Opus Colorado

Mozart's Death

Every now and again a new theory comes to light concerning the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since Mozart died the theories have encompassed all manner of death from accidental suicide, political assassination, a fractured skull due to a fall from a horse, medical errors, renal failure: the list goes on and on. Some individuals still believe that Mozart was poisoned. ABC News reported today, August 18, 2009, that a group of doctors in Europe headed by Dr. Andrew Steptoe, announced that it was their opinion that Mozart died of a strep infection. This is not the first time that theory has been put forward. They base their conclusion on the fact that his symptoms included swelling and back pain. They do offer the caveat that even though they have done some research, the result is speculation. Of course, it would have to be, since we have no body to deal with and of course, it has been two hundred and eighteen years since he died.

The doctors do not seem to know about a remarkable book which was published in 2004. It was written by Daniel Leeson, and published by Algora Publishing in New York. The name of the book is “Opus Ultimum: The Story of The Mozart Requiem.” Since Mozart’s Requiem Mass was left unfinished by his death, Mr. Leeson deals with the time of his death, the symptoms of his death, as well as considerable research as to how his Requiem was finished. It seems amazing to me that the doctors who theorized that Mozart died of a strep infection do not seem to know of this book. They have undoubtedly read some sources but they leave out one important symptom that Leeson mentions in his book. It is that Mozart’s body exuded such an incredibly foul odor that it was very difficult for anyone to enter his room. He was also sometimes delirious and sometimes unconscious. His body was indeed swollen, but it was swollen to such an extent that even the touch of his nightshirt caused pain. And as Leeson points out, and I quote, “Many years later, his older son Karl, then seven, would remember standing in a corner of the room, terrified at seeing his father’s swollen body, and unable to forget the appalling smell of decay.” Since I am not a doctor, I asked a friend who is a doctor to comment on the extreme swelling and the foul smell caused by Mozart’s disease. Of course, as I pointed out above, and as Dr. Steptoe and his team pointed out, it was a long time ago, but my friend said that such an odor would be most likely caused by some kind of anaerobic infection that might be similar to gangrene. There are two kinds of bacteria that cause infection. The first, is an aerobic bacterium which requires air to live. The second, is an anaerobic bacterium, and of this type does not require surface air in order to survive, and it often involves the decay of flesh. And I would like to point out that Karl Mozart’s account of the odor was not the only such account.

So, in the end we still don’t know what killed Mozart, but it seems that if Dr. Steptoe and his team were familiar with Daniel Leeson’s book they may have come to a different conclusion.

The cause of Mozart’s death and the manner of it is important, because it puts to rest much of the nonsense that was in the movie “Amadeus.” In the movie, Mozart died while dictating his Requiem Mass to Salieri. It may be good scene in the movie but it did not happen. Mozart’s friends simply could not enter his room because the odor was too strong, plus he was going in and out of consciousness and was often delirious. We also know that Salieri did not finish Mozart’s Requiem. It was finished by Franz Xavier Sussmayr, Mozart’s student, who had often discussed a Requiem Mass with his teacher, and even though a fairly mediocre composer, he rose to the occasion when he finished Mozart’s Requiem.

It should be pointed out, however, that the reason for Mozart’s composing his Requiem was surrounded by a bit of a mystery as the movie “Amadeus” depicted, but it was hardly all that sinister. Not far from Vienna there lived a minor Count named Franz Josef Anton von Wallsegg. The Count’s wife, Maria Anna Teresa Prenner Edlen von Flammberg died at a young age and her husband desired to honor her with a Requiem. However, Count Wallsegg was known to commission works from composers and then claim them for his own. And that was the reason Wallsegg asked that the commission be kept secret. Mozart, and his wife, Constanze, needed the money from the commission because they always spent lavishly. Mozart died without finishing the Requiem, and eventually it fell to Sussmayr to finish it at Constanze’s bidding because she was desperate for the money from the commission. Constanze Mozart suspected Wallsegg might be planning a fraud, and before she gave the completed score to him she had it performed in Vienna and sent a copy to Mozart’s publisher, therefore eliminating any chance that Count Wallsegg could claim it as his own.

This is a fascinating story which is true. I would encourage all of you to read Daniel Leeson’s book, as it is a very scholarly account written, surprisingly, not for fellow scholars, but for the public at large. Leeson goes to great lengths to prove that many of the stories surrounding Mozart’s death are myths. But for me, there is still a mystery caused by the fact that I am not a doctor, but from what I have heard, the strong odor that emanated from Mozart’s dying body would probably rule out any kind of a strep infection. I think that it is safe to say that he did not die of strep throat, as one newspaper almost playfully reported.

The movie, “Amadeus,” did portray Mozart’s personality accurately, and therefore he probably would be a bit amused by all the furor about the cause of his death. I am sure that he would much prefer that we all sit down and listen to one of his symphonies, a quartet, or a sonata.