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Death of Mozart

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A 1789 portrait of Mozart in silverpoint by Doris Stock

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at 1:00 AM on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35, following a short illness.

Contents

Illness and last days

Mozart had health problems throughout his life, suffering at times from smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism and gum disease.[1] His final illness began when he visited Prague (departing Vienna around 25 August 1791) to supervise the performance of his new opera La clemenza di Tito. The visit was fairly successful in professional terms,[2] but while in Prague Mozart began to feel seriously ill. His early biographer Franz Niemetschek wrote "he was pale and expression was sad, although his good humour was often shown in merry jest with his friends."[3].

Following his return, Mozart's condition gradually worsened.[4] For a while, he was still able to work. In particular, he completed his Clarinet Concerto, worked toward the completion of the Requiem (an anonymous commission from Count Walsegg, who wanted to pass himself off as the composer[5]) and conducted the premiere performance of The Magic Flute, September 30. But he became increasingly alarmed and despondent about his health, probably even delusional. A famous anecdote from his wife Constanze is related in Niemetschek's early biography:

"On his return to Vienna, his indisposition increased visibly and made him gloomily depressed. His wife was truly distressed over this. One day when she was driving in the Prater with him, to give him a little distraction and amusement, and they were sitting by themselves, Mozart began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears came to the eyes of the sensitive man: 'I feel definitely,' he continued, 'that I will not last much longer; I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.'"

Constanze had the idea of trying to cheer her husband by persuading him to give up work on the Requiem for a while, and she got him instead to complete the "Freimaurerkantate", K. 623, composed to celebrate the opening of a new Masonic temple for Mozart's own lodge.[6] This strategy actually worked for a time: the cantata was completed and premiered 18 November[7] with great success, and Mozart came home feeling "elated" (Solomon). He told Constanze,[8] "Yes I see I was ill to have had such an absurd idea of having taken poison, give me back the Requiem and I will go on with it."

However, Mozart's worst symptoms soon returned, together with the strong feeling that he was being poisoned. He became bedridden on November 20, suffering from swelling, pain and vomiting.

Death

The symptoms of the dying Mozart were described by his early biographer Nissen (Constanze's second husband), who took many of his details from an account provided him by Constanze's sister, Sophie Weber.[9] Nissen wrote, "[the illness] began with swelling in the hands and feet, which were almost completely immobilized, followed later by sudden vomiting. ... Until two hours before his passing he remained completely conscious."[10]His body swelled up so much he could no longer sit up in bed, or even move on his own.[11]

Mozart was comforted by members of his wife's family, with whom he was close. His mother-in-law Cäcilia Weber and his sister-in-law Sophie made him a night jacket "which he could put on frontways, since on account of his swollen condition he was unable to turn in bed."[12]

Mozart died at 1:00 in the morning on 5 December. His wife, family, and friends were distraught; Sophie remembered:

"I cannot possibly describe the boundless misery of his faithful wife as she threw herself on her knees and implored succour from the Almighty for His aid. She could not tear herself away from him, beg her as I did."[13]

Funeral

The funeral arrangements were made by Mozart's friend and patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The Grove Dictionary describes his funeral thus: "Mozart was buried in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December. If, as later reports say, no mourners attended, that too is consistent with Viennese burial customs at the time; later Jahn (1856)[14] wrote that Salieri, Süssmayr, van Swieten and two other musicians were present. The tale of a storm and snow is false; the day was calm and mild."[15]

Aftermath

Constanze soon recovered from her despair and energetically addressed the task of providing financial security for her family (the Mozarts had two young children, and Mozart had died with debts outstanding). She successfully appealed to the Emperor (11 December 1791) for a widow's pension (Mozart had served the Emperor in a part-time position as chamber composer), and she organized a series of concerts of Mozart's music, along with the publication of many of her husband's works. These efforts were successful, and in time Constanze became secure, even well-off.[16]

The tradition of Mozart biography began soon after the composer's death. Friedrich Schlichtegroll wrote an early account (based on information from Mozart's sister Nannerl), as did Franz Niemetschek (who worked with Constanze). Much later, Constanze assisted her second husband Georg Nikolaus von Nissen in a more detailed biography (1826).

Mozart's musical reputation rose quickly following his death; Solomon describes an "unprecedented wave of enthusiasm"[16] for his work, and multiple publishers issued editions of his compositions.

