When Pushkin Spread the Rumor That Mozart Was Poisoned by His Rival

How the rumor that Salieri poisoned Mozart led to a revival of the forgotten composer’s work

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Mozart, left, and Salieri.
Mozart, left, and Salieri.Credit:

On December 5, 1791 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed away at the age of 35. He left behind a large number of brilliant and moving works, and a legendabout a genius who came before his time and never received proper recognition for his talent. The usual example cited as proof is Antonio Salieri, who was far less innovative, brilliant and moving, but enjoyed the patronage of the Austrian emperors and received all the high-ranking positions that Mozart was denied.

Mozart himself tended to blame his troubles on the “accursed Italians” who “took over the industry,” and after his death, especially with the rise of German nationalism, that version was widely accepted.

Salieri, the most exalted and distinguished of those Italians, who did in fact obtain the positions, opera contracts and appreciation that Mozart longed for so much, was seen by German nationalists as the epitome of evil. From there it was a short step to accusing him of poisoning the young genius out of burning envy of his talent, and in order to prevent German music from flourishing.

It didn’t help that despite the competition between them, the two maintained proper and sometimes even very friendly relations. It made no difference that the expressions of jealousy came from the less successful Mozart, and ended the moment his situation began to improve (in the last years of his life). The two men actually admired one another – Mozart chose Salieri as his son Franz’s music teacher, while Salieri advised Mozart on musical matters, promoted his works in the Viennese royal court, and even conducted quite a number of them. The two even composed a work together, the cantata “Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia” (For the Recovered Health of Ophelia).

The German nationalists ignored all of that, as well as the fact that Salieri, who lived in Vienna for almost 60 years, was actually a prominent representative of the German school. Empress Maria Theresa included him among the German composers, whom she liked less than the Italians. They also ignored the fact that the man nurtured a series of famous German students, including Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and others.

The rumor that Mozart was poisoned by Salieri began to take off immediately after Mozart’s death in 1791, but for decades it was seen as no more than unfounded babble. It should be noted that Salieri was really not the first artist to be accused of poisoning. Pierre Beaumarchais, whose works were used by both Mozart and Salieri as librettos for their operas, was suspected of poisoning his wealthy wives, although this French polymath, who was involved in everything from poetry to espionage and organizing revolutions, really was a far more suspicious figure than the “square” Salieri.

It was actually Salieri’s “squareness” that led him to stop engaging in independent composition the moment he felt that musical fashion had changed; now in demand were works in a tempestuous Romantic spirit, which this classical composer didn’t feel himself capable of faking. During the final years of his life he refrained to a large extent from composing and concentrated on his administrative jobs and private lessons, and so his music sank into oblivion, while Mozart’s only became increasingly famous and admired.

Echo of a true story

During the last year and a half of his life Salieri suffered from dementia, dying slowly in amental hospital. Half a year before his death on May 7, 1825, the report that he had confessed to poisoning Mozart during an attack of dementia was published in the Berlin weekly Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, and was met by a vehement protest by Salieri’s Viennese acquaintances.

Pushkin.Credit: Tretyakov Gallery

This rumor would have remained confined to the community of German nationalist musicians had the report not been translated into French and published in the Journal des Debats Politiques et Litteraires, one of whose devout readers was the Russian poetic genius Alexander Sergeyevich Push-kin, who used the item as the basis of “Mozart and Salieri,” one of his four verse dramas from “Little Tragedies.” Although a few issues later, the journal published a denial of the report, Pushkin didn’t read it, or perhaps ignored it, and that’s how we got another brilliant but totally unfounded work.

The power of Pushkin’s talent was so great that his little play was considered by many to be at least an echo of a true story, despite the repeated denials by many historians and biographers. Pushkin’s version gained great momentum in the West when in 1897 it became an opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

During the 20th century Pushkin’s story and Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera served as the direct inspiration for the play “Amadeus” by the British playwright Peter Shaffer. It was adapted in turn into a cinematic hit by Milos Forman, and received eight Academy Awards in 1985, along with dozens of other prizes.

It was actually the film’s success that caused Salieri’s musical revival after almost 200 years of oblivion; protests by historical purists against Forman’s version aroused renewed interest in his work. Salieri’s music is once again being sold, his operas are being staged, scholars are writing papers about him, an annual opera festival was established in his name in his hometown of Legnago near Verona. Even Hollywood gave him its own seal of approval, and melodies by Salieri can be heard even in box-office hits such as “Iron Man.” One enjoyable, inaccurate and successful film succeeded where generations of defenders had failed.