After a soft but rapid knock on the other side, Salieri opened his front door. As expected, it was Süssmayr. The young man smiled at him sheepishly.
“Good evening, maestro,” he said. “I’ve come to pick you up, as promised.”
Salieri said nothing, but stepped outside his apartment and closed the door behind him. He followed Süssmayr down the stairs and into the carriage waiting on the street. Once they were seated, the carriage started to move and drive down the dark avenues of Vienna.
Salieri was not in a good mood and most definitely not in the mood for a party. It wasn’t that he disliked parties, he just wasn’t in the mood for one now. However, tonight’s party was held by the National Theatre’s most important patron, Herr Heine, and as all artists who had even the smallest ties to the institution were expected to attend, unfortunately he didn’t have much of a choice.
Salieri stared out of the window, leaning his elbow on the window frame and supporting his heavy head with his hand. He could feel Süssmayr’s discomfort hanging in the air, but had no intention of easing it by starting a polite yet needless conversation. Unfortunately, Süssmayr didn’t share that notion.
“Maestro, did you get the chance to have a look at the completed score maestro Mozart gave you for ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’?”
Salieri looked at his former pupil.
“I have not,” he said slowly. “I’ve been working on my own compositions and they required my full attention.”
“Ah y-yes, of course,” Süssmayr stammered, easily intimidated by Salieri’s voice, as always. He quickly looked out of the window, indicating he knew the conversation was over.
The fact was, Salieri had looked at the score, which was the reason he was in such a bad mood. It had been only yesterday when Süssmayr had told him that it had taken Mozart merely three days to write the final movement, a task that would take any normal composer at least a few weeks. Surely it would be full of mistakes, crossed out notes and rewritten passages, but no such thing. Mozart had written his opera’s score in one go, as if copied from another score, only this one could solely be found in the man’s own head.
And what made it even worse, was that the music was perfection. As Salieri was flipping through the pages, he could hear the music in his head. It was moving, exciting, innovating yet within conventions. It was something he never could have composed himself, and it infuriated him to no end.
Salieri was forcefully pulled out of his angry thoughts as Süssmayr softly started humming to himself. The song in question sounded a lot like the first notes of ‘Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!’ from Mozart’s opera’s second act. Salieri gave Süssmayr a foul glare and as soon as the young man noticed, he swallowed the song and remained quiet.
At last the carriage arrived at their destination and Salieri exited before Süssmayr. He looked up at the fancy apartment building and saw the shadows of people moving past the windows on the second floor. He straightened his jacket and followed Süssmayr inside.
As they walked up the stairs to the second floor, the laughter and music of the party already drifted down the stairwell. Once they entered the patron’s residence, Salieri found himself slightly taken aback by the party’s location.
The apartment was immense, with several salons alone reserved for the party. The walls were covered in expensive wallpaper and the ceilings decorated with opulent chandeliers, softly illuminating the guests who were chatting amongst each other, laughing and drinking wine. Music was playing one or two salons away.
Süssmayr, having fulfilled his task, left Salieri’s side with a nervous smile and a polite nod and joined a group of people his own age range. Salieri straightened his jacket once more and started to mingle.
Soon he was surrounded by admirers and had lively discussions on various musical topics. He took a few bites from the buffet whenever he could, but declined every time a waiter offered him a glass of wine. In Salieri’s opinion, a musician needed to be clear-headed at all times. He opted for non-alcohol options instead.
During his conversations, he kept an ear out for the music playing in the salon a little further away, which changed every once in a while. Salieri could hear a violin, the fortepiano, a string quartet and even someone reciting a poem.
Just as the party’s host, Herr Heine, wanted to start a conversation with Salieri, the man’s attention was drawn by loud cheers coming from the music room.
“Would you excuse me for a second, sir?” Salieri said, as he could hear a fast interlude start playing on the pianoforte. Without waiting for Heine’s reply, he left the man’s side. He had a certain premonition and it led him towards the music room.
A woman started singing while Salieri made his way through the gathered crowd. Certainly it was Caterina Cavalieri. He taught her himself and would recognize her voice among a hundred singers. But that accompaniment…
His premonition turned out to be right. Caterina was standing beside the pianoforte, singing an aria perfect for her voice, accompanied by a young man dressed in flashy, red clothes and with wild hair. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was completely in his element, playing a piece he composed and having all the attention.
