About seven years ago, HBO almost made my dream television show. It was called “Virtuoso,” and was produced by Elton John and written and directed by Alan Ball. From all accounts—and I followed them closely—it was to be something of a soap opera about the founding of a conservatory obviously based on the real-life Vienna Conservatory, following a small group of students under the direction of one Antonio Salieri (played by Ball’s husband, Peter Macdissi). 

Despite some historical quibbles, when I first read about this show, I felt the same way public radio commentator and U.S. history aficionado Sarah Vowell did about the short-lived “Thanks,” a sitcom set in 17th-century New England. “‘Thanks’ involved two of my favorite, but usually separate, things—TV and American history—coming together,” Vowell said. “Imagine if you were an avid stamp collector, and you found out that CBS was about to debut its new series, ‘CSI: Philately.’ You’d be psyched.”

And I was. As a musicologist, I’ve studied both Salieri’s operas and explored the appeal of gossip, fiction, and speculation on musical subjects for different audiences. Conspiratorial stories about Tchaikovsky’s death, for example, served as a kind of secret community understanding for some gay circles in the 1910s, but also provided ammunition for homophobic readings of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. People could (and did and do) read the same things and come away with totally different understandings of music history. A TV show that combined public fascination with biofictions and music school drama—no doubt carried along by some attractive people in period clothing—sounded like the perfect place to explore how we tell stories about music history.

When musicologists talk about musical fictions, we often focus on debunking clichés or complicating received narratives. This can be an important job, especially in circumstances where concepts like “genius” are still all-too-often used to excuse or minimize abusive behavior by those with power in both academia and the music industry. But I’m also interested in how fictions about music history blend biographical or historical details with invented situations to create fiction. How do we go from thinking about real people in history as characters who could exist in fictional settings and still be recognizable as themselves? How do accumulated fictional details interact with one another over time and across changing historical, social, and political contexts? How do they mingle with facts? Why do they have such staying power in the popular imagination?

Sadly, HBO rejected “Virtuoso” as an unaired pilot, so we may never know how or if Ball intended to comment upon the accumulated music history and mythology surrounding Salieri. But the concept of a work of fiction focusing on Salieri and his students has a longer history than you might expect based on his more famous fictional depictions. In the multiple versions of “Amadeus, Peter Shaffer sidesteps this issue by having his narrative largely skip from 1791 to 1823. Despite a great deal of conversation about historical genius and crime, Aleksandr Pushkin’s little tragedy “Mozart and Salieri” (later set as an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov) ends with Mozart’s death. 

Since the 1830s, both “legitimate” biographers and authors of musical fictions have attempted to balance Salieri’s status as (supposed) rival to Mozart and (documented) teacher of Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt (among many others). This process began with the meaning attached to specific historical documents and anecdotes. For example, Salieri’s influence over Schubert’s musical opinions has, according to Schubert specialist Christopher Gibbs, been granted undue importance thanks to the fact that Schubert’s brief diary just happened to cover Salieri’s jubilee party in 1816. As Schubert wrote:

It must be beautiful and refreshing for an artist to see all his pupils gathered about him, each one striving to give his best for his jubilee, and to hear in all these compositions the expression of pure nature, free from all the bizarreness that is common among most composers nowadays, and is due almost wholly to one of our greatest German artists… To see this bizarreness banished from the circle of his pupils and instead look upon pure, holy nature, must be the greatest pleasure for an artist who, guided by such a one as Gluck, learned to know nature and to uphold it in spite of the unnatural conditions of our age

While Schubert’s discussion of Salieri is enthusiastically cheery, later commentators often reimagined Salieri’s mentorship as either a calculating act of malevolence or an act of penance for youthful intrigues. (Schubert’s passing and dismissive mention of Beethoven also played into emerging nationalist narratives that relied on anachronistic constructions of German and Italian music.) This reinterpretation of Salieri’s teaching career through the lenses of Mozartian conspiracy theories, and Romantic ideas of true genius as needing no instruction, are recurring themes in two 19th-century fictions about Salieri, which blend biographical facts, rumor and anecdote, and elements of romance and horror. In these fictionalizations, written shortly after his death, certain elements of his biography started to recur to the near-complete exclusion of his actual music. Absurdity becomes part of the story. 

