German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann was browsing the online catalog of the Czech Museum of Music in November 2015 when he stumbled upon a piece called “Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia,” which translates to “For the recovered health of Ophelia.” Long thought to have been lost, the 4-minute-long cantata was jointly composed in 1785 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, along with an unknown composer named Cornetti. At the time, Mozart was entering the most productive phase of his career, during which he would produce “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and other masterworks. For his part, Salieri was even more established in Vienna, where both men lived, having been named court composer by Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1774.
The recently rediscovered composition arrived at the Czech Museum of Music in the 1950s as part of a collection of material. Mozart, Salieri and Cornetti’s names were written on the piece in a common signature code of the time; only a recent digitization of the museum’s collection allowed Herrmann to find it during his online search. On Tuesday, the piece was performed for the first time in more than 230 years, by a harpsichordist playing in the former Baroque church in Prague that now houses the music museum.
Though the composition itself may not be of a revolutionary nature—Ulrich Leisinger, director of research at the Mozarteum Foundation Salzburg, calls it “a short, not great, piece”—it does provide evidence of what appears to have been a less-than-hostile working relationship between Mozart and Salieri. The “Ophelia” mentioned in the cantata’s title most likely refers to the acclaimed English soprano Nancy Storace, who had performed works by both composers in the past. (Mozart would write the role of Suzanna in “The Marriage of Figaro” for her.) Mozart, Salieri and Cornetti wrote the piece to celebrate her return to the stage after five months spent recovering from an illness.
Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Viennese court poet, wrote the text of the collaborative composition. Da Ponte had previously worked with Salieri, who was at the time a well-known composer of opera buffa—the realistic, comic style that had recently become more popular than the more traditional operia seria. Mozart had yet to write an opera buffa when he met Da Ponte, who would go on to write the librettos for three of the composer’s greatest works: “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787) and “Cosí Fan Tutte” (1790).
By the time “Cosí Fan Tutte” was produced, Mozart’s popularity was waning, and he would die in serious debt the following year. In the months leading up to his death, Mozart is said to have complained to his wife, Constanze, that he was being poisoned. He may have even accused hostile Italian factions in the Viennese court, and Salieri emerged early on as the most popular suspect. Nobody seems to have taken such rumors very seriously, however; Salieri later taught music to Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, and the composer Rossini even joked with Salieri about the rumors when they met. It certainly didn’t help that while hospitalized with dementia in 1823, a terminally ill Salieri supposedly “confessed” to killing Mozart before attempting suicide. Few believed this rumored confession had any basis in reality, but it did little to silence history’s gossip mill.
In 1830, five years after Salieri’s death, the Russian novelist and playwright Alexander Pushkin wrote a short play depicting Salieri inviting Mozart to dinner and poisoning him. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov then based a one-act opera, “Mozart et Salieri,” on Pushkin’s play in 1898. Though historians continued to debunk the Salieri murder plot theory over the years, it reemerged in sensational style with the success of Peter Shaffer’s Tony Award-winning play “Amadeus” (1979) and the big-screen adaptation of the same name, directed by Milos Forman. The film took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1985, while F. Murray Abraham won Best Actor for his portrayal of Salieri. Though the Salieri in “Amadeus” does not poison Mozart outright, he does scheme to ruin him and hasten his death, seeking to take credit for the requiem mass he dictates from his deathbed.
In more recent years, the real Salieri’s reputation has been resuscitated by a performance of one of his operas at the renovated La Scala in Milan in 2004, as well as an album of his music recorded by renowned mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. The newly rediscovered evidence of his collaboration with Mozart may help in that process. Herrmann told BBC News that “Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia” is the “key to a new understanding of the relationship between Mozart and Salieri,” while Leisinger goes even further: “We all know the picture drawn by the movie ‘Amadeus’…It is false. Salieri did not poison Mozart, but they both worked in Vienna and were competitors.”