BY Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) from his vantage point in the afterlife might reflect ruefully on that Shakespearean phrase: "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones:' For, indeed, his memory, however unjustly, found itself encumbered with those accusations charging him with harassing and poisoning Mozart. Such an intriguing legend, so hard to scotch, survived in Pushkin's dramatic poem to serve later as libretto for Rimsky-Korsakov's opera of 1898, Mozart and Salieri. We are only too well aware of the histrionic capital Peter Shaffer made of its endurance in his enormously successful play and film, Amadeus. In justice to Salieri let us observe that although he did not go out of his professional way at the Imperial Court in Vienna between 1781 and 1791 to further the career of his formidable colleague, he definitely did not poison Mozart. Salieri was in fact one of the very few mourners at Mozart's desolate funeral. He also subsequently tutored W.A. Mozart, Jr. Furthermore, H.C. Robbins Landon has asserted that Mozart's famed Coronation Mass in C owes its name to the fact that Salieri conducted it at the Imperial Coronations of Leopold II and Francis I in 1790 and 1792 respectively.
The "illustrious" Salieri's career both musically and financially can only be termed immensely successful. No one could have attracted the attention of such a famous contemporary composer as Florian Gassmann (1729-1774), who undertook to instruct and train this recently orphaned adolescent, had Salieri lacked talent. Nor would the sophisticated Viennese Imperial Court have placed the twenty-four year old Italian in control of the Imperial Opera had his talent as an operatic composer not become evident in the success of Armida. He produced this opera in June, 1771, when he was not yet 21.
In 1788, Salieri added to his duties the post of Kapellmeister to the Imperial Court, additional testimony to his recognition as a worthy composer of church music. In this arena during his lengthy career he produced six Masses, a complete and incomplete Requiem, six oratorios (two incomplete) four Te Deums, coupled with numerous settings of motets, psalms, and litanies. Thus in his capacity as Imperial Director of Opera he faithfully served the court for fifty years, as Kapellmeister for thirty six.
His administrative capacity likewise proved itself signally in his practical support with advice and money of the famed Tonkünstler Society, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and in his drawing up of the statutes governing the Imperial State Conservatory.
From 1784 to 1787 Salieri enjoyed great prestige in Paris where his opera Tarare, on a libretto of Beaumarchais, enjoyed a tremendous success. Subsequently Lorenzo da Ponte, whom he introduced to Mozart, created the Italian libretto for Tarare under the title of Axur, Re d'Ormus. This opera among others of Salieri's played in all the great opera houses of Europe.
Gluck's esteem for Salieri's talent prompted him to choose Salieri as his replacement when he could not undertake the commission to produce an opera for the grand opening of the new La Scala Opera House in Milan. The twenty-eight year old Salieri's opera L'Europa reconoscuita then opened La Scala on August 3, 1778.
Late in life, Salieri's compositional and administrative achievements were further recognized as he garnered numerous international honors such as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and holder of the Gold Medallion and Chain of the City of Vienna. His prestige culminated in 1815 when he prepared and directed the music program for those international ambassadors and dignitaries gathered to determine the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe at the Congress of Vienna.
A list of some of Salieri's pupils testifies to his credit as a teacher: Beethoven, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, Liszt, Moscheles, and Simon Sechter among others.
Salieri then was not the simpering, embittered, shriveled, envious, venomous creature so recently delineated to serve as a baffle to Mozart's divinely endowed genius. His only misfortune rests on the historical circumstance that his real but somewhat archaic art found itself overshadowed by several immensely greater and more universal geniuses: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mozart.
Salieri completed his Grand Requiem toward the close of 1804, intended, as he remarked, to give notice of his retirement from public life as a composer. The work's autographed parts are found in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. The heading as translated from the Italian in the stilted language of the day expresses his humility: An Inconsequential Requiem, composed by me, Antonio Salieri, a most Inconsequentil Creature. (Piccolo Requiem composto da me, Ant. Salieri, picciolissima creatura.)
According to his last will and testament the premier performance took place in the Minorite (Franciscan) Church in Vienna, June 22, 1825, a full six weeks after his demise on May 7. It was performed by the composer's pupils along with a great many other musicians. The modern edition has been recently produced by Johannes Wojciechowski. The work is scored for two oboes, English Horn, two bassoons, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings and organ. Let us hear Wojciechowski's evaluation of this Requiem.
“Of Salieri's sacred output which extends to many other compositions written after he retired from the world of opera, the Requiem may be looked upon as constituting his principal work.
“The liturgical setting [sequence of parts] is a continuous one including the ''Iibera", the only omission being the Gradual and Tract. The conventional ternary structure of the first movement [Requiem/Kyrie] is also discernible in the formal design of the magnificent "Dies Irae", the individual sections of which are conspicuously centered around the ''Recordare”, the latter revealing the form of a self-contained rondo, while the remaining movements do not deviate to any marked degree from the conventional form.