What people remembered

Individuals who were present at the time of Mozart's death eventually committed their memories to writing, either on their own or through interviews by others. The stories they told are not entirely mutually compatible, which may be due in part to some of them dating to the 1820s, when the witnesses' memories might have faded.

Benedikt Schack, Mozart's close friend for whom he wrote the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute, told an interviewer that on the last day of Mozart's life, he participated in a rehearsal of the Requiem in progress:[17]

"On the very eve of his death, [Mozart] had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed, and himself (it was two o'clock in the afternoon) sang the alto part; Schack, the family friend, sang the soprano line, as he had always previously done, Hofer, Mozart's brother-in-law, took the tenor, Gerl, later a bass singer at the Mannheim Theater, the bass. They were at the first bars of the Lacrimosa when Mozart began to weep bitterly, laid the score on one side, and eleven hours later, at one o'clock in the morning (of 5 December 1791, as is well known), departed this life."

The tale seems difficult to reconcile with the description of Mozart's physical condition given in other sources; perhaps Schack misremembered the day. Biographer Niemetschek gives a vaguely similar tale, not mentioning a rehearsal:

"On the day of his death he asked for the score to be brought to his bedside. 'Did I not say before, that I was writing this Requiem for myself?' After saying this, he looked yet again with tears in his eyes through the whole work."[18]

The widely repeated claim that Mozart on his deathbed dictated passages of the Requiem to his pupil Süssmayr (an incident providing a model for later fictional accounts) is strongly discounted by Solomon, who notes that the earliest reference for this claim dates to 1856. However, Sophie Weber did claim to recall the composer giving instructions to Süssmayr.[19]

An 1840 letter from the composer Ignaz von Seyfried says that on his last night Mozart was also mentally occupied with his opera The Magic Flute, which was continuing a very successful run following its premiere on September 30. Mozart is said to have whispered the following to Konstanze, mentioning Konstanze's sister Josepha Hofer, the coloratura soprano who premiered the role of the Queen of the Night:

"Quiet, quiet! Hofer is just taking her top F; — now my sister-in-law is singing her second aria, 'Der Hölle Rache'; how strongly she strikes and holds the B-flat: 'Hört! hört! hört! der Mutter Schwur'"[20]

Mozart had heard the opera several times, as he enjoyed taking friends and relatives[21] and would have known in rough terms the times his sister-in-law was singing.

The memories quoted above, which may be romanticized, are commonly repeated in discussion of Mozart's last days. Solomon notes that biographers have often left out the crueler memories.[19] For instance, he reports another memory of Constanze thus:

"Constanze Mozart told Nissen that just before the end Mozart asked her what [his physician] Dr. Closset had said. When she answered with a soothing lie, he said, 'It isn't true,' and he was very distressed: 'I shall die, now when I am able to take care of you and the children.[22] Ah, now I will leave you unprovided for.' And as he spoke these words, 'suddenly he vomited —it gushed out of him in an arc— it was brown, and he was dead.'"[19]

Mozart's older son Karl, aged seven, was present, and later wrote:

"Particularly remarkable is in my opinion that fact that a few days before he died, his whole body became so swollen that the patient was unable to make the smallest movement, moreover, there was stench, which reflected an internal disintegration which, after death, increased to the extent that an autopsy was impossible."[19]

Posthumous diagnoses

Medicine was in a primitive state in Mozart's day, and it was impossible at the time to determine what had caused the composer's death. The entry for Mozart in the parish register says he died of "severe miliary fever",[23] which only describes his symptoms ("miliary" means "having millet-sized bumps on the skin"), not the actual disease. Any later efforts to determine what killed Mozart can only rely on reinterpretation of the written record.

The most sensational hypothesis for what killed Mozart, which spread as a rumor after his death, was that he was poisoned by his composer colleague Antonio Salieri. However, these rumours were likely false; the symptoms that Mozart showed were unlikely indications of poisoning.[24] Despite denying the allegations, Salieri was greatly affected by the accusation, which contributed to nervous breakdowns in later life.[25]

Some ascribe Mozart's death to malpractice on the part of his physician, Dr. Closset. Sophie Weber, in her 1825 account to Nissen, implies as much, though she does not state so directly. Borowitz summarizes:

When Mozart appeared to be sinking, one of his doctors, Dr. Nikolaus Closset, was sent for and finally located at the theater. However, according to Sophie's account, that drama-lover "had to wait till the piece was over." When he arrived, he ordered cold compresses put on Mozart's feverish brow, but these "provided such a shock that he did not regain consciousness again before he died."[26]

