Saturday, 24 June 2017


“A man calumniated is doubly injured - first by him who utters the calumny, and then by him who believes it.” - Herodotus 

Antonio Salieri (18 August 1750 – 7 May 1825) was an Italian classical composer, conductor, and teacher. He was born in Legnago, south of Verona, in the Republic of Venice, and spent his adult life and career as a subject of the Habsburg Monarchy. Salieri was a pivotal figure in the development of late 18th-century opera. As a student of Florian Leopold Gassmann, and a protégé of Gluck, Salieri was a cosmopolitan composer who wrote operas in three languages. Salieri helped to develop and shape many of the features of operatic compositional vocabulary, and his music was a powerful influence on contemporary composers.

Appointed the director of the Italian opera by the Habsburg court, a post he held from 1774 until 1792, Salieri dominated Italian-language opera in Vienna. During his career he also spent time writing works for opera houses in Paris, Rome, and Venice, and his dramatic works were widely performed throughout Europe during his lifetime. As the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister from 1788 to 1824, he was responsible for music at the court chapel and attached school.

Even as his works dropped from performance, and he wrote no new operas after 1804, he still remained one of the most important and sought-after teachers of his generation, and his influence was felt in every aspect of Vienna’s musical life. Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, and Ludwig van Beethoven were among the most famous of his pupils. Salieri’s music slowly disappeared from the repertoire between 1800 and 1868 and was rarely heard after that period until the revival of his fame in the late 20th century.

This revival was due to the dramatic and highly fictionalised depiction of Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus” (1979) and its 1984 film version. His music today has regained some modest popularity via recordings. He is popularly remembered as a supposedly bitter rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This includes rumours that Salieri murdered Mozart out of jealousy, when in reality, they were at least respectful peers.

Here is a series of Twenty-six Variations on the Popular Theme of “La Folìa” for orchestra written in 1815, which is astonishing by its modernity, its luminous and light orchestration (contrary to the trends of Salieri’s time). The use of the harp, the short and sharp orchestral tutti, orchestral soloists (bassoon, oboe, flute, etc), is simply brilliant. Salieri has composed here a work of an indisputable thematic solidity in turn, dreamy, dramatic, playful, romantic, seductive, and served by an impeccable orchestration.

This work is emblematic of a trend that progressed well into the nineteenth century, notably in France and Italy, from Paganini to Saint-Saëns, Rossini and Debussy, who all believed that music should be clear and simple if it carries within its foundation a clear depth and density. There are still some typical passages in classical variation form in this piece, a rather rough finish, and a very shy use of brass, but 15 years before the “Symphonie Fantastique” of Berlioz we cannot expect similar treatments that are more Romantic in their scope. On the other hand, some passages involving the harp and the violin are worthy of the finest impressionist melodies of the end of the 19th century. Enjoy!

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