How Did Mozart Really Die?

By S. Stasov

Photo: Wikipedia

The problems surrounding Mozart’s early death and possible murder have generated more conspiracy theories than the JFK assassination. Immediately after he died in 1791, rumors of poisoning flashed across Europe. Mozart’s financial chaos at the end and the uncertainty surrounding his death have fascinated legions of adoring admirers for over two centuries, becoming a bit of a cottage industry for scholars, writers, and music lovers.

The film Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer’s play, was a product of the Mozartean rumor mill. Shaffer’s Amadeus derived from the rich compost pile of 19th century Mozart death rumors, which were nourished by popular musical and literary sources. During his life and after, gossip and speculation proliferated about Mozart because of his international fame and glittering genius. A charismatic celebrity by age 6, Mozart was plagued throughout his life by resentful competitors. He possessed a seemingly effortless and inexhaustible supply of musical gifts, but his impudence and spontaneity infuriated his rivals. He was constantly confronted with hostilities and intrigues to block his success. Murder was not such a far fetched idea for the public to contemplate, considering the animosity his flamboyant genius provoked.

One interesting report illustrates Mozart’s eccentricity and casual insolence toward the nobility. The adult Mozart was performing at a gathering of adoring aristocrats who were in tearful thrall to his artistry. Suddenly, Mozart sprang off the bench and leapt across the piano. Landing on all fours, he began meowing like a cat in front of his stunned audience.

At this time, musicians were considered second class citizens – servants to their noble patrons. Mozart never adjusted to this one down position, and made little effort to hide his feelings about his own superiority. When he quit his job as court musician to the Archbishop of Salzburg in 1781, Mozart became the first freelance artist in history. No previous musicians had attempted to survive without noble patronage. Mozart’s audacity and belief in his own talent motivated this historic act of independence, paving the way for Beethoven’s later heroic stance in the 19th century.

Even as a child, Mozart was plotted against, obstructed, and undermined by countless lesser musicians who were mere artistic midgets by comparison. Other than his friend Haydn, it’s hard to recall a single composer who was a contemporary of Mozart’s. He eclipsed all the competition, forming many enemies. Because his stardom fueled such rivalry and envy, murder allegations were easy for the public to believe.

Back to the poisoning. One of the more virulent rumors to appear shortly after he died asserted that the Italian composer Salieri had confessed to murdering Mozart. Salieri was one of the most popular composers of that period, though today his music is forgotten. Comfortably rich and famous, he was the teacher to young Beethoven and Schubert. In his old age, Salieri had been institutionalized for paralysis and dementia, and was said to have confessed to Mozart’s murder. There is no concrete evidence of this confession, yet the gossip persisted. Buzz about Salieri’s indictment even appeared in Beethoven’s conversation books, and became immortalized in Pushkin’s short tragedy Mozart and Salieri (1830), which portrayed Salieri as a jealous mediocrity who poisoned the sophomoric and innocent Mozart. Pushkin’s drama then inspired Rimsky-Korsakov’s one act opera, Mozart and Salieri (1898). These works fueled the Mozart’s-death-by-poison reports that ran rampant through 19th century music circles. Shaffer’s play drew on these rumors and the work of Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

There is absolutely no evidence or suspicion of foul play in any of the documents that recorded Mozart’s death. None of his attending physicians suspected anything unnatural. Yet the Mozart family correspondence frequently mentions Salieri’s plotting and intriguing against Mozart, and attempts to block him professionally. Salieri’s complicity in Mozart’s early death therefore cannot be entirely ignored. In spite of Salieri’s interference, Mozart’s final recorded comments on Salieri were kind, expressing his appreciation of the older composer’s admiration for The Magic Flute, which they attended together. Salieri acknowledged the Magic Flute as a grand opera, worthy of performance before the greatest monarch.

What did kill Mozart at the age of 35? As a celebrated child prodigy, he had contracted nearly every contagious disease raging across Europe during his long and arduous performing tours. Mozart was a high strung, sensitive artist. He had a small, fragile body which miraculously recovered from smallpox, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and strep infections, all of which attacked him on his childhood road trips, wearing down his immune system. Overwork, depression, and financial worries caught up with him as an adult. The stress and anxiety brought on by professional obstacles, intentionally placed in Mozart’s path by Salieri and other envious musicians, were the real factors contributing to his death. The entry in Mozart’s death register reads “Hitziges Frieselfieber” (rash and fever) with no mention of suspicious symptoms. An epidemic of this fever took many lives in Vienna at that time; Mozart was one of a number of victims who succumbed to this infectious disease.

Peter Shaffer’s play and film twist some of the facts about Mozart. Salieri is depicted in disguise as the commissioner of the Requiem mass, Mozart’s final, incomplete masterpiece. It is true that a mysterious unknown man appeared in cloaked disguise at the Mozart residence some months before Mozart died, requesting a funeral mass from Mozart for any fee he desired. In reality, that man was an agent from a Count Walsegg, a failed composer who commissioned works by other musicians, passing them off as his own creations. The count’s wife had recently died, and the Requiem was to be dedicated to her. The financially strapped Mozart did not know the identity of his anonymous patron, and in the anxious weeks that followed, his health went into serious decline.

