Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Was Mozart Murdered?

Interest in and inquiry into the mystery of Mozart’s death wax and wane.  Every once in a while new theories surface.  Then the conundrum retreats again from public inquiry.  What intrigues me about it is how many of the conventions of mystery writing appear in the story of the great composer’s untimely death at age 35.  Misdirection, multiple suspects, various motives, clues and red herrings abound in this tale:  A confession that might or might not be false.  No autopsy.  A too-quick burial in an unmarked grave where the body could not be found if anyone wanted to exhume it.  A cover-up of circumstances to protect the reputation of the deceased.  And of those still living.  A number of theories describe natural causes that might have killed the famous man, but none exactly match the symptoms of his final illness.  If you had never read a murder mystery, you could make up the genre from the whole cloth of facts leading up to and following quickly after Mozart’s demise.

Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play Amadeus concentrates on a confession by Antonio Salieri, a rival composer of small gifts.  At the end of his life, insane with dementia, Salieri called out an apology for having killed Mozart and tried to cut his own throat.  He ended his days in a lunatic asylum.  Did he actually kill Mozart?  Probably not.  If not, who did?

Here are the true clues:
After an illness of a couple of months, Mozart died in Vienna at one in the morning on  5 December 1791 after a two-month illness.

In June of 1791, six months before his death, Mozart while strolling in a park in Vienna said to his wife Constanze, “Someone has given me aqua toffana.” He was claiming he was being poisoned with a well-known mixture of white arsenic, antimony, and lead oxide.   The effect of it is gradual and results in death only after several months.  It could easily have escaped detection by a doctor.

Though he seems to have had an affectionate relationship with his wife, Mozart had a reputation for taking advantage of the seductive powers of his genius.  In the year or so before he died, he and Constanze spent a lot of time apart—she, accompanied by a male friend, at a spa in Prague “for her health” and he in Vienna composing and giving music lessons to a beautiful young married woman named Magdalena Hofdemel.
The day after he died, Mozart’s burial consisted of a hurried funeral and pretty much the of dumping his body in an unmarked grave.  This for an ultra-famous man, who had many powerful friends, an acknowledged genius who worked for the ruling family.  He had been attended by doctors in his final illness, but their diagnosis and conclusions about the cause of death were never made public.

Vienna at the time of Mozart
Here is where the story gets gory: Magdalena Hofdemel and her husband lived on the first floor at 10 Gruenangergasse.  The day after Mozart’s death, a passerby heard what sounded like violence inside the apartment—arguing and screaming and then silence.  When no one could access to the building, a locksmith was called.  The three people who entered found Magdalena lying in a pool of blood.  Her face, neck, shoulder and arms had been slashed.  Her husband, who had locked himself in the next room, was found dead, his throat slashed, the razor still in his hand.

Magdalena lived.  Neither she nor Constanze, who lived to be 79, ever said anything about what might have happened.

Theories abound.  At least eight different diseases have been posited as the cause of Mozart’s death, none conclusively. Then there are at least a couple of possible poisoners: Salieri? Magdalena Hofdemel’s husband?

The Requiem
Mozart on the bookshelf over my computer.
One supporter of the Hofdemel theory offers circumstantial evidence that Constanze’s son, born around this time, was really the child of her male companion in Prague, and that the baby Magdalena was carrying at the time was Mozart’s.  One of this theorist's pieces of evidence is the passion one hears in the Larghetto movement of the 27th piano concerto, written during the composer’s relationship (whatever it was) with Magdalena.   Give it a listen.  Is it evidence in a murder?  Or is it just gorgeous, romantic music?  It is certainly the output of a genius. 

Annamaria Alfieri 


  1. Divine. Raises a number of questions. Does adultery logically lead to murder, and if not, why are they linked together in the public mind? Do geniuses get a free pass? Should they?

  2. Kate, Certainly, in real life, murder does associate itself with adultery or imagined adultery or trumped-up adultery accusations (think divorce Brazilian style or Anne Boleyn). In our beloved genre, where motive is such an important part of plotting, the suspicion of adultery shows up frequently, and most of the time it points to a red herring--because it is so commonly thought a link to murder that it seems too obvious and unimaginative. This is another of the many mystery novel conventions that show up in the story of Mozart's death.

    I don't think geniuses should get a free pass, but I would rather that than the too-common reality of giving a free pass to the ultra rich or politically powerful. For me, when it comes to Mozart, however, nothing matters but the glory of the music.

  3. I'm too impressed with your erudition to venture a comment! Thelma

    1. Right you are, Thelma. I will work at being less pompous.

  4. You're not pompous. You know stuff. People who know stuff should share it with those of us who don't know stuff. Then we'll all know stuff, and be the better for it.

    1. Thanks, Kate, I do think,though,that my response to you above was stuff you already knew.

  5. In no way did I mean you were pompous! Erudtion is a very positive word!!! tjs