Mar 19 2015 12:00pm

Throwing Antonio Salieri to the Wolves: Mozart’s Alleged Murder

Every fan of Wolfgang Mozart has heard the story—how in the fall of 1791, the 35-year old composer, depressed, and overworked, confessed to his wife Constanze that he believed that he was slowly being poisoned. By mid-November, illness overtook the composer, marked by swollen hands and feet and with violent vomiting. Despite the efforts of a team of physicians, Mozart died in the early morning of December 5.

Within weeks, rumors began to circulate around the city of Vienna that Mozart had indeed been poisoned. Suspicion fell on the clique of Italians who composed for the court opera, particularly on Antonio Salieri, the music director of the opera. The musical connoisseurs of Vienna and Salieri himself laughed off the rumors. In the years that followed, as no evidence of Salieri's guilt appeared, and there was no investigation by the authorities, the rumors died down.

In 1823, Salieri, age 73, suffered a physical and mental breakdown and was admitted to the General  Hospital of Vienna suffering from delusions and paralysis in his legs. The rumor mill sprang back to life, and soon the story was all over Vienna:  the old man had confessed to poisoning Mozart, and had attempted suicide by cutting his throat. Salieri died in the hospital two years later.

In 1830, Alexander Pushkin, the noted Russian author, wrote a short play in which Salieri, consumed with envy of Mozart's divine genius, is shown offering Mozart a poisoned drink. The common wisdom that Salieri had been involved in Mozart's death has persisted into our own day. Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, and Milos Forman's Academy Award-winning film of the same name, hint that Salieri drove an ailing Mozart to his death by overwork.

Could Salieri be Mozart's murderer? Mystery readers know that a killer must have means, opportunity, and motive. The rumors stated that Mozart had been poisoned either with mercury or with acqua toffana, a compound of lead, arsenic, and belladonna. Mercury was a common treatment for syphilis in the late eighteenth century. Acqua toffana was used as a cosmetic in Italy.  Salieri, like most Viennese, would have had easy access to these poisons.

But would he have had an opportunity to administer the poison to Mozart? The two composers were professional colleagues, not friends, and spent little time together. It is unlikely that Salieri would have had a chance to poison Mozart's food or drink over the period of several months that the younger composer supposedly complained of feeling he was being poisoned.

Finally, what motive would Salieri have had for murdering Mozart? Salieri held one of the highest positions in the musical world of Vienna, made much more money than did Mozart, and was a highly regarded opera composer who received many more commissions to write operas than Mozart did. The idea that Salieri would kill because he was consumed with envy makes for good theater, but doesn't make sense when the social and professional statures of the two composers at the time of the alleged murder are compared.

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord MählerIn fact, the case against Salieri is all innuendo and hearsay. In 1824, soon after the rumors of Salieri's “confession” began, an Italian admirer, Giuseppe Carpani, wrote a defense of the old composer. He interviewed people who had known both men, and who testified that Mozart and Salieri had held each other in high regard. He also quoted a medical authority who had consulted with Mozart's physicians after his death, and who claimed that none of the physicians ever suspected poison. Viennese doctors were familiar with the cloudy urine, bad breath, and sweating that were symptoms of mercury poisoning, because many patients used it to treat themselves for syphilis, and doctors were always on the lookout for signs of overdosing. Mozart showed none of these symptoms, nor did he have the burning mouth pain, muscle spasms and blue lines on the gums that were classic signs of poisoning by acqua toffana. In addition, one of the physicians who treated Mozart, Matthias von Sallaba, had made an extensive study of poisons, and was considered an expert.

There is no historical evidence to support the stories that Mozart believed he was being poisoned, or that Salieri had confessed to the murder and had attempted suicide. One of Salieri's students, who visited his master in the hospital during one of the old man's lucid moments, wrote that Salieri had assured him that all of the rumors were untrue.