Salieri clenched his teeth at the sight of him. It made perfect sense for Mozart to be present at the party, but somehow actually seeing him be there lit up a fire in Salieri’s guts.
He noticed, to his dismay, that Mozart was once again playing without a score. His fingers were flying over the keys of the fortepiano with a nonchalant ease, while he looked up at Caterina and matched her breaths and interpretation, seemingly having tons of fun doing it.
Before Salieri knew it, the piece was over. He had barely listened, consumed by his own thoughts, but politely applauded along with the cheering crowd. Caterina bowed, after which Mozart did the same with a flamboyant hand gesture.
Salieri thought the young man’s smile could not grow any bigger, but he was immediately proven wrong. As soon as Mozart jumped back up, his eyes spotted Salieri in the crowd and his whole face started beaming.
“Monsieur Salieri!” he yelled enthusiastically, drawing everyone’s attention, and crossed the room almost skipping. “I was hoping I would see you here tonight! Dressed in mourning attire again I see?”
A few people laughed, with Mozart being the loudest, throwing his head back in glee.
“Why would I not be here?” Salieri replied, slightly miffed. “With my position, I obviously would attend tonight’s festivities. And I happen to like black clothing.”
Mozart recovered and looked back at Salieri, a sparkle in his eyes.
“I was wondering, maestro,” he said, a mischievous crinkle in his nose while pronouncing that last word, “if you would indulge me by playing a little music together, quatre-mains, for everyone’s entertainment!”
“Oh, I don’t think —” Salieri started, uncomfortable with the mere thought, but the guests in the room all started shouting encouragements.
“Come now, maestro,” said Caterina. “It would make tonight’s guests so happy.”
Salieri looked at her with scepticism, when he suddenly heard Heine’s voice beside him.
“That sounds like fun. Go on Salieri, I insist!” Heine bellowed and slapped Salieri on the back, causing him to slightly stumble forward. Mozart clapped his hands joyfully.
“But I have nothing prepared…” Salieri tried, in vain, as Mozart started pulling him along towards the pianoforte by his sleeve. He sat Salieri down on the right side of the bench and started rummaging in a bag next to the instrument, while the guests watched on or went to get their friends to observe the spectacle.
“Maybe we can play this,” Mozart said, pulling out a score from the bag. He placed it onto the stand and sat down on the left himself.
"Sonata in B flat major,” Salieri read, “By Wolfgang Amadeus— You’re just carrying around self-composed quatre-mains pieces?”
“Of course not!” Mozart said, dramatically feigning indignance. “I happened to have it with me as I was about to send Süssmayr out to have it copied. Isn’t that right, Süssmayr?”
Süssmayr, who had just come over with a chair to sit behind them to act as page turner, looked up in surprise.
“O-oh yes, definitely,” he stammered.
Salieri shook his head, but took a look at the score. He quickly flipped through it. Not too long, doable, but definitely a lot of notes. All in all; very Mozart.
Mozart sat rocking back and forth on his hands beside him, waiting for Salieri to finish scanning. Salieri looked at the young man, the soft light illuminating his features.
“Are you drunk?” Salieri asked, squinting at the young man’s seemingly red face.
“My, monsieur, why would you think that?” Mozart laughed. He ruffled a hand through his hair and then rested his hands on the keys. He quickly played a few bars to indicate the tempo.
“Shall we?” Mozart asked, a smile brighter than the sun illuminating his face.
Salieri rested his fingers on the keys as well. Mozart counted down and they started the Allegro.
It wasn’t a difficult piece, especially not for someone with Salieri’s talent and experience, but he had to pay close attention to the score nonetheless. His fingers moved quickly over the keys, going up and down the scales on the right side of the pianoforte, as did Mozart’s on the left side.
However, while doing so, his left hand often met Mozart’s right hand. Every time their fingers touched, a jolt of electricity shot through Salieri’s hand, travelling up and down his whole body at high-speed.
Not knowing what to make of this, Salieri blamed it on the uneasiness of playing with a new partner. Playing quatre-mains wasn’t easy to do on a whim after all. He couldn’t look to his left, to see if Mozart was experiencing the same thing, as the Allegro needed his full attention.
Luckily, after what couldn’t have been more than four minutes, it was time for the Adagio. It was a lovely piece, flowing like a little forest brook. The much slower tempo and fewer notes allowed Salieri to finally look away.
