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December 2021

A Requiem for Wolfgang


Would  have Peter Shaffer written the play that inspired Milos Forman's film had he not been aware of two small scenes written by Alexander Pushkin in 1830, 39 years after Mozart's death? This is what Jean-Pierre Pisetta wonders in the afterword of the translation he made of the short text by the great Russian poet that the composer Rimsky Korsakov set to music in 1897[1]


Obviously, the unfinished composition of the Requiem ordered under disturbing conditions, comes to be telescoped with the rumor of poisoning ... which Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman were able to stage by brilliantly using mystery within mystery ... Mozart dictating to Salieri his ultimate work.


[1] Cf. A. Pouchkine “Mozart and Salieri” translated from Russian with foreword and afterword by Jean-Pierre Pisetta - Edit. Bernard Gilson 2006 & Opera by Rimsky Korsakof “Mozart and Salieri” premiered on December 7, 1898 in Moscow with Fédor Chaliapine, premiered on June 3, 1932 in Paris - Opéra-Comique also with F. Chaliapine in the role of Salieri.

Vengeance of Salieri, decree from the Hereafter served on the musician by a strange visitor?

“Myths always have two sides: the basic components of the story and the meaning or significance that different people read in them. In Mozart's case, it's easy to list the popular ingredients: the child prodigy, the adult prodigy, early death in macabre circumstances - including the mysterious commission of a Requiem mass and the legend of poisoning ... by Salieri, although the list of candidates has been considerably lengthened by conspiracy theorists…. "[2]


231 years and a few days have passed since Mozart's death on December 5, 1791. We could not let this anniversary December pass by without mentioning the circumstances of his death, which some qualify as mysterious ... even criminal...

So, let's take up the question here again to disentangle the true from the false. Let us castigate the lies, the "fake news", rumors, slanders and other conspiratorial theses even if poets and writers, talented playwrights, taking up these legends, have succeeded in making Mozart a romantic hero.

The homicide fantasy: who murdered Mozart?

Suspicions of murder arose as soon as Wolfgang disappeared. They have blinded and dare I say "poisoned" many biographers, historians, and physicians  two centuries.

It must be admitted that, faced with the many clues suggesting a violent death, it is easy to imagine that an autopsy and a preliminary investigation would be carried out today.

Among the "fakes" which fueled the rumor, a Berlin newspaper reported on December 31, 1791 "Mozart is dead, he returned home from Prague suffering from an illness which has not ceased to destroy him...As his body swelled after death, it is even thought that he was poisoned”.

Wolfgang himself, tells Franz Xaver Niemetschek[3], would have foreseen this fatal outcome (Cf. below - §3)

The rumor quickly designates three sponsors: a jealous husband, the Freemasons considering themselves betrayed by the revelation of the mysteries of their rite in the Magic Flute, the intriguing Salieri, jealous of the gifts and success of Mozart, a criminal haunted by the bitterness...


1 - The legend of the jealous husband:

On December 10, 1791, all Vienna in chat: Magdalena Hofdemel was found disfigured with a razor by her husband. The young woman had been a pupil of Wolfgang and her husband evidently considered himself a cuckold. At the news of the musician's death on December 5, Magdalena seemed very moved, too much moved in the eyes of her husband Franz. The Viennese did not hesitated, it could be only Franz Hofdemel the cuckold husband, friend and lodge brother of the composer who, feeling betrayed, would have tried to get rid of Wolfgang,are hard to  then, in a fit of madness, would have ended up by disfigure his wife before committing suicide.


The scandal caused so much noise at Court that it would partly explain Constance's approach to Leopold II; while Constance was preparing to ask the emperor to grant her a pension, a generous friend, an excellent pupil of Mozart, informed her of the calumnies of which her husband was the object and advised her to undeceive the emperor: “Majesty, ... no one has yet been persecuted and slandered by his family with more violence and determination than my husband ... "  Constance would have pleaded before the emperor.[4]


One will wonder: would the emperor have agreed to grant an audience to Constance the very day after the scandal broke?


Legends are hard to die. As HC Robbins Landon[5] points out, Beethoven's behavior gives a glimpse into the gossip circulating in Vienna: when asked to improvise in front of Magdalena Hofdemel, he (Beethoven) grumbled, thinking that she had been Mozart's mistress.


The rumor of a "debauched" Mozart thrived for years, with Magdalena's son long passed for a bastard of the master.


However, insists H.C. Robbins Landon: "there is no evidence that the Hofdemels' tragedy had any direct or indirect link with Mozart."


2 - The myth of the Masonic conspiracy:

If Freemasons are forbidden to evoke the secrets of their initiation, could The Magic Flute constitute a crime of high treason with death as punishment? .... This theory can be easily dismissed for one simple reason: remember, it was happily that Mozart accepted in the spring of 1791 the proposal of his friend and brother mason Emanuel Schikaneder to compose, again in German, a magical opera for the “Auf der Wienden” theater (Cf. developments in our news letter n ° 4). This is The Magic Flute. However, it was Schikaneder himself who wrote the libretto and he, also a Free Mason, was never bothered as everyone who participated in the creation of the opera were never bothered.

