Examining the existing evidence to the intrigue at the centre of the Mozart myth.
“I shall not last much longer. I am sure that I have been poisoned! I can not rid myself of this thought…”, confided W. A. Mozart in his wife Constanze in the last days of his life.
This intriguing remark cast a final touch on the sorrowful thread that colours virtually every retelling of the composer’s life: from a bright and precocious wunderkind with the world at his feet to a penniless outcast gone before his time.
Mozart believed himself to have been poisoned; and the rumour that grew in the days after his death – that Antonio Salieri, his frenemy, was the who in “whodunnit” – has held a firm place in popular imagination ever since.
There have been plenty of debunkings of this theory, of course – and yet, we still wanted to look over the existing evidence to this titillating tale.
Setting the stage
There are some historical bases to the much mythologized feud.
First of all – the rivalry itself is not really a theoretical thing, but rather a based, confirmed fact. Still, it didn’t stem, most likely, from any personal dislikes between the two men; it was, instead, dictated by the oppositional positions the composers held at the Hapsburg court, a lively institution rife with schemes and plots in order to advance further either socially or professionally. The position of a court musician was, needless to say, incredibly prestigious – as Dorothea Link writes in the Cambridge Companion to Mozart, “as court employees, all these people enjoyed employment for life, occupied positions within the court’s hierarchy according to which they were automatically promoted, and were entitled to pensions.” A good gig, even by today’s standards.
The most esteemed roles within the court’s “music department” were, of course, the composers, and there always had to be at least two – one for the Hofkapelle (for religious ceremonies) and one for the Kammer Musik ensemble (for private entertainments, balls, masquerades and so on). And by 1787, these were precisely the positions Salieri and Mozart found themselves in; and while they weren’t strictly on warring sides, we can still assume some good-natured competitiveness rose from this set-up (think “school choir kids vs. band kids”).
Additional to this construed conflict of the two composers was something bigger than both of them – the opposing “nationalized” music styles and operatic genres they each stood for and excelled in. There is no denying of certain conflicts within the Hapsburg court at the time, tied to questions of national and political identity of the rulers and their courtiers.
After succeeding the throne in 1765, one of Joseph II’s chief ambitions was to create a strong sense of centralized national identity in his vast empire – and amongst the ways to do it was to support a purely German genre of opera. In 1777, the Italian opera buffa company, previously much enjoyed by the gentry, was disbanded in favour of a German-language troupe – the National Singspiel. Unable to adapt to the demands of writing opera in German, as he never really mastered the finesse of the language (and what non-native speaker has, really?), Salieri was temporarily out of a job – sowing the seeds of resentment, perhaps, toward composers who would replace him as maestro di opera?
While the singular domination of Singspiel on the Vienna stage was short-lived – the Italian company was brought back in 1783 – its success was pretty big (owing in large part to the Seraglio premiere), and led to Singspiel becoming a rising opera form in its own right.
So, essentially, by the last decades of the century, we have two big fishes in one small pond. The two composers – orbiting around each other, competing for the affections of their joint employer, and standing for two very different music styles, both equally fashionable at the time. Italian versus German, buffa versus Singspiel, Salieri versus Mozart. And behind Salieri, evidently, a much larger pack of supporters that no amount of talent – not even Mozart’s – could beat.
In a letter to Nannerl in 1781, after Amadeus failed to get the job of music teacher to Duchess Elisabeth of Württemberg, Leopold Mozart famously wrote: “Salieri and his tribe will move heaven and earth to put it down“, referring to the camaraderie that surely existed between the Italianate members of the court, but probably not to a such an obstructive, cigar-chewing, stripe suit-wearing, mobster-ish extent as we’d very much like to imagine. We say probably, and yet – if you go digging around other old letters, you’ll find that Salieri really wasn’t immune to some mischief.
Mozart’s own recounting of how he lost the teaching job to his dear papa can be marked as one of the earliest hints of the importance of good social standing and strong connections at the court, something in which Salieri excelled: “As to the Princess of Würtenberg and my hopes to be appointed as her teacher, well, that’s all decided now. The emperor killed it for me, for the only one who counts in his eyes is Salieri. Archduke Maximilian had suggested Me to her;—she told him that if she could have had her choice, she would have never taken anyone but me; but the emperor had suggested Salieri to her—because of her singing. She said she was very sorry about it all…”.
While in this specific letter Mozart refrains from any explicit allegations, there are other instances where he does note the tribal nature of court politics. Here is an excerpt from a 1783 letter, in which he explains to his father the trouble he is experiencing in securing a new librettist: “You know, these Italian gentlemen,they are very nice to your face!—enough, we know all about them!—and if he is in league with Salieri, I’ll never get a text from him—and I would love to show here what I can really do with an Italian opera.”
Certain schemery starts to get passing mentions as the years go on: “Now I have to tell you of a trick Herr Salieri played that, however, did more harm to poor Adamberger than to me…” And another clue to what went on behind the curtains, in a letter to a fellow Masonic brother Michael Puchberg in 1789: “I will tell you in person about some of Salieri’s intrigues, which, however, have already misfired…”.
