Tag Archives: poison

Was Mozart Executed?

With his permission, I am posting DaPonte String Quartet cellist Myles Jordan’s essay on the controversy surrounding Mozart’s death. Myles wants me to point out that this is a work in progress, that he is still doing research, and that the final version will include references. Even in this preliminary form, it makes sense to me.

Peter Gay writes in his popular Mozart biography that “There is no evidence Mozart was aware of the French revolution.” This statement reflects a historical record examined in detail many times. There is, of course, limited evidence belonging to sources independent of “the official historical record” that Leopold Ranke, inventor of modern historiography, designed to allow victors to write history. Records of Masonic activities placing Mozart to the left of Rousseau, musical topoi reflected in several works — Die Zauberflöte, the string quartets, especially KV 464, collaborations with Beaumarchais, three works written for Benjamin Franklin’s harmonium, a piano concerto beginning like La Marseillaise — even without the documented insubordinate behavior toward both ecclesiastical and State authorities the list is extensive. It is quite certain Mozart would today be called a radical of the left. He was a feminist — extremely rare for that time — a revolutionary sympathizer and, as an itinerant musician, permitted to travel much more freely in Europe than most people of his class. He was certainly a very politically aware and active man; why, then, should the historical record be completely silent about his attitude toward the events of 1789?

Mozart was likely of use to the Masonic movement as a courier. Legend places him more than once at the Café Procope in Paris (still standing), the informant-infested favorite watering-hole of Jefferson, Franklin, and Beaumarchais (whose own activities as a Crown secret agent operating on behalf of American revolutionary efforts were undertaken under the alias Roderique Hortalez). By 1790 Mozart may have become a dangerous courtier in the eyes of the Emperor, who was Marie Antoinette’s brother, and brought under scrutiny. The task of ascertaining if and how his politics, contacts, and activities posed any threat to the State would have been assigned to Mozart’s immediate superior at Court, the implicitly-trusted Antonio Salieri. There is evidence the courts of France and Austria occasionally shared intelligence.

How did Mozart die? Trichinosis, rheumatic fever and alcoholism are all suspected today; their symptoms match those described by eyewitnesses. The effects of arsenic trioxide poisoning that are also consistent with Mozart’s symptoms are rare; the old Salieri-poisoned-Mozart story is usually ruled out as a conspiracy theory because, as the senior, better-paid court composer, Salieri had no motive to kill him. (Nor was Salieri — teacher of Liszt, Beethoven, Czerny, Moscheles, and Schubert — anything like the mediocrity he is believed to be today.) Yet this story is worth another look, on other grounds.

On one hand, blame for Mozart’s murder would, bluntly, have been an endlessly-protracted public relations nightmare for the House of Habsburg. Immediately after Mozart’s death a celebration of his life and work for which “more than half the city of Prague turned out” gives some sense how beloved he had become. On the other hand, Mozart’s acceptance of salary from a royal employer whose downfall he plotted was equally unacceptable, and this was neither the age nor place a disloyal employee might be given a pink slip and three weeks’ notice. Were the Emperor to have approved his execution there was ample reason for Court to thoroughly purge the historical record and to disseminate a cover-story. The official story is at odds with several established facts, and its timing coincides with a major offensive taken by the Emperor against foreign and domestic revolutionary elements, chiefly Masonic.

Franz Niemetschek testified in 1798 that Constanze Mozart had related the couple were driving in the Prater in June, 1791 when a perfectly healthy Mozart began to talk of his death, half a year before its occurrence. “I cannot rid myself of the thought that someone has poisoned me with acqua toffana [an odorless, colorless arsenic compound]. It is for myself that I am writing the Requiem. Surely my end is not far off. I have the metallic taste in my mouth.” This conversation followed closely on the arrest of Marie Antoinette at Varennes, an event that understandably put the Emperor on high alert. After Mozart’s death, both the bloating and absence of rigor mortis, consistent with poisoning, fanned the widespread belief, reported in a Berlin musical journal, that he had been executed. The same observations, corroborated years later by son Carl Thomas Mozart, were vigorously refuted by his mother (this particular poison

was a means by which younger wives of older husbands sometimes brought on a welcome widowhood). However, both she and Carl are on record at other moments holding Salieri responsible for Mozart’s death; its timing was also very close to the Emperor’s Declaration of Pillnitz, which alludes in its text to serious warnings about the dangers of Freemasonry in a brief from his chief of secret police.

There was no autopsy, “owing to the body’s stench.” The attending doctor, one of the most respected in Vienna, gave him very poor care according to Constanza, and predicted almost to the hour the time of Mozart’s passing from a “miliary fever” that was certainly not contagious. Constanze, in one of those “alas, spectacular” operatic displays of grief similar to televised demonstrations of spousal mourning at Communist state funerals, threw herself on her husband’s body in order to follow him speedily to the grave. Although she was in no danger there was indeed an “epidemic” of deaths in Vienna from Mozart’s ailment, plausibly indicating a coordinated, wholesale purge of Vienna’s political undesirables.