A recent suggestion is that Mozart died, ironically, as a result of his hypochondria and his predilection to taking patent medicines containing antimony. In his final days this was compounded by further prescriptions of antimony to relieve the fever he clearly suffered. If this suggestion is correct, he thus accidentally poisoned himself with antimony.[27]

Recent studies by a panel of experts have concluded that Mozart died of natural causes. Physicians at the University of Maryland, Baltimore concluded that Mozart died from rheumatic fever. Among the physicians was a Mozart scholar, who said that although rheumatic fever was the most likely diagnosis, it will probably never be possible to confirm it as the indisputable cause of death, though it is highly unlikely that Mozart died of unnatural causes.[11]

In 2009, British, Viennese and Dutch researchers performed an epidemiological research combined with a study of other deaths in Vienna at the time of Mozart's death. They concluded that Mozart plausibly died of a streptococcal infection leading to an acute nephritic syndrome caused by poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis. This disease was also called "Wassersucht" in Austria.[28]

Notes

  1. ^ For a thorough survey of Mozart's health history, with an M.D.'s proposed diagnoses, see Davies 1984.
  2. ^ For details, see Solomon 1995, 485–486.
  3. ^ Quoted in Solomon 1995, 487
  4. ^ For this Solomon (1995, 586) cites an article in the Berlin Musikalisches Wochenblatt ("Musical Weekly"), written shortly after Mozart's death.
  5. ^ Solomon 1995, 482–485
  6. ^ Solomon 1995, 490
  7. ^ Deutsch, 413
  8. ^ The words are as related by Constanze decades later to the visiting English diarist Mary Novello; quoted from Solomon 1995, 490.
  9. ^ Alfred Borowitz, "Salieri and the 'Murder' of Mozart." Musical Quarterly. 59.2 (Apr. 1973). 265–6.
  10. ^ Quoted in Solomon 1995, 491
  11. ^ a b Crawford, Franklin (17 February 2000). "Experts rule out foul play in the death of Mozart". Cornell Chronicle. http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/00/2.17.00/Mozart_death.html. Retrieved 10 September 2007. 
  12. ^ Letter of Sophie to Nissen, 1825; quoted in Solomon 1995, 492
  13. ^ Quotation from an 1825 letter to Nissen; Deutsch 1965, 525–526.
  14. ^ This refers to Biographie Mozarts, the extensive biography of Mozart by Otto Jahn.
  15. ^ New Grove, "Mozart", section 6
  16. ^ a b Solomon 1995, 499
  17. ^ Deutsch (1965, 536–7). The tale appeared in an obituary for Schack, published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, issue of July 25, 1827 ([1]).
  18. ^ Niemetschek biography, quoted in Solomon 1995, 493
  19. ^ a b c d Solomon, 1995, 493
  20. ^ English "Hear! hear! hear! a mother's oath". Mozart or Konstanze misremembered exactly what the Queen of the Night sings, which is "Hört, hört, hört, Rachegötter! Hört der Mutter Schwur!" ("Hear, ye gods of revenge!")
  21. ^ Solomon 1995, 487–488
  22. ^ Mozart's financial condition had improved considerably during the year 1791; see Solomon 1995, ch. 30
  23. ^ Quoted in Solomon 1995, 494
  24. ^ For discussion, with references, of the poisoning rumor see Solomon 1995, 587. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music (ed. Stanley Sadie, 1988) states flatly, "He was not poisoned."
  25. ^ Deutsch 1965, 522, 524
  26. ^ Borowitz, 265–6.
  27. ^ Emsley, John (May 2005). The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 220–221. ISBN 0–19–280599–1. 
  28. ^ Zegers, Richard H.C.; Andreas Weigl, Andrew Steptoe (18 August 2009). "The Death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: An Epidemiologic Perspective". Annals of Internal Medicine 151 (4): 274–278. doi:10.1059/0003-4819-151-4-200908180-00010 (inactive 2010-01-07). PMID 19687494. http://www.annals.org/cgi/content/abstract/151/4/274. Retrieved 18 August 2009. 

References

  • Davies, Peter J. (1984) Mozart's Illnesses and Death — 1. The Illnesses, 1756–90. The Musical Times Vol. 125, No. 1698 (August), pp. 437–442. Available on JSTOR.
  • Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Solomon, Maynard (1995) Mozart: A Life. Harper Collins.

 

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