A musical patchwork for the Venetian audience

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Claude Monet painted the Doge Palace in Venice in 1908.

Venice and Vienna – two focal points of European culture. Venice and Vienna – two towns that play a major role in the life of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri, the famous counterpart of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna. Who would write the better operas? The established master from Venice or the ambitious young man from Salzburg? Who would win and keep the favour of the Emperor? Whose name will last and whose name will be forgotten? One is tempted to say that Mozart gained the upper hand, but that would not be true. Salieri has precisely not been forgotten, because Mozart, his most fierce competitor, became so popular.

On the road to Vienna

But Salieri deserves our attention for his own achievements. Before Mozart rose to fame, Salieri was the most prominent composer of operas at the court of Joseph II. And he was brilliant. Salieri was born in  the Veneto region and studied violin and keyboard with his brother Francesco and with a local organist. When his parents died, he was taken to Venice to continue his musical education. The Viennese composer Florian Gassmann, overseeing the production of one of his operas in Venice, noticed Salieri’s talent and ambition and took him back to Vienna with him. Under Gassmann’s direction he began an intensive programme of musical training. Venice was the starting point of Salieri’s career, Vienna the culmination point.

In 1778/79, after he had composed a number of operas for the Habsburg court, he put together a symphonic work from previously written operas. The Symphony in D major “La Veneziana” is a patchwork with one movement being taken from the opera “La Scuola de’ Gelosi” (The School of Jealousy) that made Salieri’s international fame, and the other two being taken from the opera “La Partenza Inaspettata” (The Unexpected Departure).

A sabbatical in Italy

The composer wrote both operas and the symphony during a short stay in Italy, when Joseph II had no immediate use for Salieri. Joseph II reorganized the court theatres at the time; the emphasis shifted to spoken drama and operas in German, which left Salieri with little business opportunities. Salieri’s attention turned to Italy. He toured the country intensively, at the same time he composed five operas for theatres in Milan, Venice and Rome. “La Scuola de’ Gelosi”, an opera buffa* in two acts written for a Venetian audience, was to become his most famous work.

“La Veneziana” lasts only some ten minutes, actually it is a symphony for a chamber orchestra. But that makes it interesting. A patchwork it is, but not something that Salieri clumsily cobbled together, oh no. If you listen to the recording by the German ensemble Lukas-Consort you will find well-developed harmonic lines, echoing the Baroque era and foreshadowing the Vienna classical era. And as far as the themes of the symphony are concerned – listen to Mozart’s “La Nozze de Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro) and you will know where Mozart got his ideas from.

© Charles Thibo

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