Friday, February 01, 2013

Was Mozart Dissed in Death?

Poor Mozart ! In life pushed from pillar to post; in sickness working to the last moment to bring bread to his family; in death occupying an unknown grave!

After Mozart's death, that night of December 4, 1791, the little house on Roughstone Lane, in Vienna, was almost deserted. Only two or three callers came. The men who made money by the dead master's genius stayed away. The widow was left almost destitute, as Mozart's fortune amounted to five pounds in money and his effects were valued at about twenty-six pounds more. A heavy draft on this was made by the undertaker's and doctor's bills, which amounted to perhaps twenty pounds.

The cold rain and sleet pounded down, that gloomy day when the little group left the house. After the services at the church the mourners dropped off, and when the hearse reached the cemetery no one followed the remains of the composer of "Don Juan" and the "Jupiter" symphony.

Two paupers had been buried that day; and, as it was late, Mozart's coffin was hastily thrust into the pauper's grave being the last for the day it was uppermost, the earth was hastily thrown in, and the great composer lay at rest in a pauper's grave.

But a stranger thing happened. After some years the grave was opened to receive more bodies of the unfortunate poor. The grave-digger remembered which was Mozart's grave and, having been an admirer of Mozart's music, he preserved the great composer's skull. This man sold it to a certain official, who in after years bequeathed it to his brother, and it was he who made known to the world the fact of this gruesome possession.

Be this as it may, Germany can by no admiration for Mozart's works at this day atone for her neglect of their author at the time of his need and distress. It will always be a blot on the good name of Vienna and the Fatherland.

(From Anecdotes of Great Musicians by Willey Francis Gates, published by T. Presser, 1905.)

It makes for a great story with memorable morals about gratitude, loyalty, the fleeting nature of fame, excellence will survive, and so on.

But did it really happen?

Not quite.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died on December 5th, 1791. On that there's no contest. But the tale of ignominy, ingratitude and poverty surrounding his funeral is not based on fact. Yes, the records reveal that Mozart's body was buried in but a wooden coffin and in a pit where another four or five bodies would be laid as well. But that wasn't because Mozart was poor or forgotten. It was merely the standard practice for middle class people of late 18th Century Vienna. Only aristocracy assumed they would have a private burial plot.

The Gates anecdote, already famous before he included it in his 1905 collection, makes no reference to Mozart receiving a Christian funeral service. But he did.  His body was consecrated with the traditional rites at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Afterward, it was solemnly taken by horse-drawn wagon to St. Mark's Cemetery.  The sad anecdote emphasizes the lack of mourners along the way but again, that was normal for the day. Indeed, reliable sources describe how a few friends and devotees defied convention and accompanied the hearse anyway.

Also, the digging up of Mozart's body (another somber element of the legend) wasn't considered a desecration at all. In fact, the city held the rights to re-use (for whatever purposes) the grave sites after a period of 10 years and frequently exercised that privilege. In such cases, the bones of the dead were disinterred, crushed to allow for more room, and re-buried in consecrated ground. With such a policy, it should be no surprise that the exact site of Mozart's remains are unknown. However, the honor of recognition is not denied Mozart by the cemetery officials or the people of Vienna. In later years, a monument commemorating his life was erected in the cemetery near the spot where Mozart's remains must almost certainly rest.

What about the skull? Well, it's true that the Salzburg Mozarteum was presented with a skull in the early part of the 20th Century. And the donation was supposed to be Mozart's. But there is no hard evidence at all to connect the skull with the legend.

It just might be that the original source of the sad tale depicting Mozart as a forgotten genius was Mozart's widow herself, Constanze. Mozart had left her with an awful lot of debt and she needed to not only get out from under that but to provide for herself and her two children. We know that she applied for (and received) a pension from the Emperor. Plus she also organized publication of Mozart's music and had concerts performed. There's no doubt that interest in these things was greatly stimulated by the story of an unheralded musical giant and his impoverished widow -- a story that could well have been exaggerated by the widow herself to guarantee the success of the numerous ventures.

By the way, Constanze also helped her second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, write a detailed biography of Mozart. With these measures, Constanze lived well and was not at all the destitute, broken-hearted widow of the legend.

So the lesson here? Learn what you will from legends, fables and old wives' tales. But don't confuse hysteria and hype with real history.