Everything you ever wanted to know about Mozart and Salieri

Nadezhda Mandlestam (tr. McLean), Mozart and Salieri, Vintage, 1994.

Alexander Pushkin, tr. Anderson, “Mozart and Salieri” in The Little Tragedies, Yale, 2000.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri,

Salieri / Steffan: Concertos for Fortepiano – Andeas Staier / Concerto Köln

 Peter Shaffer / Milos Forman, Amadeus.

Poe not an alcoholic.

Nietzsche not syphilitic.

“Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin”.

Albert I. Borowitz, “Salieri and the ‘Murder’ of Mozart.”  The Musical Quarterly 59.2 (1973), pp. 268-79.

The Mozart and Salieri legend reached its highest point in the early 20th century, when Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam developed a metaphysics of poetry holding that for poetry to be great, the “Mozart principle” and the “Salieri principle” must both be satisfied. The “Mozart principle” (also called “the impulse” or “the work of the poet”) is what we would call “inspiration”, whereas the Salieri principle, “the work of the artist”,  was craft and laborious effort. Since Akhmatova and Mandelstam gave poetry an implausibly high ontological status, what they did was to designate fundamental aspects of the structure of the universe with the names of these two musicians, and while there may have been some (e.g. Theodor Adorno) who would have felt this justified in the case of Mozart,  giving that degree of importance to Salieri seems excessive.   Whatever happened between Mozart and Salieri, if anything did, was at best just a vicious instance of Holy Roman court intrigue, whereas at worst nothing happened at all and the story was nothing but a lying slander. These are not the sorts of things we generally want to put into our metaphysical  systems.

Akhmatova and Mandelstam’s Mozart / Salieri antithesis can be traced back to Pushkin’s “little tragedy” Mozart and Salieri. Akhmatova claimed that Mozart in that play represented Pushkin’s Polish friend Adam Mickiewicz, who improvised poetry with great ease, and that Salieri represented Pushkin himself, who wrote slowly and painfully (as Akhmatova was able to show on the evidence of Pushkin’s drafts):

Akhmatova maintained that Mozart personified Mickiewicz with his spontaneity  and that Pushkin identified himself and his work with Salieri. I was very much amazed by this idea: it had always seemed to me that precisely in Mozart I had recognized Pushkin – carefree, idle, but such a genius that everything comes to him easily and simply…. Due to academic ignorance we think that “inspired” poetry does not demand the slightest labor.

Mandelstam, p. 15

 Mandelstam picked up the idea and ran with it:

In his articles from the year 1922 Mandelstam twice repudiated Mozart and extolled Salieri…..Mozart, who is led by impulses, is a blind man; Salieri, the intellectual principle, is a leader

Mandelstam, pp. 18 and 89.

However, he later qualified his position:

In every poet there is both a Mozart and a Salieri

(Mandelstam, p.18)

Akhmatova dropped the theory of Pushkin’s Salierianism. But by then Salieri had become one of the fundamental metaphysical principles of creation. It was Akhmatova who had named these two principles, about which  Nadezhka Mandelstam is skeptical:

 Dostoevsky distinguished two stages in the creation of the thing – the work of a poet and the work of an artist. Was there in such a division and exact understanding of the essence of the work of the artist? Most likely this was simply still another conventional division of the two principles of creative work. In Akhmatova’s conversation these two principles were called “Mozart” and “ Salieri”, although in fact the “little tragedy” provides no basis for such a generalization.

Mandelstam, pp. 83-4

Before going to Akhmatova and Mandelstam’s source in Pushkin, it’s worth taking a quick look at Rimsky-Korsakoff’s opera Mozart and Salieri, the libretto of which was, almost word-for-word, Pushkin’s play. It has also been suggested that Rimsky-Korsakoff identified himself with Salieri and his friend Musorgsky with Mozart. The fit here is much better than with Mickiewicz and Pushkin. Like Pushkin’s Mozart, Musorgsky was dissolute, and like Mickiewicz, he was famous for his improvisations. Like Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakoff was a schooled musician who followed the rules and worked steadily, and like Pushkin’s Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakoff suspected that his irregular, wasted, self-taught friend was the greater artist —  which turned out to be true. (Even the form of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Mozart and Salieri can be thought of as Musorgskyian. The first composer to score a written text exactly rather than adapting it for musical purposes was the minor Russian composer Dargomizhky in his opera The Stone Guest (from Puskin’s “little tragedy” version of the Don Juan story), but the second composer to do this was his disciple Musorgsky. With Ravel and others this innovation became influential).

