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8.223381 - SALIERI: Overtures

Antonio Salieri (1750 -1825) Overtures

Antonio Salieri (1750-1825)



It is ironical that interest in the Italian composer Antonio Salieri should have arisen in the late twentieth century as a result of a fictional treatment of his supposed rivalry with Mozart in Peter Shaffer's dramatic study of jealousy, Amadeus. Salieri's deathbed confession in 1825 that he had murdered Mozart was rightly seen at the time as a sign of mental derangement in the old composer. Nevertheless the resulting rumour suggested to the Russian poet Pushkin a possible subject for one of his Little Tragedies, written in the summer of 1830. His dramatic scene presents a contrast between the laboured craftsman, Salieri, and the composer of genius, Mozart, a madcap and hooligan. Towards the end of the century Rimsky-Korsakov set the scenes by Pushkin in two tableaux. The music of Salieri, however, remained largely forgotten, his name a foot-note in the story of Mozart and in the lives of his pupils Beethoven and Schubert.


Salieri was born in 1750 in Legnago, a town on the borders of Venice and the Austrian dukedom of Mantua. He was the eighth child of a merchant, Antonio Salieri by his second wife and studied violin and harpsichord with his elder brother Francesco, thirteen years his senior and a pupil of the violinist and composer Tartini. He continued his study of the violin and organ with Giuseppe Simoni, organist at the cathedral of Legnago and a pupil of Padre Martini. His mother died in 1763 and his father shortly afterwards, and after a short time in Padua, where an older brother was a monk at the Church of San Francesco, the boy was taken to Venice by a family friend, Giovanni Mocenigo, a member of one of the most distinguished Venetian families. There he was able to study with Giovanni Pescetti, Vice-Kapellmeister at the Basilica of San Marco and formerly for some years director of music at the King's Theatre in London.


In 1766, through his singing teacher Pacini, a member of the establishment of San Marco, Salieri met Florian Leopold Gassmann, successor of Gluck at the ballet in Vienna and six years later to become Court Kapellmeister. Gassmann was in Venice for the production there of a new opera, while the theatres in Vienna were closed in mourning at the death of the Emperor Franz I. Impressed by Salieri's ability he took him back with him to Vienna, seeing to his further education there and introducing him to the court, and at the same time providing the opportunity for friendship with the court poet Metastasio and with Gluck.


Salieri's first opera for Vienna, La vestale, written in 1768 and perhaps a student work, has been lost. His first surviving comic opera, Le donne letterate, was successfully staged in 1770 at the Burgtheater. Four years later, on the death of Gassmann, he succeeded his mentor as court composer and director of the Italian opera. The end of the decade brought leave of absence in Italy, with successful operas in Milan, Venice, Rome and Naples. In Vienna he wrote for the newly established German opera and between 1784 and 1787 assumed a leading position in opera in Paris. In 1788 he succeeded Giuseppe Bonno in Gassmann's old position as court Kapellmeister, but the death of Gluck in 1787 had deprived him of a valued friend and support. With the death of the Emperor Joseph II in 1790 Salieri retired from his position at the opera but retained his position as court Kapellmeister under Leopold II and his successor, relinquishing the office only in 1824. By 1804, however, the year of his Requiem, Salieri virtually ceased to compose, finding his style out of tune with contemporary developments in the age of Beethoven. To the very end of his life he remained respected for his achievement as a composer, for his work as a teacher and for his skilful administration of the court musical establishment. His pupils, in addition to Beethoven and Schubert, included Liszt, however briefly, Czerny, Mozart's former pupil Hummel and Mozart's second surviving son.


The opera buffa II talismano (The Talisman), with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, was mounted at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 10th September 1788, four months after the first performance in Vienna of Mozart's da Ponte opera Don Giovanni. Based on the work of Goldoni, the opera deals with the daughter of a Governor abducted by gypsies and given a talisman with magic powers of transformation. After various complications father and daughter are reunited. The subject had been treated ten years earlier for Milan by Salieri in collaboration with Giacomo Rust, after the latter's resignation on grounds of ill health from Salzburg, where he had spent less than a year as court Kapellmeister in 1777. Then Salieri had provided the first act only. The version of 1788 was, therefore, largely a new work, with a remodelled libretto.