She did not accompany his body to the graveyard where it was unceremoniously dumped because, it was said, of inclement weather. This does not comport with Vienna’s detailed official meteorological records for that day. She did collect his pension, provided by the Emperor. The official story, which holds that Mozart’s unmarked grave was nothing unusual for the time, begs the question what other artist of similar attainments ever received a similar funeral in Vienna. Haydn, Beethoven, even the impoverished, much less-established Schubert: all were given “honor graves.”

One of Beethoven’s 1823 conversation books shows an exchange where Beethoven is given the recent news that his former teacher, Salieri (d.1825, and by 1823 in early-stage dementia), has just attempted suicide by cutting his own throat and, further, that he has claimed responsibility for poisoning Mozart. This claim is immediately refuted by Salieri’s doctors, who go to extraordinary lengths — writing letters in Italian, etc. — to discredit the old man’s outburst. When Ignaz Moscheles visits him some time later in the asylum, Salieri himself tells Moscheles the rumor is ridiculous.

Salieri’s politics were apparently, like Mozart’s, very liberal at the time of the latter’s death. Late in life he revealed himself as a staunch conservative. His radical opera Le couronnement de Tarare, written in 1790 (the year before Mozart’s death), created the widespread impression that his politics lay much further to the left of their actual position. Considering for the moment the possibility Salieri wrote the work as a State mole in order to gain confidences, it would conceivably have given him access to a circle around the notoriously indiscreet Mozart sufficient to put several people on a purge list.

Salieri, a confidante of the Emperor’s (losing his position at Court immediately at the latter’s death), was not, however, the only Court composer at this time to write an opera at odds with his personal political convictions. Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, written in only eighteen days during the few months between the Prater conversation and his death, celebrates the Roman emperor Titus showing mercy toward subjects who had plotted against him (Tito was written for the coronation of his employer as Holy Roman Emperor). The message could hardly have been more explicit: this is Mozart’s eleventh-hour appeal for mercy.

It did not succeed. The Empress made a disparaging remark about Tito at its Prague premiere, calling it “Una porcheria tedescha” (German swinishness), a barb directed at Mozart — Caterino Mazzolá and Pietro Metastasio, the opera’s librettists, were both Italian — and at German reluctance to cooperate with the Emperor’s counterrevolutionary efforts. Five months after the Prater conversation Mozart’s health plummeted — from apparent full health to death — over fourteen days. Were he in fact poisoned, this sudden deterioration would indicate a second dose or series of doses, perhaps administered by his physician, his wife, or both.

DaPonte Solves Mozart Mystery

DaPonte String Quartet
Walpole Meeting House
Sept. 13, 2015

In each of its 19-year series of benefit concerts for the Walpole Meeting House, the DaPonte String Quartet includes a work written around the time that the meeting house was built—1772. Sunday night’s concert was no exception, beginning with the Mozart String Quartet in A Major K. 464.

The quartet, one of those dedicated to Haydn, has other connections to the New World. It is the first to incorporate Masonic musical symbolism in solidarity with Mozart’s brethren, who included revolutionaries such as Benjamin Franklin—for whom he composed music for the glass harmonica.

The program notes by DaPonte cellist Myles Jordan make a good case that Mozart may indeed have been poisoned, if not by his musical rival Salieri, then by other agents of the Austrian emperor, terrified of the popular young radical’s influence. (The Emperor’s sister, Marie Antoinette, had just lost her head to similar revolutionaries.) Not coincidentally, the DaPonte’s first winter series of concerts will be entitled “Enemies of the State.”

The quartet itself is long and “durch componiert” (thoroughly composed, perhaps too carefully.) It shows a more self-conscious effort at academic perfection than Mozart usually demonstrates. That said, it was a delight to hear in the fine acoustics of the old meeting house, lit only by flickering candles. Jordan excelled in the cello part, whose pizzicati gave the quartet its nickname of “The Drum.”

The Mozart was followed by the String Quartet No. 1 of Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) who died in a Nazi concentration camp. Written in 1924, the quartet nevertheless shows premonitions of the horror to come.

Its dance-like rhythms and folkish modes remind one of Smetana, but they are accompanied by strange wisps of sound, at the highest register, barely audible and often sul ponte (on the bridge) that make them seem like floating spirits, menacing or not. The final movement, with its ticking clock that eventually winds down, should be a cliche, but instead remains highly effective.

This is a wonderful work, that the DaPonte has made its own and recorded on a CD that captures the soundscape of the old meeting house.

The program concluded with a rousing performance of the Mendelssohn Quartet in D Major Opus 44, No. 1. Its mood swings are those of a young composer who has just married and also lost his beloved sister. It reminded me of the old quote: “I wanted to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness kept breaking out.”

The quartet eventually transforms itself into a violin concerto, which Ferdinand Liva, Jr. managed with aplomb.