Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984, director’s cut 2002) opens with Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) loudly calling Wolfgang Mozart’s name and declaring that he had murdered Mozart. As the film progresses, Salieri openly talks about trying to figure out how to kill Mozart, but in the flashbacks that form most of the film we never see him do anything so direct as poison the man (although he does plant a spy in the Mozart household, in the form of a serving maid, who could possibly have poisoned the food). But at the end of the film, Salieri directly says that it was God who killed Mozart, in order to foil Salieri’s plot to steal Mozart’s Requiem Mass for himself. Salieri has only contributed to the death by working to ensure that Mozart would be unable to find work and thus live in poverty. So the film is somewhat coy about exactly what Salieri might have done to orchestrate Mozart’s death. So what really happened to Mozart?
The Evolution of the Story
Mozart grew quite ill late in November of 1791, when he was 35, and he died on Dec 5th. Soon after his death, rumors had begun to circulate that Salieri had poisoned him, driven perhaps by the suddenness of his death. But no one seems to have taken these rumors seriously. Mozart’s widow Constanze trusted Salieri to tutor her son Franz in music, for example.
Salieri himself died in 1825, at the age of 75. In his last years he suffered from dementia and attempted suicide by slashing his throat; on several occasions when he was in the throes of dementia he claimed to have killed Mozart, but when he was more coherent he denied it. But a few years after his death, in 1831, the Russian author Alexander Pushkin published a short story, “Mozart and Salieri” in which the Italian composer slips poison into the German composer’s drink, out of a profound sense of envy. In 1898, the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adopted Pushkin’s story into an opera. Pushkin’s story has been adapted three more times, in 1914 as a silent film, in 1979 as a Soviet television mini-series Small Tragedies, and in the same year as Peter Shaffer’s Tony-award winning play Amadeus. Shaffer did the adaptation of the play into a screenplay for Forman’s 1984 film. So the film is based not on history directly but on Pushkin’s short story. Shaffer freely admitted that his work should not be viewed as historical.
Understanding Mozart’s death is surprisingly difficult for a couple of reasons. First, his body was not autopsied, because it was giving off a terrible stench. So instead it was just buried. (Incidentally, the claim, shown in the film, that he was buried in a mass grave is untrue. He was buried in a “common grave”, which does not refer to a pauper’s mass grave; rather it was a reference to a legal distinction made in Austrian funerals at the time. “Common graves” were maintained only for a decade, after which the government had the right to dig the body up and reuse the grave to save space; in contrast “aristocratic graves” were permanent). After the grave was opened around 1801, the gravedigger claimed to have saved Mozart’s skull, but there’s no proof that the skull in question was actually the composer’s.
To complicate matters significantly, virtually all the descriptions we have of Mozart’s death were written down long after his death. Some of them are based on eyewitness testimony from people such as Constanze Mozart, his son Karl, and Constanze’s sister Sophie Weber. But nearly everyone who wrote accounts of the death had ulterior motives such as profiting from a sensational story, so it is hard to know which accounts are trustworthy. And some of the accounts contradict each other.
His symptoms were numerous. The death certificate says he had a “miliary fever”, meaning a fever that produced many tiny rash-like bumps on the skin. Most accounts say that he had become badly swollen (edema), so much that he could not turn himself in bed, and several accounts say he stank. Sophie’s account of his death says he had a severe fever that a physician tried to bring down with cold compresses, but that the coldness shocked him into a coma he never recovered from (but other accounts claim he was conscious on his last day). A few accounts say that he was bled by a doctor to relieve the swelling. Constanze said that in his last moments, he suddenly produced a massive torrent of brown vomit and died (Forman, perhaps wisely, omits that detail in the film). Other symptoms mentioned in the different accounts include back pain, delirium, and claiming he had been poisoned. A modern examination of what might be his skull found evidence of a chronic subdural hematoma (swelling of the tissue between the brain and the skull, resulting in increasing pressure on the brain), possibly caused by falls in 1789 and 1790.
Was It Poison?