In Pushkin’s play, Salieri speaks of his laborious dedication to craft,  and this is one of the principles  with which Mandelstam identified himself, contrasting himself to some of his contemporaries (for example Bryusov, named on p. 50):

Early I refused all idle amusements;

To know anything other than music

Was hateful to me.  Stubbornly and proudly

I denied all else and gave myself up

To music alone. The first steps were hard

And the first path was tedious. I overcame

My early difficulties. I gave craft

Its place as the foundation of my art; I made myself a craftsman; my fingers

Acquired obedient, cold dexterity

And my ear, accuracy. I killed sounds,

Dissected music like a corpse. I put harmony

To the test of algebra. Only after that,

Experienced in my studies, did I dare

Allow myself the luxury of creative dreams.

 Pushkin, p. 56, lines 8-24

Salieri also speaks of the dignity of the artist, and I suspect that Mandelstam has this in mind too:

Where is rightness, when the sacred gift,

Immortal genius, comes not as a reward

For ardent love and self-renunciation,

Labor, zeal, diligence and prayers –

But bestows its radiant halo on a madman

Who idly strolls through life. Oh, Mozart, Mozart!

Pushkin, p. 57, lines 116-26

Salieri’s attitude toward Mozart has theological overtones. The lines above seem to echo the debate about forgiveness and faith versus works, with Mozart the prodigal son who is saved despite his flaws and Salieri the resentful older brother. In the following passage, Salieri seems to be speaking as a representative of the Church of Art, a corporate entity which is greater than any individual artist, even the greatest among them:

No! I cannot set myself against

My destiny – I am the one who’s been chosen

To stop him – or else we all will perish,

All of us, priests and servitors of music,

Not only I with my empty glory…

What is the use if Mozart lives

And even achieves still greater heights?

What he does – will it elevate Art? No,

It will fall again when he has vanished;

No heir of his will remain among us.

Pushkin, p. 60, lines 116-126.

Now we must ask ourselves: did Salieri actually poison Mozart? Borowitz’s article covers the topic quite well, and I will summarize it:

1. The medical evidence is completely inconclusive. The medicine of the time was crude, there was no autopsy, and cliodiagnostics is famous for its wild inaccuracy. (Or at least it should be. Poe: not an alcoholic. Nietzsche: not syphilitic).

2. During that period, poisoning was a fairly common murder method. Rumors about poisonings were rife (not just about Mozart), and actual poisonings were not rare. At that time the Austro-Hungarian Empire remained medieval and even claimed still to be the Holy Roman Empire.

3. Salieri was a rival of Mozart and often did him harm, though they were socially friendly. Salieri publicly admired Mozart’s music, though he could have just been covering his tracks. On the other hand, one rumor that influenced Pushkin has been shown to have been false.

4. It is well-attested that in the months before his death Mozart did believe that he was being poisoned. The Mozart family talked about the rumors for decades, without seeming to come to any conclusion about them. (After Mozart’s death, Salieri taught Mozart’s son). Beethoven, a friend and admirer of both men, seems not to have believed the rumors, but others did.

5.  The rumors became especially loud after 1823, 31 years after Mozart’s death, apparently in connection with some court intrigue of that time. (These would have been ones that inspired Pushkin’s play). As time went on, they became more and more lurid and anti-Semitic, and eventually they were picked up by Nazis.

6. Salieri died in a state of dementia after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. On his deathbed he denied that he poisoned Mozart at least once. The report that he confessed on his deathbed is highly unreliable.

We are left with the peculiarly unsatisfactory conclusion that these rumors cannot be dismissed, but are impossible to prove or disprove, and that this situation which seems highly unlikely ever to change. We are left with the original question: how could a scandal of this type ever give its name to a deep metaphysical principle?

To begin with, Akhmatova and Mandelstam’s Salieri and Mozart are entirely based on Pushkin. Pushkin seems to have taken the story at face value, but it seems unlikely that he intended for his play to be taken as serious history. Akhmatova’s theory that Mozart represents Mickiewicz is on the whole doubtful. It may be that the contrast between hard-working Salieri and fast-working Mozart was based on the Pushkin / Mickiewicz contrast, but Salieri’s criticism of Mozart’s frivolity also could have been (and was) applied to Pushkin (by Bestuzhev and Zhukovsky).  However, Salieri’s expressed feelings about the dignity of art were shared by Mandelstam (and Akhmatova).

You also have to wonder whether Mandelstam was teasing or being perverse. Nadezhka Mandelstam says (p. 9) that Mandelstam was a hopeless debater… It was easy to draw him into a debate about general philosophical problems. She also reports (p. 13) that Akhmatova, “knowing how difficult it was to get anything sensible out of him [Mandelstam]” would ask questions of Nadezhka, rather than her husband, whenever she wanted to find out what Mandelstam really thought about anything.

