The Salieri Rumour

If it ever becomes possible for the dead to sue the living for slander, there aren't many who would have a stronger case than poor Antonio Salieri...

Although he was one of the most important Viennese composers of his time, he is mainly remembered today as the villain in Peter Shaeffer's 1979 play Amadeus.The play, which was later made into a film of the same name in 1984, presents Salieri as a mediocre musician who becomes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's archenemy out of jealousy. After sabotaging Mozart's career and having a role in his death, Salieri eventually ends up in an insane asylum following a suicide attempt. In a futile effort to be remembered, Salieri leaves behind a confession that he had poisoned the great composer but eventually dies in obscurity.  If Salieri is remembered at all these days, that memory is largely shaped by F. Murray Abraham's haunting performance as Salieri in the movie version

While Shaeffer took considerable liberties with the story of Mozart and Salieri, the actual facts about their relationship, the circumstances of Salieri's death, and what 280px-Joseph_Willibrod_M%C3%A4hler_001[1] happened afterward is considerably more complicated. Although Mozart and Antonio Salieri had been rivals (they both wrote Italian operas) and Mozart would accuse Salieri of using his influence with Emperor Leopold against him, their relationship seemed friendly enough on the surface. There is evidence that Salieri had undermined Mozart's success at times (although Mozart often caused many of his own problems with his abrasive personality) but never to the extent suggested in Shaeffer's play. After Mozart's premature death, Salieri was one of the few mourners who attended his sparse funeral and would later train Mozart's son, Franz Xavier, as a musician.

There were numerous theories surrounding the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on December 5, 1791 but modern historians tend to agree that he died of natural causes (probably due to rheumatic fever as well as the repeated bleedings that doctors gave him to treat his final illness). Despite numerous rumours at the time that Mozart had been poisoned (with possible villains including the Freemasons, fellow musicians, or even the husband of one of his students), Salieri wasn't implicated.


After a lifetime as a successful composer and musician, Antonio Salieri's health began to decline. His music began to fade in popularity as more prominent composers came along although he trained some of the greatest musicians of his generation. Salieri began to suffer regular episodes of depression and, by the early 1820s, had become increasingly frail. In the spring of 1823, Antonio Salieri fell and struck his head which apparently left his legs paralyzed. While his eldest surviving daughter cared for him at home, she eventually arranged for to be transferred to the Vienna Allgemeine Krankenhaus in October of that year.

Which is when the rumours started...

Although there is some evidence that Salieri had somehow injured his throat before being taken to hospital, the rumours suggested far more. Old allegations that Mozart had made against Salieri accusing him of sabotaging his career emerged.The story that Salieri had confessed to poisoning Mozart and cut his throat out of remorse became the talk of Vienna. It probably didn't help that Mozart's widow Constanze did nothing to put the rumours down (despite the help that Salieri had given to her son in launching his musical career). The idea that Mozart had been poisoned had never really died down and the circumstances of Salieri's illness made him a perfect suspect. If there's any mercy, it's that Salieri was probably too ill to even be aware of the allegations made against him (which also made it impossible for him to defend himself).

While his friends and colleagues rallied to his defense, the rumour-mongers were hard at work. At an 1824 performance in Vienna, a leaflet was distributed to the members of the audience containing a poem which pictured Salieri as Mozart’s rival “standing by his side with the poisoned cup.” Letters on the subject were written back and forth and Mozart's own physician was pressed to provide details of the composer's final illness to rule out the possibility of poisoning (since Mozart's grave was lost, an autopsy would have been out of the question even for nineteenth century medicine).

Even after Salieri finally died on May 7, 1825, the accusations continued. To try settling the rumour that Salieri had confessed to the murder, his physician Joseph Rohrig and the two attendants who had been with him continually during his illness signed sworn affidavits that no confession had been made in their hearing. Although the accusations died down, a juicy rumour isn't so easily suppressed.

In 1831, Alexander Pushkin published his play Mozart and Salieri which featured a jealous Salieri poisoning Mozart out of envy (it later became an opera). The poisoning rumour seemed largely forgotten until the Peter Shaeffer play and the movie version of it brought it back to public attention.  Ironically, the publicity from the poison rumour has also sparked a renewed interest in Salieri's music. Many of his operas have been released on DVDs and there's even been a push by opera companies around to feature some of his works as part of their regular season.

If Salieri does manage a comeback, it may represent an intriguing example of the lasting power of rumour. Even after centuries, a good story can still linger, especially when Hollywood is involved.


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