Eraclito e Democrito, described as an opera filosofico-buffa, was first staged at the Burgtheater in August 1795. The librettist was an old acquaintance of Salieri from Venice, Giovanni de Gamerra, who had succeeded Bertati as court theatre poet in Vienna. The ancient Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Democritus appear as contemporaries in a plot that makes fun of the addiction of a father to philosophy and his consequent wish to marry his daughter to one or other of the two philosophers of the title, an aim in which he is finally defeated. The overture contrasts the laughing philosopher Democritus with the mournful Heraclitus.


Cesare in Farmacusa, an opera eroico-comica, was staged at the Kärntnertor Theatre in Vienna in June 1800. The piece has a libretto by Carlo Prospero Defranceschi, to whose text Salieri had written in 1799 his Shakespearean Falstaff ossia Le tre burle. The plot is drawn from Plutarch's account of the capture of the young Julius Caesar by pirates and their demand for ransom. Into this the librettist inserts the necessary female characters, a pirate-bride and Gigi, a slave in Caesar's entourage, with her comic lover, the slave Tullus. The storm sets the opening scene according to established musical conventions.


Lorenzo da Ponte's first libretto for Salieri was II ricco d'un giorno (Rich for a Day), a work that cost him much effort, as he later recalled, and which eventually needed extensive rewriting. The plot deals with two brothers, one mean, the other prodigal, who inherit a large sum of money. Both are in love with the notary's daughter Emilia, who is eventually united with the brother she has always favoured, the spendthrift, after the unmasking of his false servant Mascharone. The three-act opera buffa was staged at the Burgtheater in December 1784.


La secchia rapita (The Stolen Bucket), an opera buffa, was first mounted at the Burgtheater in October 1772. The libretto was by Giovanni Boccherini, brother of the composer, a dancer and poet and author of the text of Haydn's Ritorno di Tobia. The book was based on the poem of the same name by Alessandro Tassoni, a contemporary of Shakespeare, dealing with a war between his native Modena and Bologna over a bucket seized by the former as a trophy, a quarrel in which the gods of Olympus are made to intervene. Salieri echoes in his music something of the satirical heroic writing of the original.


Salieri's greatest success in Paris was his collaboration in 1787 with Beaumarchais, Tarare. This was revised in the following year, with an Italian text by da Ponte, and staged under the title Axur, re d'Ormus at the Burgtheater in January 1788 in celebration of the marriage of the Emperor's nephew Franz, later to succeed to the throne. Da Ponte has left an account of his work on the opera, undertaken at the same time as libretti for Mozart and for Martin y Soler, Don Giovanni and L'arbore di Diana. When the music intended for France failed to suit either Italian text or Italian voices, Salieri and da Ponte decided to start afresh, using what ideas they could from the original French opera, while the Emperor, in spite of other preoccupations, continued to take a close personal interest in the progress of the work. In the Italian version devised by da Ponte names of principal characters are changed, with Tarare assuming the name of his original enemy, King Atar, who now became Axur. The story is one of tyranny and injustice as Axur, jealous of his successful general Atar, seizes the other's beloved mistress Aspasia and imprisons her in his seraglio. In a happy ending hero and heroine are reunited, thanks to the machinations of the chief of the eunuchs, Biscroma, alias Calpigi, while Axur takes his own life.


Salieri's first opera for Paris was Les Danaïdes, staged there in April 1784 and attributed by the theatre management partly to Gluck, now incapacitated and reluctant after the failure of Echo et Narcisse to have anything more to do with the French theatre. In spite of this the name of Gluck provided an opportunity for Salieri to gain a foothold in Paris with a work that followed the spirit of his mentor. The libretto was by Gluck's collaborator and supporter the Bailli du Roullet and a fellow-nobleman, the Baron de Tschudi, who based their work on Calzabigi. The story tells of the vengeance exacted on the sons of Aegyptus by the daughters of his brother Danaus, instructed by their father to marry and then murder their husbands. Hypermnestra alone refuses to do as her father bids and saves her beloved Lynceus, who then takes revenge in his turn. The opera closes with the sight of the daughters of Danaus and their father in eternal torment. The ominous overture suggests the terror of the fate of Don Giovanni.


