Death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Portrait (1789) of Mozart in silverpoint by Doris Stock

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died on 5 December 1791 at the age of 35. The circumstances of his death have attracted much research and speculation. Some principal sources of contention are as follows.

The course of Mozart's final illness

The traditional narrative

Constanze Mozart by her brother-in-law Joseph Lange (1782)

Mozart scholarship long followed the accounts of early biographers, which proceeded in large part from the recorded memories of his widow Constanze and her sister Sophie Weber as they were recorded in the biographies by Franz Niemetschek and Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. For instance, the important biography by Hermann Abert (1923/2008:1305-9) largely follows this account. The following is a summary of this view.

When in August 1791 Mozart arrived in Prague to supervise the performance of his new opera La clemenza di Tito (K. 621), he was "already very ill" (Abert, p. 1305). During this visit, Niemetschek wrote, "he was pale and expression was sad, although his good humour was often shown in merry jest with his friends."[1] Following his return to Vienna (mid September 1791),[2] Mozart's condition gradually worsened.[3] For a while, he was still able to work and completed his Clarinet Concerto (K. 622), worked toward the completion of his Requiem (K. 626), and conducted the premiere performance of The Magic Flute (K. 620) on 30 September. Still, he became increasingly alarmed and despondent about his health. An anecdote from Constanze is related by Niemetschek:

On his return to Vienna, his indisposition increased visibly and made him gloomily depressed. His wife was truly distressed over this. One day when she was driving in the Prater with him, to give him a little distraction and amusement, and they were sitting by themselves, Mozart began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears came to the eyes of the sensitive man: 'I feel definitely,' he continued, 'that I will not last much longer; I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.'

Constanze attempted to cheer her husband by persuading him to give up work on the Requiem for a while, encouraging him instead to complete the "Freimaurerkantate" (K. 623), composed to celebrate the opening of a new Masonic temple for Mozart's own lodge.[4] The strategy worked for a time – the cantata was completed and successfully premiered 18 November.[5] He told Constanze he felt "elated" over the premiere.[6] Mozart is reported to have stated, "Yes I see I was ill to have had such an absurd idea of having taken poison, give me back the Requiem and I will go on with it."

Even so, Mozart's worst symptoms of illness soon returned, together with the strong feeling that he was being poisoned. He became bedridden on 20 November, suffering from swelling, pain and vomiting.

From this point on, scholars are all agreed that Mozart was indeed very sick, and he died about two weeks later, on December 5 (see below).

Revisionist accounts

The view that Mozart was in near-steady decline and despair during the last several months of his life has met with skepticism in recent years. Cliff Eisen supervised the reissue of Abert's biography in 2008 in a new edition, supplementing it with numerous footnotes. While generally deferential to Abert, Eisen expresses sharp criticism in the footnoting of the section leading up to Mozart's death:

It should be noted that, in this context, the evidence cited by Abert is selective and suits the intended trajectory of his biography. With the exception of citations from Mozart's letters, all of the testimony is posthumous and prompted by complicated motives both personal and financial. Although it is 'authentic' in the sense that it derives from those who witnessed Mozart's death, or were close to him, it is not necessarily accurate. ... To be sure, Mozart was under the weather in Prague. But there is no evidence that he was 'very ill' and it is not true that his health 'continued to deteriorate'. As Abert himself notes later in this chapter, Mozart's health improved in October and early November (Abert/Eisen 2008:1305).

In the main biography article of the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, Ruth Halliwell expresses her skepticism of the decline-and-despair account thus:

While later sources describe [Mozart] as working feverishly on [his Requiem], filled with premonitions of his own death, these accounts are hard to reconcile with the high spirits of his letters from most of November. Constanze's earliest account, published in Niemetschek's biography of 1798, states that Mozart 'told her of ... his wish to try his hand at this type of composition, the more so as the higher forms of church music had always appealed to his genius.' There is no hint that the work was a burden to him.

As for why Constanze might have been "prompted by complicated motives both personal and financial" (Eisen), Halliwell contends that "Constanze and Sophie were not objective witnesses, because Constanze's continuing quest for charity gave her reasons to disseminate sentimental and sensationalist views."[7] By "charity" Halliwell may be referring to the many benefit concerts from which Constanze received income in the years following Mozart's death, as well as, perhaps, the pension she received from the Emperor; see discussion below as well as Constanze Mozart.

