Mozart! Mozart, forgive your assassin! I confess, I killed you…’ The words are those of the composer Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s nemesis and eventual murderer, in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus, whose screenplay was drawn from the play by Peter Shaffer. It’s fiction, of course. No reputable Mozart scholar believes that Salieri poisoned him; yet through the success of the multi-award-winning movie, an entire generation has grown up believing that Salieri was a mediocrity who murdered a genius out of some gigantic fit of creative jealousy.

Just as ironically, Amadeus has made Salieri a far more familiar figure in our day than at any time since his death in 1825. During his lifetime Salieri was a composer performed and admired throughout the continent. If either of the two had a reason for jealousy, it would surely have been Mozart, who in his adult years achieved neither the fame nor the consistent success of his older rival. In Vienna, Salieri’s operas were played far more frequently than Mozart’s, while his higher ranking was reflected in the more exalted positions he held in the Imperial musical establishment. In addition, Salieri worked in the best venues abroad; he was commissioned to write the opera that opened La Scala, Milan, in 1778, and composed three prestigious works for Paris – two of them major successes. Salieri and his music both travelled far.

It was only after Mozart’s death in 1791 that his music rose in reputation and popularity, eventually eclipsing the works of his once famous rival. By the time Salieri himself died at the age of 75, he was a back number, while Mozart was well on the way to becoming a cultural legend and arguably the most admired composer of all time. Yet in recent decades there has been a renewed focus on Salieri – partially the result of the fascination with his fictionalised character as represented in an imaginative though highly fanciful film.

Shaffer’s depiction is, in fact, not entirely original. It was the Russian poet and playwright Pushkin who first developed the theme of an artistic and personal conflict between the two composers in his play Mozart and Salieri – a work Rimsky-Korsakov turned into an opera in 1897, with the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin starring as the ‘poisoner’ Salieri. Shaffer essentially just renewed Pushkin’s fictional charge, albeit giving it far wider currency.

Mozart’s distrust of Salieri was real enough, as family letters show. In one sent by Wolfgang’s father to his daughter just before the premiere of Figaro in 1786, Leopold claims, ‘It will be amazing if he succeeds, for I know that he has remarkably powerful cabals opposing him. Salieri and all his followers will again try to move heaven and earth’. Whether Salieri did intrigue against Mozart is unknown. But in a sense he didn’t need to. He already held the higher ground. Salieri was born six years before Mozart in a small town in the Veneto region of Italy, where he began to study music as a child. He was orphaned young, and then taken off to Venice by the wealthy nobleman Giovanni Mocenigo at the age of 15 to develop his skills further. It was young Salieri’s singing teacher in Venice who introduced him to an even more important patron – the Viennese composer Florian Gassmann, in town to stage one of his operas. Gassmann was so impressed by the talents of the young Italian that he took him back to Vienna, moved him into his own home and had him fully educated – notably in a wide range of musical accomplishments. Salieri always remained grateful for this intervention. Gassmann was a successful composer in his own right. Even more crucially for Salieri’s future, he was involved with Vienna’s court theatre, both as composer and conductor. Gassmann was able to train his protégé in the skills required in the composition and performance of Italian opera and also to introduce him to Vienna’s top musical movers and shakers. The young Salieri soon won the approval not only of Gluck and Metastasio – the revered doyen of opera seria librettists – but of the Emperor Joseph II himself, in whose regular sessions of private music-making he began to participate on a regular basis.

As an opera composer, his break came in 1769, when Gassmann, once again travelling in Italy, was unable to fulfil a local commission for a new comic opera. Salieri obliged by setting Le donne letterate, staged in Vienna in 1770. A string of other operas – comic or serious, and many of them successful – followed. When Gassmann died in 1774, Salieri succeeded him as Kammerkomponist, immediately acquiring the more important post of director of the Italian opera company in Vienna. By the time Mozart – far less well connected locally – arrived on the Viennese scene in 1781, Salieri was already established.

Partly through his relationship with the Habsburg emperor, who was related to half the rulers of Europe, Salieri was able to bolster his Viennese career with high-profile work elsewhere. When La Scala was opened in 1778, his new opera seria L’Europa riconosciuta was premiered on the first night; Joseph II’s brother happened to be the Austrian Governor of the Duchy of Lombardy at the time.

