Monday, May 16, 2016

Can this "libretto" prove Salieri killed Mozart?

No. It can't. That's ridiculous. Yet Jess Staufenberg of The Independent wants us to think it can.

Antonio Salieri is now best known for something he didn't do: killing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The 1984 movie Amadeus is most responsible for the persistence of this myth into the twenty-first century (and it is a fantastic movie!), but the idea predates the Oscar-winning film by over 150 years. The movie is an adaptation of a Tony Award-winning play from 1979 by Peter Shaffer, which itself was based on Alexander Pushkin's play Mozart and Salieri from 1830, which was based on rumors that circulated after Mozart's death that were proven false.

The story resonates with viewers because it touches on one of our most powerful emotions, jealousy. We all know a Mozart--someone who is just better than you at something without even trying. No matter how diligently you work, someone will always be able to beat you, and it's particularly infuriating if they mock your efforts in the process. It's a common human experience projected onto famous historical figures, which is often a recipe for successful entertainment. It's historically false, but it's really good fan fiction.

So, when a Czech museum finds a collaborative composition by Mozart and Salieri that has been lost for two centuries, the Amadeus angle is the obvious route to generate page views. Frankly, if you don't at least mention the rivalry, your reader will be distracted by the thought, "Wait, didn't Salieri kill Mozart or something?" It'd be irresponsible not to mention it.

Now, on to the offending article: There are early indications that Staufenberg doesn't know much about this topic. She refers to the composition as a "libretto," which is inaccurate--a libretto is the text of a work of vocal music, whether it's a cantata (as is the case here), opera, or other type of work. This libretto is by Lorenzo da Ponte, which the article does mention later, but the piece as a whole, with music by Mozart and Salieri, cannot be called a "libretto."

But my quibble over terminology is pedantic compared to the error later in the article:
The discovery of a co-authored composition would appear to support the long-since dismissed theory that Salieri might have played a role in Mozart's death.
...What? That doesn't logically follow at all! Two composers working in the same city and moving among the same circles collaborated on a work, therefore one might have killed the other after all? How does that work?

Staufenberg's source for this article is a story that ran in Austria's The Local. This article contains all the information of Staufenberg's (which is to say, very little), and by comparing the two you can see how Staufenberg padded the article in The Independent. You can even see how the "libretto" error crept in.

Salieri didn't kill Mozart. We know he didn't. It's fiction. Don't pretend that it maybe could have actually happened in an article purporting to be factual, even if you have a deadline and you're under your required word count.

(To be fair to The Independent, two days later they ran another article on this story, and it quotes Ulrich Leisinger from the Mozart Institute of Salzburg saying unequivocally, "Salieri did not poison Mozart." That is a much more responsible way of reporting news about these composers!)

*I'm not entirely certain of Jess Staufenberg's gender, and I will correct this post as necessary.

Many thanks to Jonathan Bellman for bringing this article to my attention!

If you come across some inaccurate or clichéd writing about classical music, please send it to me at! Tell me what you take issue with, and let me know whether you'd like me to mention you if I use your submission in a post.

"Long-lost Mozart score discovered tucked away in Czech museum" by Jess Staufenberg in The Independent

"Long-lost Mozart score found in Prague" in The Local

"Mozart and Salieri 'lost' piece played for first time since being rediscovered" by Samuel Osbourne in The Independent


  1. [This is Pat.] The fact that thy worked together on the music suggests that they were friendly on some level. Perhaps they realized that their musical styles could mesh at some point. Maybe it was a sharing of style between the two. Any of these things runs counter to the murder idea.

    1. I wouldn't go so far as to say "friendly," but at least it shows that they don't fly into a murderous rage at the mere mention of each other's name. ;-)

  2. Thank you for this excellent post. Many years down the road, I still think one of the most perceptive and useful critiques of this entire fanciful myth is Paul Henry Lang's "Salvaging Salieri (and Mozart) after _Amadeus_," Opus 1, no. 6 (1985): 18-21. And of course the literature debunking and explaining the persistence of the myth is voluminous, but not nearly so much so as the literature perpetuating it. Good stories die hard, and storytellers' work sells better if its sensational than it would if it were true.