“The work stands out both on account of its formal design and its brilliant orchestration. Antonio Salieri's powers of expression and tone-painting undoubtedly have their roots firmly implanted in the composer's talent for musical dramatics, evident from the fact that he achieves his most impressive effects by the simplest of means. In the majority of cases he limits himself to strings alone or - when portraying the sublime or solemnity - the trombones. For splendor and majesty he resorts to trumpets and percussion, whereas ideas of a frightening nature are stressed by the incisive properties of the clarino trumpets.”
Also worthy of attention is the use of the English horn whose tone color is put to admirable effect frequently to express elegiac and lamenting moods, especially in the ''Lux aeterna: (Introduction to the Edition as published by Peters Corp.)
As early as 1788 in his first orchestrally scored Mass in D written in Vienna, Salieri manifested his transition in style from the old influences of the concerto grosso and opera seria and toward the prevalent new symphonic texture. As a late representative of the Neapolitan school, his church music emerged at this time unmistakably into the age of Haydn's and Mozart's stylistic modes. He exhibited scrupulous care in avoiding much of the contemporary superficiality and incongruity between the meaning of the sacred words and the musical setting.
Tonight's performance of the Grand Requiem offers us an opportunity to judge for ourselves the art of this much maligned but conscientious artist.
Between January, 1779 and November, 1780 Mozart produced for Salzburg Cathedral, four of his most celebrated, impressive and characteristically original church compositions, the famed Coronation Mass in C (K. 317), the Vespers "de Dominica" (K.321), the Archibishop Colloredo Mass in C (K.337) and the Solemn Vespers of a Confessor (K.339). In their composition, Mozart followed the liturgical directives of the Archbishop to produce these magnificently concise and taut works.
Most previous investigations into the origins of Mozart's Solemn Vespers of a Confessor not a Bishop, to give its full title, have concluded with an assertion that the saint celebrated in this work is unknown. There is, indeed, no concrete contemporary historical evidence indicating specifically which saint's feast day is so signally celebrated. However, an examination of all the circumstances surrounding the composition of the above mentioned works stimulated my educated guess that Mozart produced his Solemn Vespers (K.339) to celebrate the Namensfeier or Namesday festival of that Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Archbishop Jerome (Hieronymous) Colloredo of Salzburg, on the feast of St. Jerome, September 30, 1780.
In these Solemn Vespers Mozart with his usual consummate skill transformed the lengthy old Italian form of sung Vespers into one in which the whole psalm is treated with continuous symphonic unity. In this manner he gave to the exposition of the psalm as a whole a concise musical rendering of its essential religious and poetic spirit.
Vespers or Evensong is that centuries-old daily service of the Church's official prayer sung or recited by clerics about 5 p.m. It consists of five psalms with their antiphons, some brief lesson-prayers, and the Magnificat. "Solemn Vespers" implies the use of the Psalms assigned for the Sunday liturgy rather than those for the weekdays. "Of a Confessor" implies that the celebration of the feast is that of a non-martyr saint, either a bishop or not a bishop, whose feast has for a special reason been upgraded in liturgical celebration. Mozart here simply set the Psalms and Magnificat to special music, leaving the antiphons and prayers to be supplied by the customary chants. Indeed his setting of the service was so concise that the performance would not have taken much more time than the monastic chanting of the psalms involved.
In these Vespers, Mozart likewise satisfied the Austrian contemporary demand that composers of church music demonstrate mastery in the learned 'stile antiquo’ and in the popular 'stile moderno’ Thus in the Fourth Psalm, "Laudate pueri," he elaborates in the learned Baroque contrapuntal manner with a theme derived from Michael Haydn's Requiem and which he subsequently used in the Kyrie of his own Requiem (1<.626). On the other hand, in the Fifth Psalm "Laudate Dominum” he had recourse to the modem, even operatic mode. Here the soprano soars over the chorus and orchestra in one of the most magical and ingratiatingly lovely melodies Mozart ever composed, a melody "as innocently secular as the cherubs who enthusiastically bang kettledrums and blow trumpets in their appointed places on the walls of organ lofts in numerous Austrian Baroque churches.”
The First Psalm, "Dixit” and the concluding Canticle, "Magnificat” frame the rest of the psalms with their festive trumpet flourishes. Throughout the whole work choir and soloists accompanied by the animated orchestra alternate among themselves in a decidedly vigorous and joyful manner.
"Despite the brevity of form,” asserts Alfred Beaujean, "Mozart employs for this Vespers cycle a remarkably wide range of musical ideas, techniques, and sound.” Robbins Landon summarizes his views of the Vespers and its companion pieces: “All four of these works result in a very special category of Mozart's most brilliant maturity, not only because of their rich orchestration, the scintillating style and dexterous combination of old and new elements,” but because they served to make his name widely known well into the 19th century before his great instrumental compositions came to be better known.