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.
In 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.