Christoph Wolff, in a 2012 book entitled Mozart at the Gateway to his Fortune, likewise decries the view that Mozart's last years represented a steady slide to despair and the grave. As a corollary, he is critical of interpretations of the music as reflecting late-life despair (for example) "the hauntingly beautiful autumnal world of [Mozart's] music written in 1791".[8]

Remembrances of Mozart's death

Individuals present at the time of Mozart's death eventually committed their memories to writing, either on their own or through interviews by others. The stories they told are not entirely mutually compatible, which may be due in part to some of the events not being recorded until the 1820s, when the witnesses' memories might have faded.

Benedikt Schack, Mozart's close friend for whom he wrote the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute, told an interviewer that on the last day of Mozart's life, he participated in a rehearsal of the Requiem in progress. Schack's questionable account appeared in an obituary for Schack which was published in the 25 July 1827 issue of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung:

On the very eve of his death, [Mozart] had the score of the Requiem brought to his bed, and himself (it was two o'clock in the afternoon) sang the alto part; Schack, the family friend, sang the soprano line, as he had always previously done, Hofer, Mozart's brother-in-law, took the tenor, Gerl, later a bass singer at the Mannheim Theater, the bass. They were at the first bars of the Lacrimosa when Mozart began to weep bitterly, laid the score on one side, and eleven hours later, at one o'clock in the morning (of 5 December 1791, as is well known), departed this life.[9]

Biographer Niemetschek relates vaguely similar account, leaving out a rehearsal:

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.[10]

The widely repeated claim that, on his deathbed, Mozart dictated passages of the Requiem to his pupil Süssmayr is strongly discounted by Solomon, who notes that the earliest reference for this claim dates to 1856. Sophie Weber did claim to recall, however, that Mozart gave instructions to Süssmayr.[11]

An 1840 letter from the composer Ignaz von Seyfried states that on his last night, Mozart was mentally occupied with the currently running opera The Magic Flute. Mozart is said to have whispered the following to Constanze in reference to her sister Josepha Hofer, the coloratura soprano who premiered the role of the Queen of the Night:

Quiet, quiet! Hofer is just taking her top F; — now my sister-in-law is singing her second aria, 'Der Hölle Rache'; how strongly she strikes and holds the B-flat: 'Hört! hört! hört! der Mutter Schwur'[12]

Solomon, while noting that Mozart's biographers often left out the "crueler memories" surrounding his death,[11] stated, "Constanze Mozart told Nissen that just before the end Mozart asked her what [his physician] Dr. Closset had said. When she answered with a soothing lie, he said, 'It isn't true,' and he was very distressed: 'I shall die, now when I am able to take care of you and the children.[13] Ah, now I will leave you unprovided for.' And as he spoke these words, 'suddenly he vomited —it gushed out of him in an arc— it was brown, and he was dead.'"[11] Mozart's older, seven-year-old son Karl was present at his father's death and later wrote, "Particularly remarkable is in my opinion the fact that a few days before he died, his whole body became so swollen that the patient was unable to make the smallest movement, moreover, there was stench, which reflected an internal disintegration which, after death, increased to the extent that an autopsy was impossible."[11]


A portrayal by Joseph Heicke of the journey of Mozart's coffin through a storm to the cemetery. Engraving from about 1860, a few years after the Deiner story appeared.

The funeral arrangements were made by Mozart's friend and patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Describing his funeral, the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states, "Mozart was buried in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December." Otto Jahn wrote in 1856 that Salieri, Süssmayr, van Swieten and two other musicians were present.[14]

The common belief that Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave is also without foundation. The "common grave" referred to above is a term for a grave belonging to a citizen not of the aristocracy. It was an individual grave, not a communal grave; but after ten years the city had the right to dig it up and use it for a later burial. The graves of the aristocracy were spared such treatment.[15]

An element of poetry injected into the tale of Mozart's death and funeral is a winter storm. A memoir attributed to one Joseph Deiner, who was claimed to have been present, appeared in the Vienna Morgen-Post of 28 January 1856.

