Was Mozart Murdered?

The following is a short paper I wrote for my first semester "Survey of Music Literature" class. I was amazed that it got very good marks, because I really rushed it and didn't do all the reasearch I should have. It could be much longer and much more detailed. I'm planning on expanding on it over the summer, and also doing a condensed version for a column that the Southwest Symphony Orchestra has in a local newspaper, but until then, here's the original version:

Was Mozart Murdered?
An Overview of the Circumstances Surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Death
by Lucas Marshall

The circumstances surrounding Mozart's death have, over the years, been clouded by much speculation and misinformation. Due to several oversights in the handling of records in the intervening time, much of the facts have been lost or misinterpreted. Due to this, there are several theories about the nature of his final illness. Was Mozart murdered, or was it simply a natural malady he succumbed to? Did he really have a pauper's burial? There is a lot of contradictory evidence available.

First, let's go through what we do know. It is fact that Mozart died on Monday December 5th at 12:55 AM. We know that the symptoms of his illness included painful swelling of joints, high fever, and vomiting. It is also reported that he complained of a "taste of death." On his death certificate, the cause of death is reported as "high miliary fever," a term that is quite imprecise in it's meaning in modern medicine, but is surmised that it refers to, in terms of the medicine of the time, a fever with rash.

After his death, no autopsy was performed. He was buried in a mass grave outside Vienna, with no marker on the grave, and no witnesses to the burial, as was customary for burials in Emperor Joseph's time. The burial was not a paupers burial, as is often thought, but was the cheapest available as he did not leave much money to his family. The total cost of the burial was eight florins, fifty-six kroner.

Among those modern medical authorities that believe Mozart died of natural causes the prevalent theory is that the cause of death was chronic kidney disease, which passed in it's final stages into kidney failure, edema, and uremic poisoning. This diagnosis is argued to be in keeping with the symptoms Mozart presented in his last days, including the swelling, fever and "poisonous taste."

It is believed that some of the many childhood illnesses that Mozart had were likely contributors to his chronic kidney disease.

In 1762, when Wolfgang was six years old, he was ill with what a doctor consulted by Leopold Mozart declared to be a type of scarlet fever, an infection capable of causing kidney injury. In the following year, 1763, Mozart suffered an illness marked by painful joints and fever, which have led some observers to postulate rheumatic fever, which could also lead to adverse effects on the kidney. When Mozart was nine he suffered from what Leopold called a "very bad cold," and later the same year both his sister and he were more seriously ill. Nannerl was thought to be in such serious condition that the administration of extreme unction was begun. No sooner had she recovered than Wolfgang was struck by the illness, which in his father's words reduced him in a period of four weeks to such a wretched state that "he is not only absolutely unrecognizable, but had nothing left but his tender skin and little bones." Some modern commentators identify this sever illness as an attack of abdominal typhus. Two years later, in 1767, Wolfgang contracted smallpox, which left him quite ill and caused sever swelling of his eyes and nose. He also suffered throughout his childhood from a number of bad toothaches, which have led some supporters of the kidney-disease theory to invoke the possibility of a "focal" infection, contributing to kidney damage. The last reference to an illness of Mozart prior to his last days is in a letter from Leopold Mozart to his daughter Nannerl in 1784, when her brother was twenty -eight. This letter reported that Wolfgang had become violently ill with colic in Vienna and had a doctor in almost daily attendance. Leopold added that not only his son, "but a number of other people caught rheumatic fever, which became septic when not taken in hand at once." (Borowitz)

The other theory in Mozart's death is poisoning. Among those that subscribe to this theory, the prevailing opinion is that the poison used was mercury, as that attacks the kidneys and produces symptoms similar to kidney failure. Additional support for this theory is offered as well. It is often pointed out that Mozart's sister, who was exposed to and suffered most of the same childhood illnesses as Mozart, lived to the age of seventy-eight. Another interesting point that is often brought up is that Mozart was documented to be awake and aware, indeed, even still working on his music during his illness, which is inconsistent with the assertion that Mozart was uremic. It is shown in modern medicine that "uremics are always for weeks and usually months before their death unable to work and for days before their death are unconscious."

To a modern person, the notion of poisoning seems a remote possibility. Unfortunately, it was, for good experiential reasons, not so regarded in the eighteenth century. At that time, firearms were not generally available and poisons were well known and understood weapons.

So, it is possible that Mozart was poisoned. But if so, by whom? And why?

"Salieri has always been the prime candidate for the unhappy role of Mozart's murderer. He fits this assignment imperfectly at best. Although (in large part due to the effect of the murder legend) time has not been kind to Salieri's musical reputation, he was undoubtedly one of the leading composers of his period and an important teacher of composition, counting among his pupils Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Hummel, Sussmayr, Sechter, and Meyerbeer. He was also a famous teacher of singing. All his students loved and respected him. Friends remembered his as generous, warm and kind-hearted, and he even had the ability to laugh at himself (at least at his difficulties with the German language). He must have had a way with people, since he apparently established a close personal relationship with the difficult Beethoven." (Borowitz)

The theory that Salieri poisoned Mozart is supported by reports that later in his life Salieri attempted suicide and confessed to the murder. It must be pointed out that Salieri's health was failing at the time and he was thought to be senile.

So did Mozart die a natural death from kidney failure or was he poisoned? The evidence can point either way, and there is abundant evidence to support either point of view. Unfortunately, because of the lack of documentation or medical examination, we will probably never know.


Borowitz, Albert. "Salieri and the 'Murder of Mozart'." Musical Quarterly. http://www.occ.cccd.edu/~maestra/music/page21.html

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Mozart: A Documentary Biography. 1965. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California.