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Crossing Swords in Old Vienna: Excerps from the works of Der Schauspieldirektor & Prima la musica e poi le parole

The MHS Review 401, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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Frank Cooper


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Peter Schaffer's brilliant Amadeus--­the play, the movie-is a bit of entertain­ment par excellence but not good history. Because of its popularity and an Oscar-winning performance by F. Mur­ray Abraham, Antonio Salieri is now regarded erroneously by vast audiences as a madman whose jealousy drove him to kill Mozart. What the playwright im­agined as dramatic necessity lacks any basis in fact.

True, Salieri and Mozart were occa­sionally at cross purposes, but not to the point of murder. Mozart envied Salieri's position as Imperial Court Composer. Salieri envied Mozart's facile genius. Vienna was where they both lived and worked. Naturally, although they knew one another, friends they were not. Yet on the memorable occasion marked by this charming release, they did engage in a duel of sorts via music.

The year was 1786. Salieri was 36; Mozart had just turned 30. Vienna was abuzz over the younger composer. Not only was he in the home stretch with a new opera (Figaro) based on a scan­dalous play, but the emperor himself had commissioned Mozart to write a lit­tle Singspiel, or musical comedy in Ger­man, as after-dinner fare for some visiting dignitaries. His Imperial Majes­ty had also commissioned Salieri to write an opera buffa, or comic opera in Italian, for the same occasion!

These rival types of opera-in­miniature (over which something of a controversy was then raging), compos­ed by the two best rivals in the Imperial City, would provide an amusing oppor­tunity for the guests. At each end of the Schonbrunn Palace's longest room (where orange trees grew in parallel rows), stages were erected. The guests faced first in one direction to see Mozart's The Impresario (as we call it in English), then turned around for Salieri's First the Music, Then the Words.

These royal high jinks were made all the more interesting by a pair of outlan­dishly funny libretti, or stories, about competition between rival singers. There is more to each, of course, the sort of silliness that would inspire chuckles and guffaws among guests who were in their cups. Rising (or descen­ding?) to the occasion, both men obtain­ed from their Muses wonderfully frothy music, Salieri in particular. We hardly ever have the opportunity to hear any of his music, so this release gives cause for joy. Mozart's score, well known through countless productions everywhere, is as masterful as the material demands (perhaps more so). He sends his soprano, "Mlle Silberklang," all over her range from highest highs to lowest lows. His final trio provides tru­ly vaudevillian merriment.

Incidentally, Salieri's was declared the winning opera that night for reasons that are easily understood. Not only did his work have the last word (always influen­tial) but it was in the aristocratically con­doned Italian language (German­-language Singspiels being meant for common folk). Further, his music was less involved, his libretto more concise, and his employer, after all, the host. Would 40 courtiers in attendance, as well as the guests of honor, have voted for anyone other than the Imperial Court Composer?

What we get is the chance to hear the clashes of both composers' musical foils without having to wait for the dialogue to pass. These highlights include virtual­ly all of the arias and ensembles as well as both little overtures--all done to a turn by the participants.

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