In 1835, Gustav Nicolai published a collection of musical novellas. In true operatic fashion, “Der Musikfeind” (“The Enemy of Music”) revolves around interlocking pairs. The singer Constanze (!) Doloroso is torn between two lovers: the adventurous (and supposedly wealthy) Riancourt and the poor-but-artistic young composer Ludwig (no, not that one). Meanwhile, Ludwig is torn between two father figures: local Kapellmeister (and Constanze’s father) Antonio Doloroso, whose encouragement is at odds with his own failing career, and his new friend Raymond, who views the musical profession as corrupting (and who is eventually revealed as Ludwig’s long-lost biological father). 

Despite the fictionalized characters and setting, Nicolai’s references to details from the real Salieri’s life are not exactly subtle. Kapellmeister Doloroso grew up in northern Italy, moved to a German-speaking area as a young man, and maintains professional connections in France and Italy. He also has multiple fits of melancholy, anger, and confusion whenever Mozart is mentioned and ultimately (spoiler!) claims responsibility for Mozart’s death before cutting his own throat with a razor. But, despite its dramatic ending, “Der Musikfeind” isn’t really about Mozart. The real tensions revolve around Doloroso’s emotional state and influence over the brilliant but naïve Ludwig. Raymond and Constanze initially hope that mentoring Ludwig will give Doloroso stability and purpose. As Raymond tells the Salieri stand-in, “If you find today’s musical tastes so spoiled and cannot fight them with art, then do so as a teacher. Cultivate students who will replicate your methods.” 

This seems to work for a time. Ludwig and Doloroso work on the opera together and Doloroso encourages Ludwig to continue with music. But theatrical politics, Constanze’s developing relationship with Riancourt (who turns out to be a con artist), and Doloroso’s frustration at being reduced to a “schoolmaster” with no great historical legacy eventually become too much. During their last meeting, Riancourt abducts Constanze and murders Raymond, Doloroso is unable to distinguish Ludwig’s news from a hallucinatory fantasy about Mozart’s death, and Ludwig falls ill. A short epilogue reveals that Riancourt and Constanze eventually separated, and Ludwig recovered, inherited Raymond’s estate, and gave up music entirely. 

“Der Musikfeind” is a frequently confused mix of morality tale, discourse on musical nationalism (as musicologist and literary scholar Renato Calza observes, it is likely no coincidence that Nicolai was also the author of a satirical anti-Italian travelogue published in 1834), and meditation on the nature of how quickly ideas of genius become divorced from the messy, all-too-human lives of musicians. In his fits throughout the novella, Doloroso comes to see Mozart as a kind of ghost, removed from the particulars of everyday life. As Raymond fruitlessly reminds him, however, the possibility of posthumous notions of immortal greatness means little to living artists, asking, “What does it mean, then, if one is elevated to godhood on the earthly plane only once one is no longer a part of it?” It’s a question that’s still worth asking today.

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Around 40 years after Nicolai’s novella, British novelist and art critic Walter Thornbury published “The Old Chapel-Master” in the 1873 Belgravia Christmas Annual. Victorian Christmases famously being a time for thrilling supernatural tales, Thornbury presents a scenario superficially similar to Nicolai’s, but with less conversation about musical morality and more secret identities, ghost sightings, and shocking twists. Our hero is Karl, an idealistic music student who dreams of writing operas and marrying his teacher’s daughter. (Sound familiar?) Lisa Zadaka is a beautiful young woman who spends her days helping her father write a history of sacred music. Herr Zadaka is a slightly befuddled elderly gentleman who sometimes sees people who aren’t there and who has long since given up opera in favor of his teaching and religious duties, but he still wishes Karl every success.