Various people have been proposed as Mozart’s poisoner, including Salieri, the freemasons, the Catholic church, and the Jews (one wild theory has the last three all working in conjunction). A related theory claims that Mozart accidentally poisoned himself with antimony (a heavy metal) or mercury used as a medicine.
The most likely poisons would have been antimony, mercury, or arsenic and lead (a mixture termed acqua toffana, a popular poison that Constanze claimed Mozart thought had been given to him). The problem here is that none of the likely poisons really fits with Mozart’s symptoms. Antimony poisoning is characterized by coughing, arthritis, headache, fainting, facial swelling, abdominal pain, muscle pain, and skin rash. Of those, only the rash is clearly mentioned, although if we stretch things we might be able to fit in the fainting (passing out from the cold compress), and muscle pain (the back pain one person claimed). His edema was not specifically in his face but in his body. He did experience headaches and fainting in 1790, but not around the time of his death.
Mercury poisoning is characterized by tremors in the hands or body, slurred speech, hearing loss, problems with eyesight, memory loss, excessive salivation, and mental deterioration. Of these, Mozart exhibited none of these, unless his claims of being poisoned were a symptom of mental deterioration. But most accounts claim that he was lucid enough to work on his Requiem mass, which would suggest he was more or less ok mentally. Examination of his last manuscripts show no change in his handwriting, so he probably didn’t suffer from tremors.
If it was acqua toffana, the symptoms would have included a metallic taste in the mouth, peripheral neuropathy (pain in the extremities), a burning sensation in the throat, anemia, gastrointestinal distress, nausea, vomiting, constipation, skin problems, breathing problems, seizures, and mental deterioration. This fits slightly better; he had a rash, vomited at least once, and again, might have suffered moments of paranoia. One late piece of testimony said that he could taste death in his mouth, which was perhaps the metallic taste. But he lacked the other symptoms so far as we know, and there is no explanation for the severe edema or stench.
As a result of this, it seems highly unlikely that he was poisoned. His symptoms just don’t fit any of the commonly used poisons. But let’s turn from symptoms to motive. Did anyone have a reason to want Mozart dead?
If we disregard the rather lurid claims of poisoning by evil organizations, the only real candidate for his murder is Salieri. And as noted, Salieri did claim during his delirious moments to have done the deed. If that was true, he must have had a real reason for doing it. Did Salieri have a motive to kill Mozart?
Mozart and Salieri seem to have had a complex relationship. Some of Mozart’s letters to his father Leopold include evidence that he resented the Italian composer. There was a very influential faction of Italian musicians at Emperor Joseph II’s court, of which Salieri was one of the most prominent. In at least two of his letters, Mozart told his father he was being thwarted by Salieri and the other Italians; that might be true, or it might be an explanation Mozart was giving his demanding father for his own lack of progress at court. Leopold Mozart seems to have blamed the Italians for thwarting his son’s efforts to be appointed as music tutor to one of Joseph’s daughters, but whether that’s true or if Wolfgang agreed with that claim is unknown. The Viennese musical world certainly put the two men into competition for a limited number of jobs and patrons. Salieri rejected the libretto that Mozart turned into Cosi Fan Tutte, which might have embarrassed the Italian. He might have resented Joseph II’s decision to favor German opera over Italian, but Mozart was hardly to blame for that.
However, other evidence points to the two men basically liking each other. They composed at least one piece together, and when Salieri became the Imperial Kapellmeister, he did Mozart the enormous favor of re-staging Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, rather than doing one of his own many operas. Salieri loved The Magic Flute, which Mozart premiered just a few months before his death (not the night before, as Amadeus shows it).And, as I already noted, he agreed to tutor Mozart’s son years later.
Additionally, Salieri was far more successful than Mozart was. He was a highly acclaimed composer for much of his mid-life (although in his last two decades, he stopped composing almost entirely), and his operas were performed all over Europe. He received numerous important offices and public honors, including being made Kapellmeister in 1788. When Mozart died, Salieri was at the height of his fame, influence, and success, while Mozart was struggling financially and enjoying only sporadic success with his operas. And he died a very rich man. So if Salieri hated Mozart, it must have been for some very abstract reason, one not reflected in their relative careers.
