Salieri and Mozart in Vesuvio Saloon
San Francisco Nights
Rest in peace! Uncovered by dust
Eternity shall bloom for you.
Rest in peace! In eternal harmonies
Your spirit now is dissolved.
He expressed himself in enchanting notes,
Now he is floating to everlasting beauty.
(Josef Weigl, for Salieri’s tomb.)
F. Murray Abraham as Salieri
I was newly divorced and 25, wandering through the streets of San Francisco looking for a new social circle. I chose to start in North Beach because of all the poets and artists who hang around in that area. This was a Saturday night and I expected Vesuvio Saloon to be overly crowded. I peeked in the window, and the crowd was for some reason sparse. There were plenty of empty stools at the bar, so I headed inside.
Vesuvio was a regular hangout for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty of On the Road,) back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This would have been before Cassidy and Kerouac died, of course.
It was here that Jack Kerouac once spent a long night in 1960 when he should have been on his way to Big Sur to meet with Henry Miller. Miller had written Kerouac that he enjoyed reading The Dharma Bums and would enjoy a visit from the emerging writer. Kerouac, however, had other plans. He continued to hoist drinks and called Miller every hour telling him that he was just a bit delayed in leaving the city. The two would never meet that night.
I found an empty stool and sat down next to an older gentleman. He was wearing a gray beret. We chatted a bit about the weather, then I asked his name. “Vincenzo,” he told me.
“Were you born in Italy then?” I asked.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I was born in Legnano. Does that mean anything to you?” I had to admit that it did not, since I am not an expert on Italy. I know where Siena is, I know were Tuscany is, I know where Rome is. But I had never heard of Legnano.
“Have you seen the movie or the play Amadeus?”
In fact, I had. I had thought that Tom Hulce made the character of Mozart come alive. I said that F. Murray Abraham had also done a convincing portrayal of Salieri. I just wondered to him whether or not Salieri had been too hard on himself. Vincenzo’s expression was pained. He told me that the play and the movie portrayed Salieri very poorly. Salieri was a magnificent composer and well-respected. He told me that Legnano, his hometown, was also Salieri’s hometown, and the people there had great pride in Salieri’s music and his influence on Austria’s musical history.
So, I asked Vincenzo whether Salieri had killed Mozart, and he told me it was a lie. The play, he said, took dramatic license to add to a biography of Mozart some deep conflict (even broader than Mozart’s conflicts with his own father). He said they should make a movie that tells the true story of Salieri.
I wonder whether there are a great number of people whose only knowledge of Salieri is based in the movie Amadeus. How many people think that he was a hack who was jealous of the attention paid to Mozart? If I hadn’t met Vincenzo at Vesuvio, I probably would never have looked into the story of his life. Salieri was in fact recognized as a composer of wonderful music. He was a teacher to Ludwig Von Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert and Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver.
The whole idea that Salieri hated or despised Mozart while loving his music may have started because of some political maneuvering by Leopold Mozart. Leopold believed that Salieri was interfering with his son’s career in Vienna. Composers survived by teaching music and through patronage by the royalty. Securing good positions through the church and through the court often meant the difference between survival and starvation. If Leopold Mozart was indeed spreading this rumor, it is perhaps understandable, in that he would be protecting his son’s career and livelihood.
The confession of Salieri forms the backdrop and the narration of the movie Amadeus. Salieri confesses his hatred for both God and Mozart. He hates God for giving Mozart such a gift for composing, yet allowing him to be a spoiled brat. Salieri has been the good and honorable servant, while Mozart is an uncouth party-boy, loud and vulgar. But the music…oh, the music is gorgeous and the feelings so moving that they can only have been placed in Mozart’s pen by the angels of the muse.
Salieri was no slouch and had no reason to be jealous on that score. His were not the simplistic ploddings that the character Wolfgang mocks. His opera Tarare was well-received and loved in France and presaged the French Revolution.
The question remains as to whether or not he actually confessed to the murder. I have read several articles on the confession, and they generally conclude that Salieri did no such thing. The people who were with him declaimed the supposed confession. Reading of this “confession” reminded me of the Lady Hope story that Darwin had made a deathbed conversion to Christianity.
Mozart’s final cause of death has been debated for many years. Some claim that it was kidney failure, others claim a parasite. These diagnoses are based reading descriptions of his symptoms through the backward glance of biographers, without the benefit of an autopsy. Some of his symptoms are consistent with the idea that he was poisoned, but the weakness of this evidence should lead us to be more charitable towards Salieri. The play is not slander; it is speculation with dramatic license.
I sat in the bar with the old man from Italy and thought about how much of our common knowledge of historical events is based on the plots of movies. Talking to Vincenzo forced me to step back and question these assumptions that I myself make. If I learn something from a movie, before I convict someone in my own mind, fairness dictates that I research a bit more.
I left Vesuvio that night, even with Kerouac’s ghost beckoning me to stay all night. I had a cat to feed and care for and some reading to do on Salieri.
Vesuvio is at 255 Columbus in San Francisco, CA. The menu includes exotic drinks, martinis and Anchor Steam Beer.
This entry was posted on Monday, April 20th, 2009 at 5:26 am and is filed under Art, Mike Haubrich. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.