So much, in fact, that one evening before Karl’s “Romeo and Juliet” is set to go into rehearsal, the kindly Zadaka shocks his student with a near-demonic temptation. He offers to give Karl three lost arias from an unfinished Mozart opera to insert into “Romeo and Juliet”: 

Yes, yes, I say; I have no scruples in deceiving fools, who would let you be trodden to mud under their feet without pity. Insert these at the culminating parts of your opera, add one or two crudities to give them a resemblance to your work, let them rise like rockets into the higher world of genius, and so secure fortune, fame, and my treasure [Lisa] at one grasp. What do you say? It can never be discovered. 

Karl, shaken, declines the offer; Zadaka seems to have forgotten it by the next day. But all is not resolved. At a party to celebrate the premiere of “Romeo and Juliet,” an out-of-town guest appears who claims to have known Zadaka—or, rather, Salieri—in his Viennese youth. Zadaka collapses, only to confess his “true” story to Karl in private: as a fellow music student he had pushed Mozart to overwork out of envy and (as he was dying) stole manuscripts from two unperformed operas. When the plagiarism was discovered, “I changed my name and fled. Ah, do not despise me, lieber Karl. I have sinned deeply, but I have repented deeply.” Salieri/Zadaka ultimately dies speaking peacefully with Mozart’s ghost, while Karl and Lisa play a piano four-hands arrangement of the Mozart Requiem in the next room. 

While this is in many ways an absurd story that makes little historical or musical sense, the blend of shocking revelations and distorted biographical details fit surprisingly well into the developing narrative around Salieri’s teaching career. The more mundane corrections to “Romeo and Juliet” presented early in Karl’s and Zadaka’s meeting are likely adapted from biographies of Beethoven or Schubert. Thornbury having his Salieri figure describe his decision to give up opera and turn to teaching and sacred music as having “repented deeply” may have come directly from a then-recent English biography, which gave a biographical sketch of Salieri and included a highly speculative discussion of his impact on Schubert that framed his teaching as penance. Thornbury’s story takes things a few steps further by imagining a kind of symbolic reconciliation. His Salieri atones not just through his confession of past crimes, but through his student Karl’s ability to carry out his own musical work with integrity. 

The reworking of Salieri’s teaching career—usually understood in benevolent, charitable terms—into narratives of villainy, instability, and atonement raises some additional questions about what music and mentorship mean within these stories. Nicolai and Thornbury, writing decades apart, played with the concepts of artistic crime within loose but still recognizable biofictions. Nicolai’s Salieri figure turns to teaching as an ultimately unsuccessful consolation prize for failure to achieve musical greatness; Thornbury’s, as penance for youthful crimes against art and friendship. As the historical facts faded from living memory and biographers attempted to sort through the accumulated (and often contradictory) mass of anecdote and speculation, these stories are in some ways psychological explorations. They attempted to “make sense” of elements of the mythology surrounding Salieri and Mozart by turning to even more fantastical and bizarre plots.

Is there anything here that might resonate with the contemporary reader? These are far from the kinds of sentimental music teacher stories many of us are used to seeing in 20th and 21st-century media. Music for Nicolai and Thornbury is not a wholly positive force; it could grant one great artistic or professional triumph but could also destroy those who make, teach, or perform it. Nor—occasional supernatural elements notwithstanding—does music exist in these stories totally beyond the more mundane elements of human existence. Art makes some of these characters better and some worse. It helps some of them find love and personal fulfillment, while leaving others bereft of both. Collegiality and mentorship can sometimes buoy one through periods of artistic uncertainty and sometimes lead to one betraying one’s principles. And, often, even the more cynical among us still don’t always know how to deal with the fact that great musicians and teachers are (like all of us) people who lead complicated, messy lives–lives that don’t often fit neatly into the bigger meanings that we often think we “should” take from studying music. 

I may never know what appealed to Alan Ball about the Vienna Conservatory and Salieri, or how much of his initial concept dealt with these questions of history, collegiality, and pedagogy. Is anyone from HBO reading? I’d be up for giving “Virtuoso” another chance. ¶

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Kristin Franseen is a musicologist. She is a FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Concordia University.