If not Salieri, then, who did kill Mozart?  Multiple cockeyed theories have been advanced: Mozart was murdered by Freemasons angry because, in his opera The Magic Flute, he revealed their plan to destroy Christianity and conquer the world; Viennese Jews killed him for the same reasons (a theory popular in Germany between the two world wars); or he accidentally overdosed on mercury while treating himself for syphilis. All of these stories have been dismissed as nonsense by serious Mozart scholars. The current thinking is that he died a natural death, from either rheumatic fever that was treated by overly–aggressive bloodletting, an infection in his heart valve, kidney disease, or a streptococcal infection.

Many visitors to present–day Vienna make the pilgrimage out to St. Marx, to the atmospheric old graveyard where Mozart is buried in a common grave.  Few continue the journey down the road to Vienna's Central Cemetery. There lies Antonio Salieri, known to only a few cognoscenti as one of the leading composers of the eighteenth century, unjustly accused by the rest of the world as the murderer of Mozart.

William Stafford, The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment (Stanford University Press, 1991)
Volkmar Braunbehrens, Maligned Master: The Real Story of Antonio Salieri (Fromm International Publishing, 1992)

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Laura Lebow studied European history at Brandeis University and earned a Master in City Planning from MIT. After a career as an environmental policy analyst, she now writes historical mysteries full-time. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and an ever-expanding collection of opera CDs. The Figaro Murders is her first novel.

