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Salieri on Mozart

More wine, Signore… Should I say mein Herr?
I know! French cognac. Spirits help me share
Dark thoughts. Now listen. I take one full year
To pen these operas Kaiser Josef lauds;
Then you compose a piece in half a season—
Vienna, Prague, all history applauds
As if you channeled Heaven. Shamed, I hear
These clunky notes I write constrained by Reason,
An awkward scrivener—dum-ta-dum—they wallow
In envy with more dreary themes to follow.

When I perform our royals clap and bow
While you get beer-drunk with some tavern sow.
I’ve gained great wealth while you are but a spendthrift.
So why should you be loved, then loved some more?
I write a solemn Mass—refined and cold—
Believing in God’s wrath down to my core.
The Habsburgs and Archbishop praise my gift!
Then you dash off a Requiem for gold
Graced with a Kyrie I’d kill to write!
Your brilliance is unjust. You are a blight!

More cognac! Mozart, it’s my portrait—mine!—
Hung on the wall at Schönbrunn. Me, you swine!
So why should I care what you think of me,
You Salzburg rube? I know you think I’m dull:
“Herr Salieri, drab and uninspired
His music like the squawking of a gull;
Untalented and trite cacophony
In which his too cerebral brain is mired.
Let’s drink a toast to Maestro Salieri,
The apotheosis of Mundanity!”

How dare you claim my harmonies are tame?
They call me Maestro! Nobles praise my name.
My operas are successful, always pleasant.
Your Figaro is best for swilling schnapps
And eating sausage with the common folk.
Don Giovanni: coarse as barnyard slops;
Seraglio—the musings of a peasant.
That you should be exalted is a joke.
Herr Boor! You show some talent, but you’re crude;
Unfairly praised for work that’s brash and lewd!

Forgive the cognac speaking. Through a haze
I see your “genius” manuscripts ablaze
And burned to ash, your memory forgotten.
In blissful silence I then persevere
With legalistic strokings of my quill,
Each note planned like a syllabus. I hear
No sour chords, my work no longer rotten
As week old fish. The Muse bends to my will.
Released from being trapped behind a window,
My brilliance shines with each melodic flow!

Herr Mozart, how much longer must you live?
I’ll praise you not! Hate’s all I have to give—
But in that hatred somehow I shall find
The genius that eludes me. I’ll compose
Great themes unshaken by The Magic Flute,
My music bright and lustrous as a rose
While your work is dismissed as unrefined —
The uninspired ramblings of a brute!
I see you fade to dust—gratia plena!
Dethroned as the great tunesmith of Vienna!

My head is aching. Let these dark thoughts cease!
But wait, mein Herr! I’ll write a grand new piece:
An opera in your honor! One in which
A great and loved composer is disgraced
By his ungifted rival, shamed and driven
To poverty and then—at last—erased!
Such melodies I’ll write! Such depth! So rich!
The curtain falls. You die. At last I’m shriven,
My genius glorified, your gift dismembered—
The work for which I’ll always be remembered!

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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26 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    You know something, Brian? I am quite fond of complicated novel rhyme schemes, and though in the sole instance of your “behind a window/melodic flow” semblance of a rhyme I found cause for dissatisfaction, everywhere else you adhered to the established form quite admirably. The other thing I like to do with such nonce forms is to vary line lengths as part of a set pattern.

    And OH! the irony.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Great comment, C.B.! Thank you for the honest critique and the kind words. And thank you for giving me a quick chance to explain myself in this poem. First of all, the entire thing is — as Dr. Salemi often states — a fictive artifact. I know fully well that Salieri did not kill Mozart and that they probably had a cordial relationship. But Alexander Pushkin ran with the idea that Salieri was a jealous fiend in his Mozart and Salieri play 190 years ago. Peter Schaffer built on it for his “Amadeus.” So that’s the tradition I wrote this poem from.

      The structure is indeed a nonce form. I wanted it to be highly technical (actually, over-technical as the composer himself might be) and I wanted it to rhyme but I also wanted it to be off-kilter because Salieri as speaker is drunk. So that’s why the rhyming lines are regular but irregular so to speak. And since Salieri is drunk, I gave myself permission to present a number of rhymes that were clearly not true rhymes. “Mediocrity and mundanity” “spendthrift and gift” etc. Maybe this didn’t quite come across, but the intent was to present a drunken green-with-envy ramble of an aristocrat attempting to still come off as tightly controlled.

      Thanks again for the comment and for giving me a chance to explain what I was going after!

      Reply
  2. Cynthia Erlandson

    Extremely enjoyable, Brian! I understand that the movie “Amadeus” not strictly factual; nevertheless it is one of my favorites. Something about it is so very gut-wrenching to me, though, that I’m not sure I’d want to sit through it a third time. But your poem is a wonderful character study — it’s like a very condensed novel.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Cynthia! Every since I first saw it, “Amadeus” has been one of my favorite pictures. Mozart is my favorite of all classical composers and the fictional story of Salieri’s jealousy is full of dramatic possibilities. Ironically, Salieri was actually a good composer.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        I’m glad you comment favorably on S in your note above, Brian. He was a guy with normal human passions & better than average ability. It’s something how his person has been maligned for more than 200 years, while his music has been ignored for almost that long. In contrast, the evil genius Gesualdo gets much more attention–his music, anyway.
        So I thought S needed an advocate, though I thought superlatives would be unconvincing.

