The exaggerated Mozart-Salieri feud, and the colour line in classical music

The great anti racist scholar and activist, the African American W E. B Du Bois, greatly admired the music of antisemite and pan-German racist, Richard Wagner. This may seem like an incongruous picture – Du Bois, noted for his anti racism work, respected the music of a white nationalist.

We will return to the issue of the colour line in classical music later. The Radetzky march, Johann Strauss from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mention of the Austria-Hungary empire makes us consider one of the most famous (infamous) musicians from that confederation – Antonio Salieri. Born in Italy, Salieri rose through the ranks to become Kapellmeister – the top musician in the land – at the court of Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna.

Let’s address an ongoing urban legend – did Salieri, driven by jealousy and professional resentment, poison Mozart? No. This legend was given an enormous boost by the 1984 film Amadeus, based on the 1979 play of the same name. Were Mozart and Salieri rivals? Yes. But Salieri did not murder Mozart by way of poisoning or overwork.

If Salieri, as the most powerful musician in the Hapsburg court, wanted to get rid of Mozart, he could very easily have had Mozart fired. This would have abruptly ended Mozart’s musical career. Salieri was director of Italian opera, court composer and conductor. While Salieri and Mozart were rivals, they also cooperated on numerous projects. So they were ‘frenemies’, to use a modern colloquialism.

Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg court, was a place of self-interested factions, rivalries and seething intrigues. Various groupings competed for jobs and the attention of the royal court. The Italians, such as Salieri, were targets of whispering campaigns by the loyal Austrian-Germans, whose musical traditions were being challenged by an emerging Italian nation.

Mozart himself, in numerous private letters to his father, bitterly complained that the Italians at court were sabotaging his career and undermining his chances of promotion. No doubt Mozart was seeking a scapegoat to blame for his career setbacks. Nevertheless, in this atmosphere of petty jealousies and professional rivalries, gossip was bound to circulate – an early example of swirling misinformation.

In 1830, five years after Salieri’s death, Alexander Puskhkin wrote a play, turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov decades later, presented a jealous Salieri resentful of the success of the upstart Mozart. From there, the story took hold and became an urban legend. In fact, when Mozart passed away in 1791, a small group of mourners gathered to say their final goodbyes. One of those mourners was Antonio Salieri.

While it is important to restore Salieri’s reputation, and remove the portrayal of him as a resentful loser, there is a more important issue to address – the unalloyed whiteness of what is considered classical music. It is perfectly okay to enjoy the work of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner and Johan Strauss. As we noted above, the antiracist activist W E B Du Bois enjoyed classical music.

As the European nations set out on colonising other nations, they brought with them their musical canon – a series of sacralised musical bodies of work elevated into a gold standard. However, they did not acknowledge, whether intentionally or not, another important fact; the Africans brought to the new world through the transatlantic slave trade also brought with them their own musicality, separate and distinct from white European standards.

Added to that was a further twist – the contribution of immigrants to the musical tradition in the United States. As the US constructed its own racial pyramid, the contributions of black and indigenous musicians was studiously excluded. When Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904), noted Czech composer, traveled to the US, he famously remarked that the future of music lay with African American composers and performers. He was both right and wrong.

His prophecy came to pass, in that black Americans contributed to jazz, hip hop, soul as well as classical music; but he wrongly underestimated the depth of racial hostility to the nonwhite population, even among the classical music world. American classical music orchestras and performers were nearly exclusively white. German immigrants, leftists and liberals fleeing Germany after the suppression of the 1848 revolutions, were a foundational element for the Boston and New York Philharmonic orchestras. Black musicians were present in American life, but excluded from the classical music canon.

Am I suggesting that everyone who listens to Beethoven or Brahms is a vicious racist? No, of course not. Should the entirety of the German-European canon of classical music be thrown out? No, of course not. The curriculum of classical music should be diversified and widened to include the hitherto ignored black and nonwhite composers. Let’s take advice from George E Lewis in the New York Times – lift the cone of silence surrounding black composers and give them their due.

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