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Sharon Haas
2. kazul
I love reading different ideas about historical mysterys.
Sally Schmidt
3. bigcootie
Fascinating. After watching the movie it seemed certain that Salieri poisoned Mozart, didn't it? Looks like a good book. Thanks for the giveaway.
Rebecca Brothers
5. RileyC
Good article, and sounds like a good book.
Gordon Bingham
6. gordonbingham
Once again that bugaboo science disputes "what everyone knows." But then too many people refuse to let science get in the way of their dogma...would love to read this book...
Pat Dupuy
7. Pat D
A really interesting mystery. Will the Figaro Murders cover this aspect of Mozart's life/death?
8. DebP
I love a good historical mystery.
Patrice Gottfried
9. pkg427
Fascinating. Would love to read this book.
Kayce Crews
10. yadgirl
Sounds like an interesting read. Count me in!
Thomas Walker
11. twalker
Love to hear about new historical mysteries. WOuld like to win this book!
Laura McDonald
14. bonnieclyde
The article was very interesting- I confess to believing that Mozart did not die a natural death! Makes for good theater. Sounds like a great read for anyone, especially a lover of opera.
Russell Moore
15. russrpm
All I know about history, I learned from mystery novels.
23. S MacDonald
Sounds like a good book
reavab Bennett
24. reavab
I have never heard of the mystery surrounding Mozart's death before. Sounds intriguing!
Cindy Hipolito
25. mysuccess
Thanks for this giveaway. Was never aware of a possibility of murder regarding Mozart's death.
28. mrmrsboone
Was unaware of the circumstances of Mozart's death. Would love to win and learn more. Sounds very interesting!
lynette thompson
Sounds like a great mystery perfect for me
Irene Menge
32. Goldenmane
Salieri was certainly jealous of Mozart. However, a single dose of poison would probably not take so long to act. Poison administered daily would be more believeable. But I don't imagine Salieri was a daily visitor to Mozart's residence. He could have bribed one of Mozart's servants. any way you look at it, Mozart was quite young to die and I don't recall hearing that he had poor health prior to his fatal 'illness'. I imagine that a modern autopsy would reveal the presence of poison, but I doubt that will ever happen. I would love to read this book. I enjoy historical mysteries.
37. runner
Groovy the Figaro Murders!
Larisa LaBrant
38. MsGodiva1
Will absolutely snag this at the library if I am not so lucky to win a copy.
Susan Gainen
40. susangainen
Intriguing. And the magic of historical fiction is that the author gets to make it up!
Lynn Jarrett
42. OkieReader
There has always been an interesting mystery around the death of Mozart. This looks like an interesting book!!
Sue Leonhardt
43. coccotoro
Looks like a very interesting novel. Thank you for posting.
46. Holmes
I've been trying to link up the poisoning of Mozart with Jack the Ripper and the Kennedy assassination. The time-span seemed a stumbling block. then I realized the truth-the killer had to be a Vampire.
Laurence Coven
47. Holmes
Or maybe Dorian Gray --but he would have needed a time machine to poison Mozart
Michele Baron
49. angel320
I enjoy both crime and history novels...this read would be a treat
Deborah Wellenstein
50. dglitter
I'm looking forward to reading this one!
Jim Belcher
51. librarypops
Call Bones or Abbey at NCIS. Either of them can figure it out and end the speculation. :)
52. Cindi
Hello, Murder and historical go hand
in hand to me! I love the Mozart mystery
and would really enjoy reading this book
and then, sharing it....
Many thanks, Cindi
Andra Dalton
55. andra77
Never could walk away from a good mystery!!! Nothing better than crime, history,& Mozart to keep me guessing until the end!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
Joanne Mielczarski
56. jtmswim
Would love to read this book and find out the real truth.
L Peters
57. leepcat
looking forward to a good read. thanks
Andrew Beck
58. queerbec
Salieri is innocent! History has given him a bad deal (although it gave Ian McKellan and F. Murray Abraham a terrific role!)With all that dreadful disease at the time and the variety of unsanitary conditions, plus Mozart's exhaustive schedule of output, WAM probably died too young--but of natural causes.
Susan Robinette
59. susanrob
Another historical mystery to look forward to! Thanks for the chance to win a copy.
Michael Carter
61. rubydog
This sounds very interesting.
Please count me in this sweepstakes.
Jackie Wisherd
62. JackieW
The story sounds like one I would enjoy reading.
Clydia DeFreese
63. clydia
I always look forward to a new mystery author. I wish her much success!
Sharon Shumway
65. Shellen
Can't wait to read this one. Music, madness and murder oh my!
Anthony Renner
67. AnthonyRenner
Just today I read a reference to Mozart being German and I thought, "That sounds wrong," but moved on before I remembered that he was Austrian.
Sally Winkleblech
68. sallyw
I like books based on a true mystery, with history as a bonus.
Deborah Poston
69. Deborah P
This sounds like a fascinating story. The movie "Amadeus" whetted my appetite for this story and it would be interesting to read another theory.
Shakeia Rieux
70. bbybrwneyez34
This looks like a great book!I can't wait to read it!
Lori Rutherford
71. keirma
Can't wait to read this Mozart!
Aaron Shapiro
72. shappiesweep
Thanks for this chance. This sounds really interesting.
Margot Core
73. AnnaZed
I would be excited to read Laura Lebow's book; and I have never thought that Salieri killed Mozart - though I do adore the Amadeus film!
74. Debbie Warila
I would love to read this book. I've long been entranced with the mystery surrounding Mozart's death.
Chris Teel
75. Teelioli
I do love historical mysteries, thanks for the chance!
Sabine Blanch
80. Schlauberger
Sounds like a great story, would love to read this. Thank you for the chance!
elaine fisher
83. elfette
never heard that ... though ... didn't know much about his life or death ... will be a good read
84. brownbear121954
nice book love to read it
86. jpl123456
I am really interested in this book.
My turn to win?????????
90. Paul Johnson
I particularly liked the imagery that was provoked.
Carol Gowett
91. clynsg
Interesting to have the rumors about Mozart's death discussed in a blurb about a novel which is apparently only set in the same time, social group and location.
Heather Cowley
92. choochoo
I had never heard this about Mozart! Huh! That being said, I'd love to read this book. Thanks.
97. CherylMc
would love to win
Sharon Kaminski
98. casaflamingos
I would love to read this book, sounds like one you can't put down.
Jane Schwarz
100. Janeschwarz
Sounds like a great read. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy.
Chris Noe
102. ezmerelda
Sounds like a very good read. I do need a new book right now. I am bogged down.
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