Not only a composer but also a conspirator among the rich and powerful in the Royal House of Habsburg, his name has gone down in creative history as the man who tried to bump off Mozart, or at least drive him to an early grave.
It was not the epitaph he wanted or deserved, said a musicologist who has chosen Huddersfield as the arena in which to make his music heard for the first time in nearly 200 years.
Salieri had been barely remembered at all before 1979, when the playwright Peter Shaffer made him the second lead in Amadeus, his highly fictionalised account of Mozart’s life and mysterious death. The production was later filmed, with F Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as Mozart.
“It was a great dramatic piece but it’s founded on myth and scandal,” said Ellen Stokes, who has been awarded a grant to research Salieri’s musical legacy rather than his alleged criminal record.
Shaffer’s inspiration had been a play by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, published five years after Salieri’s death, in which the composer murders Mozart on stage. It has been the stuff of legend ever since.
In fact, no evidence exists to suggest that they were anything other than peers, Ms Stokes said.
“There seems to have been a rumour going around at the time, which Pushkin thought would make a good play. It has snowballed ever since and as a result, Salieri’s music has fallen by the wayside.
“Yet in his day, he was the top dog in Vienna. He had the best jobs – he ran the theatres and the music for the court, and he would have been a hugely influential figure as a result.
“But musical scholarship tends to focus on the big names, and that’s particularly true in Vienna, where you had the massive figures of Mozart, Beethoven and Hyden at around the same time. Salieri has just been neglected.”
He had been brought to Austria from his native Verona by his mentor, the Bohemian opera composer Florian Leopold Gassmann. Once there, he established himself as a significant figure in Viennese society and found favour in the Royal court – perhaps to the chagrin of his rivals.
He also wrote music for opera houses in Paris, Rome, and Venice, and his dramatic works were performed throughout Europe during his lifetime.
Ms Stokes has been awarded Huddersfield University’s Steinitz Scholarship in Musicology to study Salieri’s instrumental output, which is even more obscure than the operas he composed in three languages, influencing Mozart and others.
His pieces, which include a concerto for flute, Ms Stokes’ specialism, have been neither studied nor performed since his death and many are considered lost, having been miscatalogued in the Austrian National Library.
“No-one has looked at them, so we really have no idea what’s there. And there are no modern editions, so they’re not available to musicians today,” she said.
“The main goal is to create transcriptions of the pieces, but music is there to be performed and it would be amazing to hear it in Huddersfield. There’s a Philharmonic Orchestra here and a lot of talented musicians in the university.”
Dr Emily Worthington, senior lecturer in music at Huddersfield University, said: “It has always amazed me that so little information has been established about someone who occupied such a high status in Vienna. He is as accomplished a composer as any of his contemporaries.
“There is a huge amount of his output that has never been looked at, let alone performed, and we are hoping to put together ensembles at the end of the research project – either our students or professional musicians.”