Salieri "the gizzard" at 256

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While the whole world has been busy this year celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday, poor Antonio Salieri, who turns 256 today, remains forever in Amadeus's shadow.

Mozart, of course, has been described as the fillet of the Classical era, while Salieri, on the other hand, has generally been portrayed as the gizzards. That is: the heart, the liver, all that rubbery bluish-red intestinal-looking stuff they wrap up in a wad of paper and stick inside the chicken. My problem with this comparison? It's simply not fair. Forget for the moment that no man should ever be compared to the innards of a chicken. That much is a given. Beyond that, Salieri, while perhaps not the best-dressed (nor most fortunate looking) composer who ever lived, wasn't a bad musician at all. In fact, he was pretty darn good. Good enough to be the teacher of Beethoven, Schubert AND Liszt!

But thanks to Peter Shaffer's play and Oscar winning film, Amadeus, most people regard Salieri as incompetent. So, after the jump, in honor of his birthday, I'd like to set a couple things straight.

First, Salieri did not "kill" Mozart, nor was he obsessively jealous of Mozart's talents. As Peter A. Brown says in his essay on the subject over at the Mozart Project, "In 1825 Salieri's two attendants attested that they had never heard such words from their charge, and a friend of Mozart's physician reported that Wolfgang had died of a fever that was epidemic at that time in Vienna. From an unproved premise Shaffer developed this, the central character in Amadeus, as one obsessed by and murderously jealous of Mozart's genius."

But Shaffer didn't make this up either. It started as a rumor in and around Vienna after Mozart's death. Then, in 1831, about five years after Salieri died, the father of all Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, wrote a short story called "Mozart and Salieri" in which the rumor was dramatized. In 1898, the Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, perpetuated the rumor by turning Pushkin's verse into an opera. But neither painted such a ridiculously simple portrait of the bumbling Salieri as Shaffer and director Milos Forman did.

All that said, Amadeus remains one of my top-five favorite films. Yes, even though the Salieri caricature is only one of the many distortions. Because: No, Salieri did not commission nor help Mozart finish -- bedside, no less! -- his Requiem, as shown in the film. The anonymous commission, it would later be determined, was from one Count von Walsegg-Stuppach.

And no, I didn't just make that name up—feel free to Google him if you don't believe me. Turns out, Count von Walsegg-Stuppach wanted to pass the requiem off as his own, in memory of his late wife. (The Countess Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka-Schnoop, perhaps?)

So raise a glass to Salieri, the one who didn't kill Mozart! Happy Birthday you old gizzard you.

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August 18, 2006 - 5:31am
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