Italian dramatic composer; extremely prolific and gifted; who was the great model of all German dramatic composers during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, and whose career was a long and successful one. He was a rival of Mozart, a friend and pupil of Gluck and the instructor of many musicians who afterward became famous, among them Franz Schubert. He was born at Legnano, in the Venetian territory, and was the son of a wealthy merchant. From his earliest youth he showed a decided bent for music, and was taught the violin by his brother Francis, who had been a pupil of Tartini, till he was fifteen years old, and the clavecin with Simoni, organist of the Legnano Cathedral. In 1765 his father's fortune was swept away by unfortunate investments, and Antonio went to Vienna shortly after, where he was assisted by an old friend of his father's, named Mocenego, who took an interest in his musical career and introduced him to Gassmann, then the Imperial choirmaster at Vienna, who made Antonio a member of his household, taught him gratuitously and became his friend and counselor as well as his teacher. In after years Salieri showed his appreciation of Gassmann's kindness and generosity by educating his two daughters as opera singers. He accompanied Gassmann to Vienna in 1766 and studied there with him until 1774. He later studied at Venice in the School of San Marco with John Pescetti and with Passini. He was also a pupil of Gluck, whose style he studied closely, modeling his compositions on those of the great master. When Gluck returned from Paris to Vienna in 1780, bringing with him the libretto of Les Danaides, for which he had contracted to compose the music, he turned it over to Salieri. Salieri having finished it in due time, Gluck gave it to the director of the Paris Academy of Music with the remark that " one of the pupils had assisted him with it," and not until the thirteenth performance of the opera had been given and its success was assured did he let the real name of its author become known. Salieri shortly after returned to Vienna, bringing with him the libretto of Les Horaces, which was produced in 1786, but was unsuccessful. The following year Tarare was given with success, and later, remodeled, was produced at Vienna under the title Axur re d'Ormus. This opera is generally regarded as Salieri's best work. Salieri was appointed Court composer, and upon the death of his teacher, Gassmann, in 1788, was made chapelmaster. In 1776 he had been made director of the Opera and this position he held until 1790. From 1770 to 1804 Salieri wrote forty-two operas; several oratorios; cantatas; five masses; several Te Deums; motets; offertories; and much other music. His first opera, given in 1769, was entitled La donne Letterate, and it was followed by L'Amore innocute. In 1771 appeared Don Chisciotto, and D'Armida, and in 1779 La Scuota de Gelosi and II Talismano. The next year La Dama Pastorella made its appearance.
Besides his thirty-three operas, which were written to Italian words, he composed three to French words and wrote one German opera, Die Neger. From 1804 Salieri devoted himself almost wholly to the service of the Imperial Chapel. In 1816 he celebrated his fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of his public career in Vienna, at which time he was decorated with the gold Civil-Ehrenmedaille. Up to 1818 he continued to conduct the concerts of the Tonkunstler-Societat, of which he was vice-president. Although a resident of Germany for fifty years, Salieri is said never to have learned to speak or write the German language. In 1824 he retired from his post as Court conductor, on a full salary, after fifty years of service; but he only lived a year to enjoy his hard-earned repose, dying in 1825 at the age of seventyfive.
Salieri, as a man, was generous and kindly, often assisting less fortunate musicians with money and free instruction. He was abstemious and simple in his tastes and fond of spending much time out of doors. His memory is darkened by his intrigues against Mozart, of whom he was extremely jealous. He caused the Emperor to withdraw his favor from the musician and sought in other ways to injure him. With most of the other eminent musicians of his time, however, he was on terms of the greatest intimacy. To him Beethoven dedicated his three piano sonatas in 1799 and Haydn was one of his greatest friends and admirers. To the library of the Tonkünstler Societat Antonio Salieri left forty-one scores on his own handwriting; thirty-four operas; and seven cantatas.