Prima la musica e poi le parole

Synopsis | Historical Context | Origins | Cast | Reception | Metamelodramma and Intertextuality


Prima la musica e poi le parole and Der Schauspieldirektor were repeated on February 11, 18, and 25, 1786, in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater, “with extraordinary approval and large crowds”.1 These were the only other contemporary performances of Salieri’s opera after the premiere at Schönbrunn.2 It seems to be an about-face of history that, in the nineteenth century, Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor experienced a not insignificant reception, while Salieri’s Prima la musica was almost completely forgotten – with the exception of the title whose motto has survived in aesthetic discussions of the priority of word and tone. This fact of historical forgetfulness is ultimately grounded in the concept of Casti’s opera text: Precisely because Casti and Salieri gave the categories of allusion, quotation, and parody wide scope in their work, the opera was hardly ‘performable’ outside of the self-referential network of the Viennese theatre world. In Vienna itself, Prima la musica, it would seem, was apparently an existential ‘counterpart’ to Der Schauspieldirektor, since the historical opera evening in the Orangery was understood as a unit. While Prima la musica apparently left no traces in nineteenth-century theatre, the reception of its aesthetic thought patterns and their discussion in the twentieth century should not be disregarded. Concrete dramatic traces of this discussion are found above all in two operas by Richard Strauss: Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos. Both works may be classified in a certain sense as meta-operas because they each revolve around the theatrical thought patterns of poetic and musical composition. This discussion is doubtless more pronounced in Capriccio (1942), where it provides the dramatic superstructure for the work. The focus of Capriccio is the question of the potential superiority of music over language, for which Prima la musica had provided the model. Ariadne auf Naxos (second version, 1916) is something else. Here, Hugo von Hofmannsthal deliberately had the Prologue deal with theatre praxis. Already the procurement by the “Monseigneur in Vienna” of the work to be composed, launched by the Major-Domo, is reminiscent of the opening of Prima la musica. Still more, however, is the configuration of a self-contained opera seria whose ‘non-generic’ elements seem to have been overheard from Casti. Ultimately, the condition that an opera seria and a piece in the “buffa style” should be merged into one work – whose duration interestingly was one hour, like Casti’s – makes it possible to condense perfectly the historical and dramatic implications of Prima la musica in Ariadne’s Prologue. Thereby, Salieri and Casti’s divertimento teatrale enjoyed a musical-aesthetic importance that far exceeded its contemporary reception as an opera.

1 Ephemeriden der Litteratur und des Theaters, vol. 3, (Berlin, 1786), pp. 189–190.
2 See the Wiener Theaterkalender auf das Jahr 1787, pp. 127, as well as the appendix to the Wiener Zeitung (1786), no. 13, p. 345.