        Regarding poor Antonio Salieri,
        It’s long past time we all buried the hatchet.
        He was ambitious—not just somewhat, very—
        But Mozart’s genius? Tony couldn’t match it.

        (The opening of his The Oaken Bucket
        He should have trashed and just exclaimed, “Horsefeathers!”
        Forget that overture. With any luck it
        In all its copies will be grist for shredders.)

        But well–respected Tony surely was,
        Both competent and often something more.
        We mustn’t just dismiss the man because
        His music fairly often is a bore.

        Of course he envied Mozart, the dear fellow.
        But Mozart had occasion, too, to gnash
        His teeth at Tony’s triumphs and to bellow
        When Tony chanced to cause the bigger splash.

        And hand it to Salieri as a teacher,
        Singing and composition both he knew—
        Of music’s sacred art a fruitful preacher
        To Schubert and Franz Liszt, to name just two.

        Now as for Peter Shaffer and his play,
        It deals in hearsay long debunked as sham.
        No angel Tony, it is safe to say,
        But claim he hated Wolfgang? That’s pure spam.

      • Brian Yapko

        Julian, I love your comment, your poem and the fact that you’re on a first-name basis with Tony! (Match it and hatchet is a very fun rhyme.) It is kind of a shame that Salieri has been slandered through the centuries. I’ve contributed to that, I fear. Mea culpa. And you’re right — when you compare him to Carlo Gesualdo who murdered his wife and her lover and yet is still musically hailed, there’s no justice.

  3. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, you must give up the legal career now. This is a piece of pure genius and as ever with all your work, entertaining and informative. As a Mozart fan who loves the Magic Flute I will be re-reading this all week. Thank you for a blast of something special amidst all the grave news today.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Jeff, your comment made my morning! Thank you. I once heard a lawyer tell me that the Law is a jealous mistress, but these days I prefer to think of it as the tavern sow I mentioned in my poem. I’d give it up in a heartbeat if poetry could cover utilities. Thank you for the kind words about the poem. I, too, am a Mozart fan and The Magic Flute is my favorite of all operas. And my favorite piece of choral music is probably his Requiem. I’m also very fond of his piano concertos. And his symphonies. Alright, everything. Just everything.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Cheryl, you ain’t kidding! I’d settle for lower middle class. And an occasional bundt cake.

  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, you have an enviable knack of burrowing into the very soul of history and bringing it back to life in a swirl of technicolor that lights up the page and has readers hanging on every carefully chosen, well placed word – marvelous stuff! I can feel the slimy envy oozing from the pores of the jealous Salieri, and I can hear the clunk of his piano keys in the wake of the nimble pirouette of the gifted hand producing musical miracles. I love Salieri’s stark character comparisons: “When I perform our royals clap and bow/While you get beer-drunk with some tavern sow” – so vivid, I can see the busty, well-worn woman hanging on the arm of the pie-eyed genius.

    Like Cynthia, “Amadeus” is a film favorite of mine… and your poem is a firm favorite. Bravo Brian! Bravo!

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Susan, thank you so much for your delightful comment! I love your own poetic prose describing “the slimy envy oozing from the pores of the jealous Salieri” and “the nimble pirouette of the gifted hand.” You should have written this poem! I’m delighted at your description of my poetry bringing the past to life because nothing would give me greater pleasure than success in doing just that. And, like you and Cynthia, “Amadeus” is also a favorite of mine. I did not base this poem on the movie per se, but in the writing it was hard not to picture F. Murray Abraham’s smarmy, insincere smile when he interacts with Tom Hulce’s Mozart. Thank you, Susan, for your appreciation and your encouragement of my work and growth as a poet.

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    Brian, your poem brilliantly adds another layer of slime to the sleazy Salieri portrayed in ‘Amadeus’, with numerous memorable lines including ‘…rotten as week old fish.’ Of course, Salieri never managed to shine as brightly as the genius Mozart. However, we can still remember Salieri as a great teacher.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, David! As in some of the notes above, I acknowledge that Salieri was not truly the jealous mediocrity that fictional history has portrayed him as. He’s had something of a bum rap which started with a play by Pushkin in the 1830s called Mozart and Salieri. I’ve listened to some of Salieri’s work and it’s really rather good, if not memorable. The mass I listened to could be performed in any church to great acclaim. The problem arises when you compare Salieri to Mozart’s work. It just doesn’t have the same luster. And yes, Salieri was a great teacher with some illustrious pupils — Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and, ironically, Mozart’s youngest son, Franz Mozart. Thanks again for commenting!