By contrast, if you believe that Mandelstam was serious, that makes Mandelstam seem to be the inhabitant of in a hothouse, funhouse-mirror world where the compass points east and west. He gets everything wrong, and one wonders how he could have come up with the Mozart-Salieri principle if he had ever listened to either composer. Mandelstam’s Mozart was a free-wheeling, expressive romantic who composes on impulse, but Mozart’s music is formally more demanding than Salieri’s.  Mozart just worked faster, possibly  because he started his training at an earlier age and as a result was the more masterful craftsman, but maybe just because he had the habit of working things out in his head before writing them down. As for the dignity of the artist, Mozart was hardly the clown the Salieri in the play accused him of being, and even seems possible that Salieri’s accusations against Mozart in the play stand in for similar accusations made against Pushkin.

Mandelstam’s metaphysical elevation of Pushkin’s two characters is all the stranger because real models for Mandelstam’s models did exist, but Mandelstam got all the names wrong. In the role of the hard-working, serious-minded, angsty composer who works slowly and does not rely on inspiration, Beethoven would have been a far better choice than the lightweight Salieri. Beethoven’s worksheets were famously messy, and his themes would go through many different versions before one was finally regarded as acceptable.

Similarly, when Mandelstam writes “Shame on you, French Romantics, wretched incroyables in red vests” (p. 86), the “red vest” stands for Theophile Gautier and his famous red garment (whatever it was) at the premiere of Hugo’s play Hernani in 1830. But it was Gautier who taught French poetry that poetry should be difficult:

Oui, l’œuvre sort plus belle
D’une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.


On that famous night it was Victorr Hugo himself whom Mandelstam should have targetted: Hugo was a poetry machine who literally produced poetry in his sleep.

Since Mandelstam (who I am unable to read), has been hailed as the greatest poet of the 20th century, it seems best to conclude that he wasn’t an idiot, and that the names he chose for his metaphysical principles were just perverse. And in opinion, metaphysical perversity is a very good thing.



Most people know about Mozart and Salieri, if at all, through the crappy 1984  movie Milos Forman made from Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (and Falco’s even crappier techno song). Shaffer and Forman let people think that they were being bold and transgressive and postmodern and hip, when they were actually just ripping off one of the classics of Russian literature.

I have nothing against frank portraits of famous people, and if  Mozart’s flirtatious offer to shit in his lovely cousin’s mouth had been part of Shaffer and Forman’s movie, no one would have been more delighted than me. This would have helped broaden the minds of puritanical Americans, for whom this form of sophisticated Viennese banter seems “strange” or “gross”. But copraphagy is the last great taboo, and they left that out. They just did a pop-psych thing showing him to be the most annoying asshole in the universe, which he was not.



Just to complete the circle: Pushkin’s friend Mickiewicz was a Polish nationalist who died in the Ottoman Empire, where many Polish nationalists went so that they could fight against Russia. (There was a Polish-speaking village in Turkey up until fairly recently). One of the leaders of these nationalists was Michał Czajkowski, also a poet, who converted to Islam and took the name Sadyk Pasha. Czajkowski is just the Polish spelling of Tchaikovsky (also spelled Tschaikowski, Čajkovskij, Ciajkovskij, Chaikovski, Tsjaikovski, Tjajkovskij, Tchaikovski, Chaikovsky, Chaykovsky, Chaikovskiy, Chaykovskiy, Chaikovskii, Čajkovskij, and Čajkovski)

“Sadyk Pasha” was Musorgsky’s malicious nickname for the composer Tchaikovsky, the man who invented lite classical.  Musorgsky’s group of nationalist composers was feuding with the more scholastic Russian Music Society, to which Tchaikovsky belonged, calling them “the Germans” because they promoted German music. (Many were actually Jews, but before a certain point in history Jews could easily be stereotyped as Germans). The only other members of the RMS I can find are Anton Rubinstein, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Nikolai Zaremba, all of whom are more or less forgotten today, whereas the mostly self-taught nationalist musicians Musorgsky, Borodin, and Balakirev (but not Cui) are still played. (Rimsky-Korsakoff started off with the nationalists but ended up a German).

I have wondered whether Mandelstam’s initial willingness to misrepresent Mozart as a bad guy might have been a hangover of the Russian composers’ nationalistic anti-German feeling, but it seems more likely that he would have sided with the formalist Germans of the Russian Musical Society.

Published in: on May 20, 2012 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

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