Source of the Salieri/Mozart myth

June 21, 2006

Mozart.JPG

Alexander Pushkin: Tragedies petites. “Mozart and Salieri”
Xylography by V.A. Favorsky.

When people these days hear the name “Salieri” they conjure up the role played by F. Murray Abraham in AMADEUS whose character was envious of this brat who was touched by the hand of God. One of the short plays that I’m considering setting by Thornton Wilder is called MOZART AND THE GREY STEWARD (ca. 1927). I was surprised to find a very similar story in Peter Shaffer’s AMADEUS’s. I gasped “copyright infringement!” took a deep breath, deciding I should look into it.

It turns out that Alexander Pushkin wrote “Mozart and Salieri” in 1831 and Rimsky Korsakov made it into an opera in 1898. The Thornton Wilder play is only five pages long. My guess is that they both stem from the Pushkin original.

I’ll chat with Messrs. Wilder and McClatchy as I’m hot to get going.

Check this out, here is the end of MOZART AND SALIERI, Scene I by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Alan Shaw:

Salieri

Mind you, I’ll be waiting for you.
No, now I can resist my fate no longer.
I have been chosen: I must be the one
To stop him. Otherwise we all will perish,
All of us priests and ministers of music,
Not only I with my dull-ringing fame.
What use is it if Mozart stays alive
And reaches even newer summits yet?
Will he uplift the art by doing so?
No; it will sink again when he is gone;
He leaves us no successor. What’s the use
In him? He brings us, like a cherub, certain
Songs of paradise, and afterwards,
When he has roused in us, us children of
The dust, a wingless longing…flies away!
So fly away! The sooner you do, the better.

Here’s poison; it’s Isora’s final gift.
For eighteen years I’ve carried it with me,
And often in that time my life would seem
A wound not to be borne. I’d often share
A table with some careless enemy,
And never to the whisper of temptation
Did I yield, although I am no coward,
Although I feel an insult deeply and
Care little for my life. No, I held back.
When thirst for death tormented me, I thought:
Why should I die? It could be life will bring
Some sudden gifts to me, it could be too,
I will be visited by rapture, by
The night of the creator, inspiration.
It could be some new Haydn will create
Great things, and I will take delight in him.
While I was feasting with my hated guest,
I’d think: it could be I will find a worse
Enemy yet, and that a bitterer
Insult will blast me from a prouder height.
Then you will not be lost, Isora’s gift.
And I was right! At last I have found both:
I’ve found my enemy, and a new Haydn
Has made me drink deliciously of rapture!
And now — it’s time. Most cherished gift of love,
Tonight you pass into the cup of friendship.

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