In addition, Freemasonry was not secret in Vienna. It even edited a freely distributed gazette there.


Beyond Masonic symbolism, Mozart's lyrical masterpiece is composed to directly reach a popular audience. Between entertainment and subtly coded work, Masonic encryption could only be deciphered by true connoisseurs ... the freemasons themselves!


Finally, if we reread the eulogy delivered by the Grand Master of the newly crowned Hope Lodge, it is hard to imagine the existence of a plot hatched by the Freemasons[6].

3 - Salieri, or the crime of Jealousy:

It does seem, says Pierre-François Puech[7] that Peter Shaffer, the author of Amadeus, whose play inspired Milos Forman for his film was obsessed with the way Mozart died although he admitted, in a written afterword, after the release of the film "not having written an objective and documented biography of Mozart".

Let us proclaim loud and clear, NO! Antonio Salieri did not poison Mozart. Neither did he, at Wolfgang's bedside and at his dictation, note the orchestration of some of the parts of his famous Requiem.


So why this legend, and why does the magic of the film continue to operate? The tune-ups of musicologists and historians do nothing, the myth lasts, and Antonio Salieri is seen at best as Mozart's illegitimate and jealous competitor, at worst as the architect of his early death[8].


Did Mozart have a presentiment of his imminent death? The order for the Requiem came from a mysterious messenger ... and Mozart would have been disturbed.


Niemetschek relates: One fine autumn day, Constance led Mozart to the Prater to distract him and cheer him up. They sat down and Mozart began to talk about death; he said he was composing the Requiem for himself. With tears in his eyes, he added, " I can only feel too much that I won't be long. I was probably poisoned. I cannot get rid of this idea ”[9]. For J & B Massin this is the starting point of the legend.


It seems curious that Mozart was so frightened by death, he who wrote to his father on April 4, 1787. "As death [...] is the last stage of our life, I have become acquainted for some years with this best and true friend of man, so that his image not only has nothing 'frightening but rather reassuring and comforting for me”.


Milos Forman plays it ...


We now know the identity of the sponsor of the Requiem, it is not a masked Salieri who visits Mozart, it is actually Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach, who, to honor the memory of his young missing wife would have anonymously ordered Mozart a mass for the dead to claim paternity and pass for a composer of genius.


It must nevertheless be admitted that the worst rumors about Salieri's guilt spread in Vienna after Mozart's death.


Furthermore, Mozart’s poisoning thesis is fueled by Salieri himself.


Towards the end of his life, in fact, Salieri, seized with senile dementia and interned against his will, is delirious from time to time and accuses himself on several occasions of having killed Mozart. In 1821 he tried to commit suicide, then two years later in 1823 he tried to slit his throat. In November, Johann Schickh noted in Beethoven's conversation notebooks[10]: "Salieri slit his throat but he's still alive ... we can bet one hundred to one that Salieri's confessions, if they are checked by the manner in which Mozart died, will correspond to reality”. On January 25, 1824 Anton Schindler wrote there: “Salieri is doing very badly again. He keeps repeating that he is responsible for the death of Mozart. It is the truth, he wants to say it in his confession ... " On May 7, 1825, Salieri dies, he is delivered from his sufferings, Beethoven's nephew then writes: "Now, it is said with insistence that Salieri is  Mozart murderer”.[11]


But, when he has moments of lucidity, Salieri recedes and reconsiders his statements. This is what he would have confided to Ignatz Isaac Moscheles "I can give you my word that there is nothing reasonable in this absurd rumor ... But no, it is wickedness, pure wickedness, tell the world dear Moscheles; old Salieri, who is about to die, tells you so. "[12]


A doctor consulted on the subject of Mozart's illness and death may refute the thesis of poisoning, Mozart's youngest son may refute it too, many inhabitants of Vienna (including Salieri's wife) may be stricken by the same disease, by the same symptoms and die of it like Mozart ..., but it’s waste of time, nothing can be done. The rumor persisted that in 1830 Richard Wagner still noted "most Viennese musicians are convinced that Mozart was poisoned by Salieri".


If Mozart died of poison where is the evidence? Mozart’s body was reportedly swollen after his death and this was what suggested poisoning. Mozart blamed Aqua Toffana, a kind of slow arsenic invented by Italy ... but there is no hard evidence.


If there is any poisoning, it is not the work of a murderer but rather the medical consequences of the many illnesses that Mozart contracted during his short life. And then, there is the liquor of Dr. Swieten (a doctor who was very famous in Europe). Highly sought after, Dr. Swieten’s liqueur is becoming a popular potion that we like to drink as a simple cheer-me-up. Presumably, an exhausted Mozart often takes, uses and abuses of it. The elixir, based on mercury, would have had antiseptic, antiparasitic, antisyphilitic and purgative properties? He relieves him in his moments of weakness. For Michèle Lhopiteau-Dorfeuille[13], with the help of F. Cerutti (forensic doctor), the high fever, strong migraines, swelling of the feet and hands, vomiting and violent spasms, kidney pain and finally the short-lived coma suffered by the composer, correspond perfectly to acute nephropathy, caused by mercury chloride poisoning.