He looked at Mozart from the corner of his eye and noticed that the young man wasn’t looking at the score. He looked down at Salieri’s fingers instead, matching his speed and interpretation flawlessly.
Suddenly, Mozart looked up at Salieri’s face and their eyes met. Salieri had only seen Mozart acting like a fool, running and jumping around as if the world was his own playground. But now he looked completely different: he looked serene, and happy.
Mozart showed him a smile so disarming, Salieri nearly stopped playing abruptly. He tore his eyes away and focused on the music. Nevertheless, Salieri’s eyes darted to the left a few times anyway, that fire once again burning in his stomach and little beads of sweat forming on his temples.
Salieri had no idea how he was supposed to get through the Molto Presto in his current condition, with their hands once again meeting in the middle several times, but he somehow pulled through.
Right after they played the last two cords, in perfect unison, everyone in the room bursted into applause and cheers, drowning out the sound of Salieri’s sigh of relief. The two musicians got up and made their individual bows; Salieri with a modest nod of the head, Mozart with another flamboyant gesture.
As new musicians gathered around the pianoforte, Salieri intended to walk away and catch his breath somewhere alone, but suddenly someone grabbed his hand.
“Monsieur, I want to ask you something,” Mozart shouted. “Come with me!”
Mozart dragged Salieri with him through the crowd. Salieri looked left and right, fearing people would notice and criticize him for indulging in Mozart’s whims, but no one seemed to notice nor care.
The two of them left the salon and ended up in a dimly lit hallway somewhere in the enormous apartment. The sounds of chattering and tableware were audible, but far away.
“A few notes off here and there, maestro,” Mozart said, finally letting go of Salieri’s hand. “But all in all you did quite well!”
Salieri rolled his eyes, when suddenly he noticed the smell of alcohol wafting in the air.
“You are drunk,” he hissed indignantly.
“I most definitely am,” Mozart giggled.
And yet you played flawlessly, Salieri thought resentfully. He turned on his heels and starting walking away.
“No, wait!” Mozart yelled. He pulled Salieri back by the shoulder and pushed him back against the wall. “I still have something I want to ask you.”
“Well, what is it?” Salieri asked, the tone in his voice a bit overly annoyed.
“What did you think of my ‘Entführung aus dem Serail’?” Mozart asked, his expression suddenly all serious.
Salieri looked at him, the slumbering fire in his stomach suddenly blazing up, wrapping around his heart and setting his cheeks on fire.
It’s awful, he wanted to say. I’ve never seen or heard anything quite so appalling. Dreadful. Horrid. You call yourself a composer? It’s laughable!
But somehow, the words wouldn’t cross his lips. Something in Mozart’s eyes held them back, leaving only room for the truth.
“It’s perfection,” Salieri heard himself say slowly, the hateful fire returning to its slumbering state.
“You think so?” Mozart’s face relaxed, his smile returning. “Not too long or too difficult, like you said about the first movement?”
“No, I think it’s perfect.”
“I’m so glad…” Mozart sighed and suddenly rested his forehead on Salieri’s shoulder.
Salieri’s eyes widened in surprise. He stood stock-still, not knowing what to do all, except for thanking the Lord no one was there to witness the scarlet red hue creeping up his neck. Mozart’s hair tickled his nose, but he said nothing about it. They stood like that for what seemed like eternity and also a split second.
Finally, Mozart lifted his head and changed personalities.
“I mean,” he said, grinning. “I know it’s perfect, of course. I composed it.”
Salieri rolled his eyes.
“But I’m glad you think so too,” Mozart said and after a short pause added: “Because I ardently admire you.”
Salieri’s breath stopped in his throat for a moment. He looked at the young man with a mixture of surprise and distrust.
Suddenly, Mozart leaned in and whispered in his ear: “I actually don’t always carry around quatre-mains pieces. I’ve just dreamed of playing with you for a long time.”
As Mozart pulled back, his lips brushed Salieri’s cheek. He looked into Salieri’s eyes for a moment.
“Thank you, monsieur Salieri.”
Mozart then grinned and started skipping away, back to the party, leaving Salieri behind in a state of twisted confusion.
Had this scene been caused by a temporary fit of drunkenness or had it been true sincerity? Salieri didn’t know, but he wondered whether the fire within him was perhaps more than just jealousy.