Constanze, Mozart’s wife, relayed the story of this commission, and existing documentation substantiates her report. One day, in an attempt to alleviate her husband’s increasing depression and ill health, she took him for a stroll in the park. During this walk, Mozart wept as he confessed his fears that he had been poisoned, that he had the taste of death on his lips, and that he was composing the Requiem mass for himself. This story, which Constanze shared with later researchers, added fuel to the spurious reports that Mozart had been poisoned.

As for Shaffer’s version of Mozart’s funeral, fact is again blurred by fiction and legend. The funeral was, for unknown reasons, sparsely attended. Constanze was too ill to be present. She had endured six difficult pregnancies during their nine years of marriage, and was in fact pregnant once again when her husband died. Sadly, only two of their children survived. At that time, Emperor Joseph II had implemented numerous social reforms, including changes in burial regulations. The majority of the dead were dumped into anonymous group graves outside of town for purposes of economy and hygiene. While one of Mozart’s wealthy admirers could have easily managed to give Mozart an appropriately dignified funeral and burial, he seems to have been abandoned and deplorably neglected at the end of his life.

Salieri is not the only suspect among poisoning conspiracy enthusiasts. Others who stood accused of murdering Mozart ranged from the Freemasons and Illuminati to the Jews. Mozart was a loyal Mason, and of the two kinds of lodges in Vienna at that time – the scientific atheist and the Rosicrucian Catholic – Mozart belonged to the latter, which was permeated with mystical rituals. His populist opera, The Magic Flute, was presumed to have enraged the Freemasons for its flagrant depiction of (what was thought to be) secret Masonic rites. Suspicions of Masonic and Jewish plots against Mozart thrived well into the Nazi era, with entire books written on the subject.

While Mozart was a committed Mason, it’s actually difficult to tell if Mozart is taking Freemasonry seriously in the Magic Flute. He has fun with its ceremonial procedures and sanctimony, injecting silliness in the opera’s most sacred moments. He even allows a woman to be initiated as an equal, an unthinkable taboo in 18th century Viennese Masonry. The revered leader of the Magic Flute’s secret order, while given beautiful music, is a questionable character. He is a punitive slaveholder, has his black slave beaten, and, to top it off, he has kidnapped the heroine and is holding her hostage. None of these plot details are in accord with Enlightenment ideals, but are consistent with Mozart’s subversive tendencies in life and in art. Most of Mozart’s important operas depict aristocrats as sexual predators who are ultimately trumped by subordinates.

Similar to urban legends about Elvis’s death, the myths about Mozart’s murder live on, with insinuations of Salieri’s guilt. Here are links to Mozart’s final masterpiece, the Requiem Mass in D minor K. 626:

Mozart Requiem Mass K.626
Karl Böhm, Gundala Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier, Walter Berry

Georg Solti, Cecilia Bartoli, Arlene Auger, Vinson Cole, Rene Pape

2 thoughts on “How Did Mozart Really Die?

  1. Hi MBB. Thanks for your comment. It’s fun to speculate on the causes of Mozart’s death, and you’re certainly not alone. But there is enough evidence to disprove your position, and to vindicate Mozart from accusations of alcoholism or of lead poisoning, which no serious scholar suggests.

    The historic Mozart had exquisite, expensive taste in clothes, food, and lifestyle. Raised in the context of the European nobility, he typically lived beyond his means, and cheap wine just wasn’t his style. There is enough documentation to support the idea that Mozart loved punch and champaign, but drink didn’t kill him.

    Quite a few Mozart-loving physicians have combed through his medical records over the years (I actually enjoy reading about Mozart’s health history, too). There is a great deal of detailed information about Mozart’s abundant childhood illnesses along with eye witness accounts of his last days. When added together, medical experts can make fairly confident diagnoses of his conditions.

    In addition to the illnesses I mentioned in the above article, Mozart also suffered abdominal typhoid as a child. It’s a miracle he survived childhood, but he was a powerful spirit. The testimonies of his attending doctors at his final illness read:

    “He fell sick in the late autumn of a rheumatic and inflammatory fever, which, being fairly general among us at that time, attacked many people. From the very beginning … [we] feared a fatal conclusion, namely a deposit on the brain…. Mozart died … with the usual symptoms of a deposit on the brain”. (The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment, William Stafford, Stanford University Press, 1991. pp 58-9)

    Another scholar, Maynard Solomon writes “It is now widely accepted that Mozart died of acute rheumatic fever; he had three or four known attacks of it, beginning in childhood and it has a tendency to recur, with increasingly serious potential consequences…” (Mozart: A Life Maynard Solomon, Harper Collins, 1995. p. 491)

    The deposit on the brain was caused by rheumatic fever. A loving husband, a tireless worker, a warm and loyal friend, Mozart was no alcoholic. The exploitation and the overwork he was subjected to as child and the tendency to work at a furious pace as an adult, combined with emotional stress surely contributed to his early death.

    If you are interested in Mozart’s health, here are some titles that have documented information:
    The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment, William Stafford; Stanford University Press, 1991
    Mozart in Person Peter, J. Davies MD; Greenwood Press, 1989
    Mozart: A Life, Maynard, Solomon; Harper Collins, 1995

    – Stasov

  2. Mozart drank. A lot. It ruined his kidneys, because there was lead in the wine bottle seals, and cheap wine is, well, cheap.
    He was poisoned, alright, but not by any one person. His kidneys began to fail, from a disease known as nephritis. It hurt. He drank more to ease the pain. The booze made his disease worse. It hurt more. He drank more. He died. Ouch. He was the Charlie Parker of his time.

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