The Day the Music Died - the Death of Mozart in 1791

5 December 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in Vienna at the age of 35.

“On the day of his death he asked for the score to be brought to his bedside. 'Did I not say before, that I was writing this Requiem for myself?' After saying this, he looked yet again with tears in his eyes through the whole work“ (Franz Xaver Niemetschek, “Lebensbeschreibung des k.k. Kapellmeisters Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart“)

Hermann von Kaulbach’s (1846 – 1909) painting “Mozarts letzte Tage” (Mozart’s last days) from 1873

More than 200 years after his untimely death, Mozart has long been recognised as an economic factor. Beyond even of the myriads of hours that billions of people spend being enchanted by his music. His enormous oeuvre is part of the repertoire of every place that plays classical music and nearly every person on the planet that is in touch with the modern world recognises at least a few of his compositions and if it is only his “Rondo alla Turca” allegretto from the Piano Sonata No 11 as a cell phone ringtone. Urban tourism in his places of activity, Salzburg, Vienna, Prague, and to a lesser degree, Augsburg and Mannheim, has a major focus on Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, how he called himself and not to mention the infamous Mozartkugel. Actually, Mozart would have deserved a state funeral for these merits alone. He didn’t, as it is common knowledge.

Mihály von Munkácsy: “The Last Moments of Mozart“ (1888)

The ailments the genius suffered from during his life and times make up quite a list, from smallpox, tonsillitis and bronchitis to pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, gum disease and probably syphilis as well, but when he returned to Vienna in September 1791to prepare and conduct the premiere of the “Magic Flute”, Mozart was already seriously ill. He confessed to his wife Constanze his fear that he had been poisoned and wouldn’t last much longer, she tried to cheer him up and encouraged him to postpone the work on the rather gloomy requiem and finish his “Freimaurerkantate”, his freemason’s cantata, that was premiered successfully on November 18th during the opening of a new temple of Mozart’s own lodge in Vienna, while Mozart was already bedridden. He continued to work on the Requiem then, tended by his wife and his sister-in-law, alas, it remained uncompleted. At one o’clock in the morning, the genius died, of “hitziges Frieselfieber” ("severe miliary fever", more or less a fever accompanied by a rash), according to the doctor conducting the postmortem.

Joseph Heicke “Mozarts Begräbnis” (1860)

The story that he was poisoned by his rival Salieri, wonderfully taken up by Pushkin and later, in his wake, by Rimsky-Korsakov and Miloš Forman, has no grounds at all. Mozart probably succumbed to an untreated streptococcus infection that lead to organ and cardic failure. Other legends are not quite true as well. Mozart was certainly deep in debt but far from being impoverished and he wasn’t buried in a pauper’s grave either. Although the grave was indeed not marked with his name and neither was his funeral cortege, on a mild and dry December day, accompanied, because that wouldn’t have been the custom of the late 18th century. His body was laid out in St Stephen’s Cathedral were the funeral rites were done. However, his remains were never identified with certainty afterwards and the skull kept at Mozarteum University of Salzburg is, very probably, not Mozart’s. However, his legend began to soar in earnest very soon after his death to the heady heights we know today.

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