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli recording a full album of his music in 2003 and various houses putting on his operas—including La Scala in Milan using his opera Europa Riconosciuta for their grand re-opening in 2004.

As to Mozart’s actual cause of death, theories range from simply poor health and hard living to out there fringe theories of a freemasonic conspiracy to kill Mozart for revealing Masonic secrets in his final opera, The Magic Flute.

In 2001, Dr. Jan V. Hirschmann, an infectious disease specialist, reviewed childhood accounts and letters from Mozart to his wife and others placed the blame for his death on trichinosis from eating undercooked pork.

Evidence of the collaboration might now finally put to rest the Salieri-Mozart murder theory—at least until the next revival of Amadeus restarts the public debate all over again.