      Reply
  6. Paul Freeman

    Not much more I can add to the comments above, Brian.

    Thanks for the excellent read.

    Reply
  7. jd

    Being a devoted fan of Mozart and also having seen “Amadeus” many years ago, I found your poem an excellent read with all the technical expertise noted before my own post. I couldn’t help wondering though, why you chose “on” instead of “to” in your title when your narrator directly addresses his nemesis throughout. However, having read your many fine expositions of others’ poems on this site, I have no doubt you will give me a good reason.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you for your comment, JD. I appreciate the kind remarks about the crafting of the poem and I’m glad you asked the question! Preliminarily, let me say that you are quite right. Salieri addressing Mozart directly would make “Salieri to Mozart” a more logical title. But I struggled with this because in the fictive reality of this poem, Mozart isn’t actually there! As I interpret this poem, Salieri is in his house in Vienna getting drunk and having an imaginary conversation with Mozart while getting drunker and drunker until he finally starts to say truly appalling things. I felt if I called the poem “to Mozart” it would be too literal for these strange ruminations. Plus one might wonder why Mozart wasn’t talking back! And since the poem’s focus is on Salieri pouring his heart out about what he really thinks of Mozart, “on” seemed like the better (if imperfect) choice.

      One further (but much more minor) factor: I wanted my title to bring in the ghost of Robert Browning who had nothing to do with Mozart or Salieri but who had everything to do with dramatic monologues and, in particular, the dramatic monologues of antiheroes (Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister, The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church, My Last Duchess…) One of these dramatic monologues was Caliban Upon Setebos. I wanted “Salieri on Mozart”‘s title to make an oblique nod to Browning’s Caliban poem with my use of a parallel title. Alright, JD, these are my reasons. Maybe they’re not the greatest reasons, but I hope that clarifies my thinking for you. Thanks again for reading and asking!

      Reply
  8. Tamara Beryl Latham

    Brian, even Pushkin himself would have applauded you for the extent to which you have brought the subjects ( Salieri and Mozart) of the mythical
    rivalry, in his play, to light with a very difficult poetic form.

    I agree with the others. You have done an excellent job. Bravo!

    Reply
  9. BDW

    I have not done a close analysis of Mr. Yapko’s “Salieri on Mozart”; but by its tone, its rhyming and meter, I am reminded of the buoyant monologues of Robert Browning (1812-1889), like those which Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot worked through for their art’s sake. In addition to Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri”, I am reminded of the short play “Mozart and the Gray Steward” by the Modernist American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder (1897-1975). I did not like the film “Amadeus”; for after all, it is Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791), which I return to to time and time again now for such fine simplicity, such brilliant clarity, for classical balance, intricate notework, and magnificent transparency.

    At times (in my twenties) I despaired of Mozart’s extraordinary music, like Harry Haller in Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”, especially in early poetic works like “Lycanthrope” and “Cicada’s Voices” [Nur für Verrückte]. Hesse was almost as difficult to get through for me as were T. S. Eliot and Friedrich Nietzsche; but happily I have escaped such incredible depressing expression, as in Sophocles’ and Shakespeare’s tragedies, Ovid in exile, Dostoyevsky in his dark prose, etc. I can now hear the music of Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) much more positively than I could back then, and even the beginnings of Romanticism in Mozart are of sheer delight, and I now love Mozart’s shallow, hallowed lows and his wide, high-flying rides.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much for your comment, Bruce (if I may call you that — please feel free to call me Brian.) I’m extremely gratified that you related my poem to the monologues of Robert Browning because that is precisely what I was going for. And, I must confess, Browning is one of my very favorite poets. I know Thornton Wilder (I was in a production of The Skin of Our Teeth and I’ve read Our Town several times.) But I’ve never heard of Mozart and the Gray Steward, so that is next on my acquisition and reading list!

      Your relationship with Mozart is an interesting one. I’ve loved his music since the first time I heard it, though I confess that the older I get the more I prefer his work in minor keys. You very astutely point out Mozart’s unsung pointing of the way into the Romantic period. Some of Mozart’s darker work sounds like early Beethoven (the Jupiter symphony, e.g.) and some of Beethoven’s early work sounds like Mozart (Minuet in G, etc. ) It’s quite wonderful how musicians — and poets — find inspiration in each others’ works.

      Again, thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  10. BDW

    In Mozart’s String Quartet in C
    by Ebert E. Eisbruc

    In Mozart’s String Quartet in C, the introduction starts
    with quiet Cs upon the cello—slowly it imparts—
    there joined by the viola, A-flat moving to a G,
    then second violin upon E-flat—meaningfully—
    and the first violin on A, creating dissonance,
    Masonic, step-by-step suspense, a minor missing mance,
    as if one had just come upon an alien world’s set,
    unsure of what exactly it was that one would forget,
    the ordinary tuned into an other-worldly realm
    and turned into a re-al mo-em in a dreamy rem.

    Reply
    • Brian Yapko

      This is a very enjoyable poem, Bruce. Thanks for the contribution!

      Reply

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