Salien, Antonio , famous Italian composer and teacher; b. Legnago, near Verona, Aug. 18, 1750; d. Vienna, May 7, 1825. He studied violin and harpsichord with his brother, Francesco, then continued violin studies with the local organist, Giuseppe Simoni. He was orphaned in 1765; subsequently was taken to Venice, where he studied thoroughbass with Giovanni Pescetti, deputy maestro di cappella of San Marco, and singing with Ferdinando Pacini, a tenor there. Florian Gassmann took Salieri to Vienna in 1766 and provided for his musical training and a thorough education in the liberal arts; there he came into contact with Metastasio and Gluck, the latter becoming his patron and friend. His first known opera, La Vestale (not extant), was premiered in Vienna in 1768. His comic opera, Le Donne letterate, was successfully performed at the Burgtheater in Jan. 1770. The influence of Gluck is revealed in his first major production for the stage, Armida (June 2, 1771). Upon the death of Gassmann in 1774, Salieri was appointed his successor as court composer and conductor of the Italian Opera. After Gluck was unable to fulfill the commission for an opera to open the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the authorities turned to Salieri; his L’Europa riconosciuta inaugurated the great opera house on Aug. 3, 1778. While in Italy, he also composed operas for Venice and Rome. He then returned to Vienna, where he brought out his Lustspiel, Der Rauchfangkehrer (April 30, 1781). With Gluck’s encouragement, Salieri set his sights on Paris. In an effort to provide him with a respectful hearing, Gluck and the directors of the Paris Opéra advertised Salieri’s Les Danaides (April 26, 1784) as a work from Gluck’s pen; following a number of performances, it was finally acknowledged as Salieri’s creation. Returning to Vienna, he composed 3 more stage works, including the successful La grotta di Trofonio (Oct. 12, 1785). His French opera Les Horaces (Paris, Dec. 7, 1786) proved a failure. However, his next French opera, Tarare (Paris Opera, June 8, 1787), was a triumphant success. After Da Ponte revised and tr. Beaumarchais’s French libretto into Italian and Salieri thoroughly recomposed the score, it was given as Axur, re d’Ormus (Vienna, Jan. 8, 1788), and then performed throughout Europe to great acclaim. Salieri was appointed court Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1788, and held that position until 1824; however, he did not conduct operatic performances after 1790. He continued to compose for the stage until 1804, his last major success being Palmira, regina di Persia (Oct. 14, 1795).
Salieri’s influence on the musical life of Vienna was considerable. From 1788 to 1795 he was president of the Tonkunstler-Sozietat, the benevolent society for musicians founded by Gassmann in 1771; he was its vice-president from 1795; he was also a founder of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. He was widely celebrated as a pedagogue, his pupils including Beethoven, Hummel, Schubert, Czerny, and Liszt. He was the recipient of numerous honors, including the Gold Medallion and Chain of the City of Vienna; he was also a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and a member of the French Institut. Salieri’s eminence and positions in Vienna earned him a reputation for intrigue; many unfounded stories circulated about him, culminating in the fantastic tale that he poisoned Mozart; this tale prompted Pushkin to write his drama Mozart and Salieri, which subsequently was set to music by Rimsky- Kor-sakov; a contemporary dramatization of the Mozart-Salieri rivalry, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, was successfully produced in London in 1979 and in N.Y. in 1980; it later obtained even wider circulation through the award-winning film version of 1984. Salieri was a worthy representative of the traditional Italian school of operatic composition. He was a master of harmony and orchestration. His many operas are noteworthy for their expressive melodic writing and sensitive vocal treatment. All the same, few held the stage for long, and all have disappear from the active repertoire. He also composed numerous sacred works, secular works, including cantatas, choruses, and songs, and instrumental pieces.
I. von Mosel, Über das Leben und die Werke des A. S.(Vienna, 1827); W. Neumann, A. S.(Kassel, 1855); R. Nützlader, S. als Kirchenmusiker (diss., Univ. of Vienna, 1924); G. Magnani, A. S.: Musicista legnaghese (Legnago, 1934); A. Della Corte, Un Italiano all’estero: A. S.(Turin and Milan, 1937); R. Angermüller, A. S.: Sein Leben und seine weltlichen Werke unter besonderer Berücksichtingung seiner “grossen” Opern (diss., Univ. of Salzburg, 1970; publ. in 3 vols., Munich, 1971–74); V. Braunbehrens, S.: Ein Musiker im Schatten Mozarts (Munich, 1989; Eng. tr., 1992, as Maligned Master: The Real Story of A. S.); V. Della Croce and F. Bianchetti, 11 caso S.(Turin, 1994); J. Rice, A. S. and Viennese Opera, 1770–1800 (Chicago, 1998).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire