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Mysteries & Secrets - Mozart

Buried in an Unmarked Grave
Decades later Sophie Haibel the younger sister of Mozart's wife, Constanze, still vividly remembered the eerie omen. On the first Sunday of December 1791, she was in the kitchen, preparing a cup of coffee for her mother. The previous day she had gone into the city of Vienna to visit her brother-in-law, who had fallen ill, but had returned with the news that he seemed better. Now, as she waited for the coffee to brew, Sophie stared pensively into the bright flame of an oil lamp and thought of Constanze's ailing husband. Suddenly, the flame went out "as completely as if the lamp had never been burning," she later wrote. "Not a spark remained on the main wick and yet there wasn't the slightest draught - that I can swear to." Seized with a horrible premonition, she ran to her mother, who advised her to return to Mozart's house without delay.

Constanze greeted her sister's arrival with relief, saying that Mozart had spent a restless night, and begged her to stay. "Ah, dear Sophie, how glad I am that you have come," the musician said. "You must stay here tonight and see me die." With him was a young assistant named Sussmayr, to whom Mozart was giving instructions for the completion of his last composition, a Requiem Mass. A priest was summoned, then a doctor, who ordered cold compresses to be placed on the patient's fevered brow. About an hour before midnight Mozart lost consciousness; at 12:55 A.M. on December 5, 1791, he died. The former child prodigy and prolific composer was two months short of his 36th birthday.

Unfinished portrait of Mozart Always pressed for money, Mozart had been working at a feverish pace to complete important commissions through much of the year, and to his friends and family he seemed tense and exhausted from overwork. But when he took to his bed on November 20, no one suspected that it was a terminal illness. The symptoms were listed by Georg Nikolaus Nissen, Constanze's second husband, in his 1828 biography of the composer: "It began with swelling in his hands and feet and an almost total inability to move; this was followed by sudden vomiting, and this is called acute military fever." This diagnosis was confirmed in the official register of death for the city of Vienna.

Mozart himself suspected foul play. Some weeks before his death, he told Constanze that he was being poisoned: "Someone has given me aqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death." An odorless, slow-acting poison with an arsenic base, aqua toffana was named for Teofania de Adamo, a 17t-century Italian woman who had invented the potion and dispensed it to would-be murderers. The Requiem Mass a mysterious stranger had commissioned him to write, Mozart came to believe, was for his own funeral service.

On December 31, 1791, a Berlin newspaper reported the composer's death and speculated on the cause. "Because his body swelled up after death, people even thought he had been poisoned." In an undated memorandum, Mozart's older son, Carl Thomas, recollected that his father's body was so swollen and the stench of putrefaction so great that an autopsy was not performed. Unlike most corpses that become stiff and cold, Mozart's body remained soft and elastic, as do those who die of poisoning.

But who would have wanted Mozart dead? The widow gave little credence to the rumor of poisoning and named no suspect. And thus the tale. was soon forgotten - only to be dramatically revived three decades later by none other than the rival who well may have wished Mozart dead.

The Envy of Salieri

Only five years older than Mozart, Antonio Salieri had been named court composer to Emperor Joseph 11 in 1774, at the age of 24. When Mozart arrived in Vienna seven years later, the Italian was the Austrian capital's reigning musician, held in high esteem by the aristocracy and a favorite with the city's demanding music lovers. Salieri was a facile and prolific composer, who was later to count among his pupils Beethoven, Schubert, and Franz Liszt. But Mozart he quickly perceived as a rival, a genius whose talent he could never match. Few in Viennese music circles doubted Salieri's envy of Mozart, and Mozart made no secret of his contempt for the court composer.

Salieri lived to see all Vienna celebrate the 50th anniversary of his appointment as court composer in 1824. But a year earlier he made a startling statement. In October 1823 a pupil of Beethoven's named Ignaz Moscheles paid a call on the elderly Salieri, by then a patient in a suburban hospital.

Able to speak only in broken sentences and preoccupied with his imminent death, Salieri gave his word of honour that "there is no truth in that absurd rumor; you know that I am supposed to have poisoned Mozart." It was pure malice, he told the shocked Moscheles; "tell the world ... old Salieri, who will soon die, has told you." A month later, Salieri tried to commit suicide. Visitors to his sickbed reported that he was having fantasies about his responsibility for Mozart's death and wanted to confess his sin. The much honored court composer died the next year.

The Italian biographer of Haydn, Giuseppe Carpani, tried to salvage his countryman's honor. He sought out a doctor consulted at the time of Mozart's final illness and got from him a diagnosis of rheumatic fever. If Mozart had been poisoned, Carpani demanded, where was the evidence? "Useless to ask. There is no evidence, and it is also impossible ever to find any."

