“One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities.” – Abraham Maslow

I learned something recently, and that was I shared a birthday with Antonio Salieri. Most know this name as the supposed “rival” to Mozart in Vienna, and of course from the movie Amadeus which suggests he was a jealous rival composer to the heroic and uber-talented Mozart.

Now, I will tell you unequivocally that Mozart is my favorite composer, so don’t take my comments in this post as critical of Wolfgang. However, after some time as a student of music history, hearing from professors and others on the subject, reading Mozarts letters, and the surprising small amount written on Salieri, I am starting to think we may have had it backwards.

Mozart seems much more perturbed and bothered by Salieri (and other Italian composers at the time) than Salieri felt about Mozart. Witness this quote from a letter to Leopold from Wolfgang.

“These Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face. Enough—we know them!” – Mozart

Wolfgang was complaining that Italians got more operas produced than his own German ones. This gives us much more evidence of consternation on Mozart’s part than Salieri’s. In fact, Salieri was already quite a celebrity as a composer, especially of Italian opera both before and after Mozart came to Vienna. Mozart also complains that Salieri was the local favorite saying, “the only one who counts in [the Emperor’s] eyes is Salieri”.

As current music listeners, and with the benefit of time, we are able to look back and weigh the output of each composer. I’d say most of us would choose Mozart’s amazing repertoire. But at the time, he was certainly not the only game in town.

“From a pretty wide examination of the annual reports of the principal German theaters of those days, I draw the conclusion that in the original Italian or in German translations, the more important works of Salieri were far more popular and much oftener given than those of Mozart, while the Grotta di Trofonio was at least as much performed as Mozart’s EntführungIn other words, with the exception of the Entführung, Mozart’s operas were less to the taste of the monarch and the public in Vienna than those of Salieri, and it was the same way all through Germany. Whatever the appreciative few may have thought of The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni, to the general operatic public Salieri was certainly the greatest of then living composers!” – Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Salieri: Rival of Mozart

Why This Matters

We all have to deal with people who we may feel are rivals to our musical success. We could be like Mozart, whose output was heralded is his own time and has become legendary through the centuries. Or we are like Salieri, who was a well-respected composer in his time, teacher of such greats as Schubert, Liszt, and Beethoven, and (much to Mozart’s chagrin) the big cheese locally (Kapellmeister).

In the movie Amadeus, Salieri is portrayed as a much less talented and envious man. It’s easy to see someone we work with who is more talented than we ever will be, and we want to hate them. But their talent is so beautiful that all we can hope for is to be close to them and work with them.

“Rivalry” or not, there are also plenty of letters of Mozart’s that talk of supporting Salieri, as well as examples of Salieri using Mozart pieces at functions instead of his own.

The truth is that rivals can serve to make us better at what we do. They can challenge us and spurn us towards greater works than we would have done without them.

So when you meet someone better than you, maybe better than you ever could be, relax and know your place. There’s no use in bitterness in such a short life, especially when we have such a beautiful job in music to do.

Have a great week!


Eric Copeland is not a real musicologist but plays one on the Internet. He actually is a busy producer and is currently preparing to work on his masters in music with a focus in Musicology. For more on Eric, go to http://www.EricCopelandMusic.com

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