It’s the 83rd birthday of a great character actor, F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for playing the cunning, Machiavellian Antonio Salieri (“the patron saint of mediocrities”).

To celebrate this special holiday each year, we take this time to honor our loved ones publicly and to their faces, but then to betray them behind their backs and take credit for their achievements.

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Just a few years after Salieri’s death, Pushkin, basically the Shakespeare of the Russian language, wrote a short play («Моцарт и Сальери») that gave a public, artistic airing to an idea that previously had been merely a rumor in intellectual circles – that a jealous Salieri had poisoned Mozart. The idea became permanently cemented into our modern consciousness by “Amadeus,” first a celebrated play, and then Oscar’s “Best Picture,” which perpetuated the poisoning myth. Although there does not seem to be any basis for the poisoning rumor, that’s what everyone now thinks, if they think about the matter at all. It’s a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Although there is no reason to think that Salieri was a murderer, Mozart and Salieri were rivals, to be sure. The Mozart-Salieri rivalry even included a head-to-head battle during an opera composition competition held by Emperor Joseph II in 1786.

Mozart lost that competition.

Contrary to the common perception, it was actually Mozart who was the envious one. He was jealous of Salieri’s success, and of Salieri’s position as the emperor’s favorite. This was no literary fabrication, but was based on the hard evidence of Mozart’s own words, as expressed in letters to his father.

Wikipedia picks up the story:

In the 1780s, while Mozart lived and worked in Vienna, he and his father Leopold wrote in their letters that several “cabals” of Italians led by Salieri were actively putting obstacles in the way of Mozart’s obtaining certain posts or staging his operas. For example, Mozart wrote in December 1781 to his father that “the only one who counts in [the Emperor’s] eyes is Salieri”. Their letters suggest that both Mozart and his father, being Austrians who resented the special place that Italian composers had in the courts of the Austrian nobility, blamed the Italians in general and Salieri in particular for all of Mozart’s difficulties in establishing himself in Vienna. Mozart wrote to his father in May 1783 about Salieri and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the court poet: “You know those Italian gentlemen; they are very nice to your face! Enough, we all know about them. And if [Da Ponte] is in league with Salieri, I’ll never get a text from him, and I would love to show him what I can really do with an Italian opera.” In July 1783, he again wrote to his father of “a trick of Salieri’s”, one of several letters in which Mozart accused Salieri of trickery.

2 thoughts on “Happy Salieri Day

  1. In high school, while everyone else was playing F Mary Kill, we played F Mary Abraham. The rules were simple: you pick three celebrities, and you choose one to have sex with, one to marry, and one to kill Mozart.

    1. A pretty fun game.

      Except for Mozart, of course.

      Especially because he always gets killed by the ugly chick.

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