The Strange Death of Mozart at a Young Age

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the golden age of classical music. In the early part of the eighteenth century, known as the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach perfected the fugue technique, while in the Classical period Ludwig van Beethoven composed his famed orchestras.

Perhaps the most significant composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career, fell between these two giants. Born in Austria in 1756, Mozart was a prodigy who wrote his first symphony when he was eight years old. Then, in the 1770s, he began working throughout the royal courts of Europe and wrote some of the most accomplished concertos and symphonies of the Classical period.

By the mid-1780s, his career reached new heights as his opera The Marriage of Figaro, widely perceived as being one of the greatest ever written, premiered in Vienna in 1786. This productivity continued in the following years, leading to works such as The Magic Flute. And then, while in Prague in September 1791, he developed a severe illness from which he never fully recovered. On the 5th of December, he died three months later at his home in Vienna. He was just 35 years of age.

How did Mozart die so suddenly?

Mozart’s sudden death had been the subject of endless speculation. Here was a man in the prime of life who had no history of significant illnesses and underlying conditions when he suddenly took ill and died.

The source of his malady was unclear, and no consensus was reached at the time of his death about what had caused it. Accordingly, there are many theories about what brought about Mozart’s death.

Firstly, let us examine exactly what happened between September and December 1791. This is because Mozart was unwell even before he arrived in Prague in August 1791.

His condition worsened considerably in September, following which he returned to Vienna. Once there, he deteriorated more slowly, though he could still work to some extent. By early October, he was informing close acquaintances that he believed he had been poisoned. However, then his condition began to improve somewhat for a few weeks before his system crashed again.

At last, things reached a point where he was bedridden from the 20th of November, suffering from swelling, pain, and vomiting. Unfortunately, he never recovered from this downturn, and after two weeks of severe illness, he died on the 5th of December. No autopsy was performed, but Dr. Eduard von Lobes, who attended after his death, stated that he could find no sign of foul play.

Was Mozart Poisoned?

Despite von Lobes’ assertions, there was widespread speculation that Mozart had indeed been poisoned in the years immediately following his death.

He himself is said to have stated that Aqua Tofana had poisoned him at one point. This was an almost legendary poison developed in Italy during the mid-seventeenth century by a poisoner by the name of Giulia Tofana.

The poison contained a mix of arsenic, lead, antimony, mercury, and chlorine. It was relatively undetectable to the person exposed to it if it was mixed in with a goblet of wine or some other drink. Giulia Tofana had developed a business in Rome in the 1630s and 1640s, ridding some of the city’s noblewomen of unwanting husbands.

Aqua Tofana later gained a fearsome reputation as a poison throughout Europe, but it seems implausible that this was what caused Mozart’s death. Firstly, there is no basis for suspecting that anyone would have wanted to murder him. More importantly, Aqua Tofana would kill an individual in about three days. There is no way Mozart would have survived for three months had this been the source of his illness.

Other poisons could have been employed. If it was, there were a number of suspects. Antonio Salieri was a fellow composer who some believed might have wished Mozart dead as a rival. But Salieri was genuinely distressed in later years by the inference that he had anything to do with Mozart’s death. Other possible scenarios proposed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supposing that Mozart was killed either by the Freemasons or a Jewish cabal, were conspiracy theories with more than a hint of paranoid Anti-Semitism to them.

Other theories about Mozart’s Deth

Once the poisoning theory is dismissed, one has to develop a more plausible medical reason. Those which have been proposed in recent decades have ranged from the credible to the distinctly improbable. One, for instance, suggests that Mozart was suffering from a chronic Vitamin D deficiency. However, another put forth in 2001 argues that Mozart died from trichinosis after consuming under-cooked pork chops. Everything from rheumatic fever to smallpox to pneumonia or typhoid fever has also been posited.

However, the most plausible explanation offered to date was put forth in an article published in 2013. This utilized Mozart’s correspondence over many years and reports from his physicians to highlight how the great composer was almost certainly suffering from chronic kidney disease that had never been properly treated throughout his life.

This would explain the regular illnesses and signs of severe fatigue that he displayed throughout his twenties and early thirties. Eventually, this led to uremia in his 35th year and his death several months later. This theory has perhaps the most scientific basis to it of all of those who have grown up around Mozart’s demise.

Given the available evidence, we will unfortunately almost never know what caused Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s strange death. It remains possible that he was poisoned, and while we can probably dismiss the idea that a rare pork chop was the cause of his death, a wide range of other illnesses might have been responsible most plausibly for chronic kidney failure. It was a shame either way, though Mozart is acknowledged as one of the greatest composers to have ever lived today with his premature death.

Sources

Edward Holmes, The Life of Mozart (New York, 2005).

H. C. Landon Robbins, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (New York, 1988).

Mike Dash, ‘Aqua Tofana‘, in Philip Wexler (ed.), Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (London, 2017), pp. 63–69; ‘Aqua Tofana‘, in Philip Wexler, Encyclopedia of Toxicology (London, 1998).

Albert I. Borowitz, ‘Salieri and the “Murder” of Mozart’, in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2 (April, 1973), pp. 263–284.

William Grant and Stefan Pilz, ‘Vitamin D deficiency contributed to Mozart’s death’, in Medical Problems of Performing Artists, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2011), p. 117.

M. Hatzinger, J. Hatzinger and M. Sohn, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Death of a Genius’, in Acta Medica Historica Adriatica, Vol. 11, No. 1 (2013), pp. 149–158.

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