If Mozart was poisoned by Salieri what is the motive? Jealousy? This is Pushkin’s thesis, taken up by Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman. Did Salieri have any objective reason to be jealous? One can doubt it. Arrived young in Vienna, Salieri completed his training there, built his career, and obtained almost unshakable official positions. His work - including some forty operas - is recognized and performed throughout Europe. What does he have to fear from a Mozart who is certainly much admired, but in a much more precarious professional situation (as an independent musician)[14]? The precariousness of his independent status will be the subject of much criticism from his father Leopold.


For Vincent Novello[15], Salieri's enmity towards Mozart was born out of a cabal around the creation of his third opera “Cosi fan Tutte” with his librettist Da Ponte (who worked at least as much for Salieri as for Mozart.). To be “dubbed” by a young composer can displease, from there to imagine a criminal act! ... Let us recall that Salieri, enthusiastic, particularly appreciated the Magic Flute. In fact, he was present at Mozart's funeral, among the handful of people who attended the ceremony. In addition, it is hard to imagine the composer's widow, entrusting her son Franz-Xaver to Salieri to train him if she had been convinced by the rumor of the assassination ... Finally, it seems that Mozart and Salieri collaborated on the writing of some recently discovered compositions[16].


In short, Salieri's relationship with Mozart was closer to jealous rivalry than to hate, the source of any revenge.

4 - What then are the causes of Mozart's death?

Officially, the composer would have succumbed to a "severe military fever associated with eruption", as mentioned in his death certificate. A generic term which means that the body of the musician was in struggle. In struggle certainly but against what? Bacteria? Virus?


In 2009, a study by several doctors[17] from the Vienna Daily Death Register revealed, in the months preceding Wolfgang's death, the existence of an epidemic of streptococcal infections involving edema which is the hallmark of Mozart's final disease together confirmed by testimonies of contemporary witnesses.


In a provocative article Lucien Karhausen[18], a German epidemiologist, lists around 140 diagnoses believed to explain the composer's death. After analysis, he concludes that Mozart having died only once, most of these diagnoses are wrong and that it is more reasonable to think that the most probable hypothesis of death would be in relation to a trivial cause rather than exceptional.


Today, therefore, the most probable hypothesis seems to be that Mozart may have died of a streptococcal infection leading to an acute nephritic syndrome (kidney damage).


[2] Cf. H.C. Robbins Landon in « Dictionnaire Mozart » Edit. JCLattes

[3] Franz Xaver Niemetschek was the first to write a significant biography in 1798 before G.N. Nissen (Constance's second husband) published his. Professor of philosophy at the University of Prague, he took charge of the education of Mozart's second son and, using documents provided by Constance, wrote the first monograph on Mozart.

[4] See remarks taken up by Jean and Brigitte Massin, Mozart 1958 - CFL pages 580 and 581 from the biography written by Franz Xaver Niemetschek. The interview took place on December 11, 1791, it will certainly only be a question of Mozart's debts but, for J. Massin, the comparison with the event of December 10 suggests the existence of a causal link. an effect that Niemetschek would have modestly concealed.

[5] Cf. H.C. Robbins Landon in « 1791 Mozart’s last year » Edit. Fayard

[6] Cf. News letter n° 3: Mozart religious “in a different way”.

[7] Pierre-François Puech in "Mozart, an extraordinary investigation" - Maison Rhodanienne 1993

[8] Sophie Bourdais "once and for all, Salieri did not kill Mozart ... and his opera Falstaff is a treat" critical for Telerama.

[9] Cf. remarks taken up by Jean and Brigitte Massin, in Mozart 1958 - page 567 from the biography written by Franz Xaver Niemetschek.

[10] For nearly 10 years, Beethoven’s visitors communicated with him using a "conversation notebook" the composer always had at hand. Everyone wrote down what the deaf master could no longer hear. In these notebooks one finds dialogues with in particular Anton Schindler (Beethoven’s secretary and biographer), his nephew Karl, and Johann Schickh (journalist, editor).

[11] Cf. Pierre-François Puech in "Mozart, an extraordinary investigation" pages 67 and 68 and H.C. Robbins Landon "1791 Mozart’s last year" Edit. Fayard pages 247 and s

[12] Ignatz Moscheles (1794-1870) is a Czech pianist and composer, student of Salieri and Beethoven.

[13] Cf. Michèle Lhopiteau-Dorfeuille in « Wolfgang Amadeo Mozart, rêver avec les sons » Edit° Le Bord de l’eau 2011.

[14] Cf. Sophie Bourdais op.cit.

[15] Vincent Novello, publisher and composer, and his wife wrote down in their diary conversations they had with Constance.

[16] A cantata and an opera by Mozart and Salieri on a libretto by Da Ponte would have been discovered in 2016 in the Czech Republic.

[17] Mozart finaly died of a common desease AFP 19/08/2009 - Annals of Internal Medicine.  

[18] L. Karhausen, British Medical Diary (Online); London Vol. 341, (Dec 10, 2010).

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