When Gluck felt himself too old and infirm to produce a major new work for the Paris Opéra, he transferred the commission to Salieri and advised him on the composition of the resulting score. Salieri was unofficially anointed Gluck’s chosen successor. The French Queen was Joseph’s sister, the ill-fated Marie-Antoinette, and it was she who received the dedication of the piece. Les Danaïdes (1784) proved to be a major success and would remain in the repertory of the theatre down to 1825, when Berlioz heard and admired it.

Though Les Horaces (1786), Salieri’s second work for the Paris Opéra, was a failure, his third, Tarare, was if anything even more momentous than Les Danaïdes. A daring political allegory concerning the misuse of autocratic power, including an implicit rebuke to the ancien régime, the opera’s libretto was the work of Beaumarchais – the author of the politically explosive plays Le barbier de Séville and Le mariage de Figaro. Tarare brought their social criticisms into the operatic realm, and proved a huge success at its 1787 premiere.

Joseph II was sufficiently interested in Tarare to commission Salieri to produce a revised Italian-language version for Vienna the next year. Undertaking the task of adapting Beaumarchais’s original was librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had produced his first operatic text under Salieri’s tutelage and collaborated with him during the 1780s. Axur, re d’Ormus (1788) was the result – notching up another major success for the Italian composer, and going on to enjoy a career in European theatres, remaining in the Viennese repertoire until 1805. While Mozart also set Beaumarchais, as revised and translated by Da Ponte in Figaro, Salieri had the honour of being the only composer to collaborate with the most famous French playwright of his day, setting his sole libretto to music. Following the success of Axur and the death of the aged Giuseppe Bonno, Joseph appointed Salieri to the top post of Imperial Kapellmeister, which he held until he retired in 1824.

The death of the music-loving Joseph himself in 1790 proved a setback to Salieri. Relieved of the duties of rehearsing and conducting the operas, he nevertheless took several years before resuming composition. A steady stream of works then followed later in the decade, though changing tastes – including the introduction of the works of Cherubini, which Salieri thought too orchestrally conceived – eventually led him to abandon the stage altogether in 1805.

As well as the composition of church music, teaching occupied his later years – voice, continuo and composition being his specialities. Beethoven, Schubert, Meyerbeer and Liszt all took lessons from him, recognising his expertise in writing for the voice. His son and then his wife both died, but Salieri lived on, looked after by his two daughters.

Administrative duties now occupied much of his time. As late as 1813, he took on the task of directing the guns and cannon in the premiere of Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, and in 1815 he produced a major set of orchestral variations. He undertook a major review of all his earlier scores, providing a commentary on them as well as making revisions. In the early 1820s his health declined and he was hospitalised for a period during which he seems to have made a suicide attempt. Rumours of his ‘murder’ of Mozart had become rife, and may have added to the elderly Salieri’s confused state; they even crop up in Beethoven’s conversation books, though the latter gave them no credence.

Reassessing Salieri in the modern age, it is clear that he belongs to the tradition of an Italian composer abroad, working within the same stylistic frame as such notable contemporaries as Paisiello and Cimarosa and adding to it without pushing its boundaries very far. His Parisian operas, though, offered greater scope, demanding more complex harmonies and orchestral writing to compete with the works of Gluck that provided the local benchmark. It says much for Salieri’s ability that his contemporaries believed that he had successfully managed the feat of following in Gluck’s footsteps.

His Italian operas written for Vienna and elsewhere tend to be less exploratory, but are far more than competent. Recent research by John A Rice suggests that the rivalry between Salieri and Mozart in Vienna was fruitful for both, with the two composers impacting on each other’s works in positive ways. No one nowadays would compare Mozart’s genius to Salieri’s talent, yet the skill and attractiveness of his music can speak to modern audiences.

A letter from Mozart written just a few weeks before he died in December 1791 describes how Salieri and his mistress Caterina Cavalieri were his guests at a performance of The Magic Flute, and how Salieri praised his colleague’s score throughout the performance. ‘There was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo! or bello!’, Mozart wrote, clearly pleased. It’s an intriguing final depiction of the two figures together, suggesting how much Salieri admired Mozart’s music at a time when neither of them could have foreseen how posterity would come to regard them.

George Hall