That’s the reason that Pushkin and Shaffer make the issue Salieri’s envy over Mozart’s superior skills as a composer. In Shaffer’s story, Salieri wants to praise God but grows envious of how easily composing comes to Mozart compared to how hard it comes to him. This envy turns into a desire to spite God for ignoring Salieri’s earnest struggles to praise God and instead giving a sublime musical talent to a vulgar, childish man. But it’s hard to see why Salieri would have been angry about his meager musical talents if in fact he was enjoying enormous success that he could easily have attributed to God.
And the real Mozart was nowhere near as childish and vulgar as the film presents him. He was certainly vulgar in private; his letters to family members are filled with dirty jokes. He once composed a piece entitled Leck mich im Arsch, which translates to “Lick My Ass.” But such scatological humor was very common among Germans of the period, and is not remarkable in Mozart’s work. More importantly, most of his vulgarity was shared privately with friends; there’s no evidence that he was vulgar in public or at the imperial court. Mozart had been moving in aristocratic and royal circles since the time he was 6; he certainly understood how to behave around the wealthy and powerful people who controlled his fortunes, and such vulgarity would probably not have been well-received in that circle.
So when we consider the whole picture, there is neither evidence for Mozart being poisoned nor a clear motive for Salieri to have done so. No one who has seriously studied Mozart’s death accepts the poisoning theory.
Then What Did Kill Mozart?
No one really knows. Most serious theories have revolved around the possibility of a disease. Suggestions have included smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, strep leading to kidney failure, Vitamin D deficiency, and rheumatic fever (and those are just the well-known conditions that have been suggested). None of these precisely fits Mozart’s symptoms, but strep and rheumatic fever seem to fit the evidence fairly well. Of particular importance is the fact that there was an outbreak of fever in Vienna at the time Mozart died, so he may well have died during an epidemic. Working against that is the minor point that Constanze wanted to die of whatever had killed her husband, and spent several hours after his death clinging to his body, hoping she would contract whatever had killed him. But maybe she just had a stronger immune system than he did.
Medical malpractice may also have contributed to his death. Sophie Weber said his doctor had shocked him into a coma with cold compresses, but that is contradicted by claims he was lucid in his last hours. Constanze and another source claim he was bled by a doctor, which might have weakened him generally, and could have aggravated any subdural hematoma that he might have had.
A final theory holds that he might have contracted trichinosis, which had not yet been identified medically. While not normally fatal today, it becomes fatal about 20% of the time if left untreated, because larval worms burrow into the muscle tissues and destroy them, and this can trigger a variety of other serious problems including meningitis, encephalitis, and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscles). In a letter 44 days before his death, he mentions eating a plate of pork cutlets; trichinosis has an incubation period of between 8 and 50 days. Its symptoms include fever, rash, vomiting, and edema, all of which he had. Other symptoms include headache, nausea, fatigue, muscle pain, weakness, and sensitivity to light. These are symptoms that fit with the general descriptions of his death and which might not have been mentioned in testimony about it. However, as an explanation, it’s a bit of a stretch, because it requires him to have eaten poorly-cooked pork and to have acquired a very severe form of the disease. And it doesn’t explain the stench that was reported. In fact, none of the proposed solutions clearly accounts for this symptom.
So we’re left with a puzzle that doesn’t yet have a clear solution. His symptoms don’t fit any of the common poisons of the day, and there’s no clear motive for someone to have poisoned an impoverished musician who was enjoying only sporadic success. But his symptoms are hard to square with known diseases either. Rheumatic fever seems to be the most commonly cited caused these days. I’m hardly a doctor, but my guess is that he was suffering from more than one problem and that his symptoms may have been masking other symptoms or simply not being observed by those close to him. We’ll probably never know for sure what killed him, but it’s pretty clear that he wasn’t poisoned.
Want to Know More?
Amadeus (Director’s Cut)is available through Amazon.
Robert Gutman’s biography Mozart: A Cultural Biography seeks to place Mozart in a wider context and is widely regarded as the definitive biography of the composer.