Still, by the end of Mozart’s life, some of this rivalry seems to have been stamped out, at least face to face (and as we now know, those Italian gentlemen were very good at being nice to your face at the very least…). As the composer described in his last ever saved letter, talking about attending a performance of his Magic Flute:
“…at 6 o’clock I fetched Salieri and Madame Cavalieri with a carriage and took them to my box… You can’t believe how sweet they both were—and how much they enjoyed not only my music but the libretto and everything.—Both of them told me it was an opera fit to be played at the grandest festivity, before the greatest monarch—and they would certainly go and see it more often because they had never seen a more beautiful and more pleasant spectacle.—Salieri listened and watched with great attention, and from the overture all the way through to the final chorus there was not a single number that did not elicit from him a ‘bravo’ or ‘bello’…”.
Further salvaging Salieri’s crappy reputation is the fact that the two composers even wrote together! A joint piece – Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia – was uncovered in 2016, written to celebrate the recovery of a certain opera singer. Expert insights declared the ditty not to be that good, but still – a proof of amicable collaboration is better than none.
Yet the story of Salieri’s shadiness persists, backed up by fragments found in literature published around this time. Da Ponte’s Memoirs, for example, quote a conversation with none other than Emperor Leopold II, who apparently had this to say about the man: “It is unnecessary for you to speak of Salieri. I know him sufficiently. I know all of his cabals and those also of Cavalieri. He is an intolerable egotist and would like to have nothing succeed in my theater but his operas and his favorites; he is not only your enemy, but that of all the Kapellmeisters, all the singers, all the Italians, and especially mine, because he knows that I see through him.”
Sounds very sinister, right? But let’s not fan the flames just yet.
The cause – the confession?
Owing in part to his own recorded statement, rumours of poisoning rose not even a month after Mozart’s death. The first to propel them to a broad audience was a Berlin newspaper, closing out the composer’s obituary with these words: “Because his body swelled after death, it is believed that he had been poisoned.” The first open accusations of Salieri to have done the deed arose in 1823, a few years before his own death – and the most damning piece of evidence was, perhaps, the one Salieri provided himself. At the end of his life, confined to a sanatorium due to dementia, the composer spoke much of Mozart, and explicitly (or so the story goes) blamed himself for the prodigy’s premature death.
This caused, of course, a lot of what we would today call discourse around town in the following days – as people either dismissed these claims as confused ramblings of an ill man, or found themselves intrigued by their sheer scandalosity. Even Ludwig van Beethoven was, privately, part of the gossip mill, as fragments of these allegations filled up the pages of his conversation notebook. One entrance by Anton Schindler especially stands out, written between January 21st and 25th, 1824: “With Salieri it is going very badly again. He constantly fantasizes he is guilty of Mozart’s death, and that he gave him poison… he wants to confess this as such.”
HOWEVER: According to the medical experts who performed an examination of Mozart’s body post mortem – among them a toxicologist – there were no signs of any suspicious, unnatural causes of death. Considering Mozart’s medical history, the cause seemed to be, most likely, kidney failure, or heart problems. The case was closed before it even opened.
The rapidly unraveling state Salieri was in, too, did not lend much validity to his feverish claims. His good name was further defended by his two attendants, Giorgio Rosenberg and Amadeo Porsche, who released an official statement insisting, upon their “honor and conscience”, that Salieri never even said such a terrible thing – a bit sus, but okay. Could there have been some incentive for these loyal servants to lie?
And so the mystery of Mozart’s death acquired layer upon juicy layer – just enough of them to remain embedded as an enigma in popular imagination ever since.
Reception and reconfiguration
The mythical rivalry proved to be a fuel of poetic inspiration during the 19th century for reporters and biographers, culminating with Alexander Pushkin’s drama Mozart and Salieri, which was soon made into a one-act opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. If you take the time out your day to attend to this short neo-classical masterpiece (which you should), you’ll notice that Pushkin’s play establishes many of the motifs that would soon become famous with Peter Shaffer’s own take on the myth, “Amadeus”, and its widely acclaimed film adaptation by Miloš Forman.
The potent themes explored within Pushkin’s and Shaffer’s stories touch upon perennial questions of genius, talent, faith, and finally – the envy and fury of mediocrity. The central mystery that propelled both of these works into existence is only of partial importance. (Even though Pushkin originally did style his play as a “dramatic investigation”, and did indeed attempt to answer the underlying question of did he do it with a resolute yup, he sure did.) It’s, in fact, the journey of inquiry what could have – might have – led Salieri to put an end to Mozart’s life what makes the tale so captivating, even in present day.
As Carl Dahlhaus wryly observed in his examination of Beethoven’s life and the many nigh-mythical stories that abound in its retellings: “It persists, in spite of the critical battering it has received, because it testifies to an aesthetic, if not historical, truth.” We could say the same of Mozart’s and Salieri’s feud – it lends itself, maybe not to factual accuracy, but to a poetical point. Whether or not that gives it greater validity and, along with that, longevity – well, we’ll get back to you in another 200 years.