This is the story of one unique night on which rivals Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri truly went head-to-head, performing newly-composed, short operas back-to-back, at the request of Emperor Joseph himself.

The rivalry between Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Mozart is well known, being the subject of Alexander Pushkin’s play, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, and most famously today, Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus. All these incarnations of the story portray the mediocre Italian composer consumed with jealousy, resenting the obvious genius of Mozart, and in the Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov versions, poisoning his rival—in the Shaffer version, tormenting unto death the “miracle that God let be born in Salzburg.”

One comes away from these fanciful interpretations with the impression that Mozart always outshone Salieri as they vied for popularity in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II. Amadeus, however, hints that this was not the case by depicting a scene in which Salieri premiers his opera Axur, Re d’Ormus, winning the praise of their mutual patron. “It is the best opera yet written,” the emperor declares in the film. It is indeed true that Axur was a hit with Viennese, far surpassing in popularity Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which premiered in the city four months later.

There was one unique night, however—February 7, 1786—on which Mozart and Salieri truly went head-to-head. Emperor Joseph challenged both to write a short opera on a self-referential subject—the personality conflicts in the behind-the-scenes operations of a typical, contemporary opera company. The operas were to be premiered on the same night in the same place, the orangery of the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace, in back-to-back performances. There were stages erected in the front and back of the orangery, with the audience sitting on chairs in the center, so that the guests could watch the first performance on one stage, then turn their chairs around and enjoy the second opera on the other.

Emperor Joseph had designed the unique evening to impress the visiting Governor-General of the Netherlands. The local nobility was also invited. The German-speaking sovereign wished to show off his twin opera troupes, one Italian and the other German, and probably intended the night to be a nationalistic celebration of the singspiel, the “sung play” that was a uniquely German creation and a form in which Mozart had already achieved great success in the emperor’s court, with his Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) of five years earlier. For this night in the orangery, Mozart composed a one-act singspiel, Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), which told the story of two feuding prima donnas competing for the lead in an opera who are only placated when the impresario splits the role into two parts.

Salieri, meanwhile, composed an Italian opera, Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words), whose humor is based on the inversion of the typical method of composition of an opera. In Salieri’s work, the composer (the “Maestro”) writes the music first and then enlists a librettist (the “Poet”) to come up with words that fit the notes. The librettist is outraged and flummoxed at what he perceives to be a slight to his traditional preeminence in the collaboration. Like Mozart, Salieri’s work also features an overbearing diva whose demands irritate the rest of the company. As in Der Schauspieldirektor also, the work ends happily, with the singers celebrating the glories of music.

Prima la musica, poi le parole was performed first on that February evening and met with an enthusiastic reception. The emperor must have hoped that Mozart’s singspiel, by its placement as the latter performance, would dramatically best the Italian opera in the audience’s estimation and carry the day. Alas, it was not to be. Already handicapped by an inferior librettist, Mozart’s work opened with a tedious thirty minutes of spoken dialogue (half the length of the entire work), which must have seemed like an interminable anticlimax to the lively five-minute overture to the piece. The Viennese audience was more accustomed to Italian opera, with its alteration of aria and ensemble with recitative (sung speech). Salieri wisely kept to this formula, keeping the recitatives relatively brief, the music lively, and the humor more obvious. It was what the theater-goers expected, and they lapped it up.

Today, Salieri’s one-hour opera is nearly forgotten, like most of his music. Though possessing some musical interest and worth a hearing, it survives at all only because of the composer’s association with Mozart, and in particular because of the unique circumstances of its debut as a double-feature alongside Der Schauspieldirektor. Little did Salieri suspect then that, despite his victory that evening, the judgment of history would decide otherwise, both in terms of the relative merits of the two pieces and on the comparative geniuses of the two composers. “Thirty-two years of torture,” Peter Shaffer’s aged Salieri tells a priest who has come to hear his confession. “Thirty-two years of slowly watching myself become extinct. My music growing fainter, all the time fainter till no one plays it at all, and his. . . .”

Mozart, Der Schauspieldirektor:

Salieri: Prima la musica, poi le parole

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The featured image, “Mozart and Salieri” (1884) was drawn by Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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