The divertimento teatrale Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamace, a collaboration with Giovanni Boccherini, was staged in Vienna in 1770. This one-act ballet-opera is based on an episode from the adventures of Don Quixote that later provided the young Mendelssohn with a subject for opera. The rich Camacho, chosen by her father as a husband for Quiteria, is outwitted by his rival Basilio. The work had the distinction of choreography by Noverre, at the time ballet-master to the imperial family and the two Vienna theatres. Musically Salieri's Don Chisciotte is a relatively insubstantial piece, introduced by a charming overture.


La grotta di Trofonio (The Cave of Trofonio) was the first important work for the Viennese theatre of the writer Giovanni Battista Casti, who went on to collaborate with Salieri in the satirical Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the Music, then the Words) and subsequently in Cublai, gran Kan de'Tartari and in Catilina. His ambition had been to succeed Metastasio as court poet, a goal only realised in 1792 under the Emperor Franz II. The overture suggests at once the cave of the magician Trofonio, in which the studious Artemidoro is transformed into a carefree fellow and his friend Plistene into a serious philosopher, to the annoyance of the girls they are to marry. A second visit to the cave restores the original characters of the two lovers, but the girls now undergo the same process, to be finally transformed again to their natural characters when they re-enterthe cave, after which all ends happily. The work was first staged in Vienna in October 1785.


The opera buffa II moro, first performed at the Burgtheater on 7th August 1796, has a libretto by Gamerra. The moor of the title has amassed wealth through piracy and intends to retire to Italy, where he seeks a wife, holding a beauty-contest for that purpose. Orgone, with an eye to the moor's money, tries to marry his daughter to him, but she is in love with the moor's secretary. Difficulties are resolved with the appearance of the moor's wife, left behind in Africa, who arrives with her eleven children.


The subject of Armida, the enchantress who bewitches the crusader Rinaldo, had provided substance for operas by Lully, Handel, Haydn and Gluck among others, its source the poem Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato Tasso. The text for Salieri's opera, first mounted at the Burgtheater on 2nd June 1771, was provided by Coltellini, claimed by the operatic reformist Calzabigi as a disciple. The overture provides a programmatic outline of the drama to come. Salieri later found it necessary to offer apologies for Armida, his first opera seria, but it nevertheless anticipates in its use of French and Italian elements, procedures later adopted by Gluck.


For L'Angiolina ossia II matrimonio per sussurro, first staged at the Kärntnertor Theatre on 22nd October 1800, Salieri and the librettist Defranceschi turned to Ben Jonson's play Epicoene or The Silent Woman. Although the plot still turns on the fooling of a rich old man, set on disinheriting his nephew, the details of the intrigue are changed, so that the part of the boy, who disguised as a woman pretends to marry the old man and then proceeds to plague hirn, is transferred to Angiolina herself, in love with the old man's nephew. The comedy is introduced by a sparkling overture.


Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)


The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929 at the instance of Milos Ruppeldt and Oskar Nedbal, prominent personalities in the sphere of music. Ondrej Lenárd was appointed its conductor in 1970 and in 1977 its conductor-in-chief. The orchestra has given successful concerts both at home and abroad, in Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Hong Kong and Japan. For Marco Polo the orchestra has recorded works by Glazunov, Glière, Miaskovsky and other late romantic composers and film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian as well as several volumes of the label's Johann Strauss Edition. Naxos recordings include symphonies and ballets by Tchaikovsky, and symphonies by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns.


Michael Dittrich


Michael Dittrich was born in Silesia and studied the violin at the Music Academies in Detmold and in Vienna. As a student he was employed as second Concertmaster and Assistant Conductor of the Tübingen Chamber Orchestra and was also a violinist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been a member since 1970. His career as a conductor was developed under Hans Swarowsky, Karl Österreicher, Otmar Suitner and Franco Ferrara and through the advice and friendship of Carlo Maria Giulini. In 1977 he established his own ensemble Bella Musica for the historically correct performance of music from the Baroque, Classical and Biedermeier periods, with concert tours throughout Europe and the Americas. Since 1978 his recordings for Harmonia Mundi have won six international prizes, including the Diapason d'Or of Radio Luxemburg and the Paris Grand Prix du Disque. He has served as a guest conductor in Italy, Germany and Austria and given television performances.

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