Was Mozart murdered?

Reader's Digest Editors

At the pinnacle of his career, Mozart died after suffering an illness. Or did he perish at the hand of an envious arch rival?

A suspicious death

was mozart murdered
A posthumous painting of Mozart by Barbara Krafft. Image via Wiki

The sublime and ravishing music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will live on and be played forever, but Mozart himself was not given the length of a normal lifetime. When he died on December 5, 1791, after a short battle with inflammation and fever, he was 35 years old.

As a child, Mozart had been famous throughout Europe as one of the most astonishing child prodigies in the history of music. He possessed virtuoso talent on multiple instruments before he was ten years old, and began composing minuets when he was only five. While still a child he had written accomplished operas and symphonies and had been feted in the royal courts from Vienna to London.

But Mozart’s adult life was marked by financial struggle and professional conflict. Though he was composing perhaps the best music of any living composer, as an adult Mozart failed to find swift success with the Viennese of his native Austria. His triumphs were often overshadowed by frustrations and failures. Worse still, he had to manoeuvre through the political intrigues of popular composers who resented his talent, dodge the caprices of the ruling Hapsburgs, and literally finish commissions at fever pitch simply in order to pay his bills.

When he passed away, the official death register in Vienna listed Mozart’s cause of death as “acute military fever,” but it would not be long before another diagnosis was proposed: murder.

Read more: 10 Things you didn't know about Mozart

 

The odour of foul play

The enduring legend that Mozart was murdered began only a few weeks after his death when a Berlin newspaper ran an article claiming that “because his body swelled up after death, people even thought he had been poisoned.”

Normally, a dead body quickly becomes cold and stiff, but, as Mozart’s son Carl later recalled, the composer’s body swelled and remained soft—traits common to the bodies of poison victims. Because of the stench emitted by the corpse, the body was buried hastily and was not subjected to an autopsy. And, most intriguing of all, Mozart himself is reported to have believed that he was poisoned by a rival. A few weeks before his death, he purportedly told his wife Constanze that “Someone has given me acqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death.” (Acqua toffana was the name of a slow-acting arsenic poison frequently invoked in 17th- and 18th-century murder cases.)

The composer certainly had enough enemies to warrant suspicion of foul play. Most prominent among his rivals was the jealous, ambitious court composer to Emperor Joseph II, Antonio Salieri. At the time, the middle-aged composer was the most prominent musician in Vienna, his music held in high regard and in great demand by the city’s aristocracy. But Salieri was convinced—rightly, as it turns out—that the less fashionable Mozart possessed a far superior musical gift. And though he attended a performance of The Magic Flute and may have been one of the few mourners at Mozart’s memorial service, Salieri was consumed by envy for Mozart’s creative power.

More than 30 years after Mozart’s death, Salieri unexpectedly fanned the flames of suspicion that it was he who had murdered Mozart. As he approached his own death, Salieri became increasingly preoccupied with the idea that he was responsible for Mozart’s death. He not only attempted suicide but tried to confess what he believed to be his sin. His once-fashionable music now silent throughout Vienna, the court composer died a delusional and broken old man in 1824.

 

A more prosaic end?

mozart
An unfinished portrait of Mozart by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange. Image via Wiki

Another man with a motive to murder Mozart may have been Franz Hofdemel, whose beautiful wife, Magdalena, studied piano with Mozart, stirring up speculation that she and the composer were involved in an affair. Only a few days after Mozart died, Franz Hofdemel attacked his wife—then pregnant—with a razor, slashing her face and throat and then killing himself. Magdalena and her unborn child both survived. Years later, Beethoven refused to play in her presence because of her intimacy with his great predecessor.

Despite these intriguing coincidences, historians and biographers have given very little credence to the legend of Mozart’s murder. Most believe, based on physicians’ later reconstructions of the event, that he died of rheumatic fever, kidney failure, or pneumonia. Mozart’s own paranoid belief that he had been poisoned may have stemmed from the delusions that often accompany kidney failure. Salieri’s fantasy that he was responsible for Mozart’s death may have been related to illness as well. As for Franz Hofdemel, no evidence has shown that he murdered Mozart, and contemporary sources do not indicate that the composer ever strayed in his marriage to Constanze.

Because Mozart was buried in an unmarked public grave, the precise location unknown, we will never know for sure what caused the great composer’s death. We do know of his life, however, as his sublime music lives on.