After her husband's death, Constanze sent her younger son to take lessons from Salieri. Asked about the rumor that the court composer had poisoned his father, the boy said that Salieri had not killed Mozart but had "truly poisoned his life with intrigues." Salieri himself was heard to say that it was a pity that Mozart had died so young but perhaps just as well for other composers; if he had lived longer, "not a soul would have given us a crust of bread for our work."

A Husband's Jealousy

A second suspect in the rumored murder was Franz Hofdemel, a Masonic lodge brother of the composer, whose attractive young wife, Magdalena, was one of Mozart's last piano students. A few days after Mozart's death, Hofdemel savagely attacked his pregnant wife with a razor, maiming and disfiguring her with slashes to the face, throat, and arms, and then killed himself. Magdalena survived and five months later bore a child who, gossips insisted, was Mozart's.

Mozart's older sister, Maria Anna, once remarked that her brother only gave lessons to young women when he was in love with them. And the prudish Ludwig van Beethoven, years after Mozart's death, refused to play in the presence of Magdalena because "too great an intimacy had existed between her and Mozart." Yet, from the observations of contemporaries and from his surviving letters, Mozart appears to have been deeply devoted to Constanze, and there is no evidence of any extramarital affairs. Finally, Empress Maria Luisa took a personal interest in Magdalena's tragedy, which she would scarcely have done if there was any truth to the stories about her baby's paternity.

Revenge of the Freemasons?

Yet another rumor was spread in the months following Mozart's death: The composer was marked for punishment because he had revealed secrets of the Freemasons in The Magic Flute. The allegorical opera was given its premiere in Vienna on September 30, 1791, with Mozart himself conducting, and was a great critical and popular success. Among the admirers was Salieri, who accompanied Mozart to a subsequent performance and - as Mozart proudly wrote to Constanze said that he had never seen "a more beautiful or pleasant production."

Although some of Mozart's fellow Masons may have been startled by The Magic Flute, the composer and his librettist, Emmanuel Schikaneder, used the opera to introduce the secret society's ideals of courage, love, and fraternity to a wider audience. The subject was treated with sympathy, respect, and a dash of good humor.

Far from being offended by the opera, Vienna's Freemasons commissioned Mozart to compose a cantata, which he dashed off in a few days between the premiere of The Magic Flute and the onset of his final illness. A few days after Mozart's death, the grand master of his lodge paid tribute to him as "the most beloved and meritorious" of its members and called his passing "an irreplaceable loss." In 1792 Vienna's Freemasons staged a performance of the cantata for the benefit of Mozart's widow and sons.

Rushed to Burial

Only a dog follows Mozart's unattended burial. Because Constanze was so hard-pressed for money at the time of her husband's death, she chose the cheapest funeral; its cost has been estimated as $30. At 2:30 P.M. on December 7, the body was removed to St. Stephen's cathedral, where a few mourners - including, it is believed, Salieri - attended the priest's blessing in a side chapel. Rain mixed with snow was said to have deterred the witnesses from accompanying the funeral wagon to St. Mark's cemetery, about an hour's walk away; and so there was no one to note the spot where the body was placed in a mass grave. In actuality, as a diarist wrote at the time, December 7 was a mild though hazy day.

Later explaining that she had thought the church would arrange for a cross or marker at her husband's grave, Constanze erected no memorial to Mozart. Not until 1859 was a marble monument erected at St. Mark's cemetery, its precise placement there being a matter of guesswork.

Medical Detective Work

Mozart's mysterious death and hasty burial have been the subject of intense debate and speculation for two centuries. In 1966 a Swiss physician named Carl Bar dismissed the contemporary diagnosis of "acute military fever" as amateurish and unprofessional. Based on evidence handed down from Mozart's physician, Dr. Nicolaus Closset, Bar suggested rheumatic fever, an acute noninfectious disease marked by painful inflammation of the joints. In 1984 another physician, Peter J. Davies, published an even more extensive anaylsis of Mozart's medical history and final illness.

In 1762, the year that the six-year-old musical prodigy made his concert debut and began composing, Mozart contracted a streptococcal infection of the upper respiratory system. The effects of such an infection can be delayed for months, even years. Subsequently, the boy suffered bouts of tonsillitis, typhoid fever, smallpox, bronchitis, and yellow jaundice, or type A virus hepatitis. In 1784, three years after his arrival in Vienna, the composer endured a major illness with symptoms that included violent vomiting and a rheumatic inflammatory fever.

Dr. Davies concluded his analysis of Mozart's health problems by blaming his death on a combination of a streptococcal infection contracted during an epidemic, kidney failure arising from an allergic hypersensitivity known as Sch6nleinHenoch syndrome, a cerebral hemorrhage, and terminal bronchopneurnonia. Among the side effects of kidney failure, Dr. Davies noted, are depression, personality change, and mental delusions - which may account for Mozart's morbid belief that he was being poisoned and that the unfinished Requiem Mass had been commissioned for his own funeral.

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