The night of Mozart's death was dark and stormy ; at the funeral, too, it began to rage and storm. Rain and snow fell at the same time, as if Nature wanted to shew her anger with the great composer's contemporaries, who had turned out extremely sparsely for his burial. Only a few friends and three women accompanied the corpse. Mozart's wife was not present. These few people with their umbrellas stood round the bier, which then taken via the Grosse Schullerstrasse to the St. Marx Cemetery. As the storm grew ever more violent, even these few friends determined to turn back at the Stuben Gate, and they betook themselves to the "Silver Snake". Deiner, the landlord, was also present for the funeral.[16]

As Slonimsky (1960:12-14) notes, the tale was widely adopted and incorporated into Mozart biographies.

Deiner's description of the weather is falsified by records kept at the time. The diarist Karl Zinzendorf recorded on 6 December that there had been "mild weather and frequent mist".[17] The Vienna Observatory kept weather records and recorded for 6 December a temperature ranging from 37.9 to 38.8 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 °C–3.8 °C), with "a weak east wind at all ... times of the day" (Slonimsky 1960:16).


Following her husband's death, Constanze recovered from her despair and addressed the task of providing financial security for her family; the Mozarts had two young children, and Mozart had died with outstanding debts. She successfully appealed to the Emperor on 11 December 1791 for a widow's pension due to her as a result of Mozart's service to the Emperor as a part-time chamber composer. Additionally, she organized a series of concerts of Mozart's music and the publication of many of her husband's works. As a result, Constanze became financially secure over time.[18]

Soon after the composer's death a Mozart biography was started by Friedrich Schlichtegroll, who wrote an early account based on information from Mozart's sister, Nannerl. Working with Constanze, Franz Niemetschek wrote a biography as well. Much later, Constanze assisted her second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, on a more detailed biography published in 1826. See Biographies of Mozart.

Mozart's musical reputation rose following his death; 20th-century biographer Maynard Solomon describes an "unprecedented wave of enthusiasm"[18] for his work after he died, and a number of publishers issued editions of his compositions.

What may have been Mozart's skull was exhumed in 1801,[19] and in 1989–1991 it was examined for identification by several scientists.[20][21]

Cause of death

Theories involving homicide

Antonio Salieri portrayed by Joseph Willibrord Mähler

An early rumor addressing the cause of Mozart's death was that he was poisoned by his colleague Antonio Salieri. This rumor, however, was not proven to be true as the signs of illness Mozart displayed did not indicate poisoning.[22] Despite denying the allegation, Salieri was greatly affected by the accusations that he had contributed to Mozart's death and contributed to his nervous breakdowns in later life.[23]

Beyond the Salieri theory, other theories involving murder by poison have been put forth, blaming the Masons, Jews, or both. One such theory was the work of Mathilde Ludendorff, wife of the German general Erich Ludendorff. William Stafford (1991) forthrightly describes such accounts as outlandish conspiracy theories, giving supporting reasons.[24]

Theories involving disease

Stafford (1991:56) gives a gloomy characterization of the effort to determine what disease killed Mozart:

What did he actually die of? Mozart's medical history is like an inverted pyramid: a small corpus of primary documentation supports a large body of secondary literature. There is a small quantity of direct eye-witness testimony concerning the last illness and death, and a larger quantity of reporting of what eye witnesses are alleged to have said. Altogether it would not cover ten pages; some of it is vague, and some downright unreliable. All too often later writers have used this data uncritically to support pet theories. They have invented new symptoms, nowhere recorded in the primary sources.

In the parish register, the entry concerning Mozart's death states he died of "severe miliary fever";[25] – "miliary" referring to the appearance of millet-sized bumps on the skin. This does not name the actual disease.

Mozart had health problems throughout his life, suffering from smallpox, tonsillitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, and gum disease.[26] Whether these played any role in his demise cannot be determined.

Conjectures as to what killed Mozart are numerous. The following survey is arranged in rough chronological order.

Some ascribe Mozart's death to malpractice on the part of his physician, Dr. Closset. His sister-in-law Sophie Weber, in her 1825 account, makes the implication. Borowitz summarizes:

When Mozart appeared to be sinking, one of his doctors, Dr. Nikolaus Closset, was sent for and finally located at the theater. However, according to Sophie's account, that drama-lover "had to wait till the piece was over." When he arrived, he ordered cold compresses put on Mozart's feverish brow, but these "provided such a shock that he did not regain consciousness again before he died.[27]

In a journal article dated 1908, it was suggested that Vitamin D deficiency could have played a role in Mozart's underlying medical conditions leading to his death.[28]

A suggestion is that Mozart died as a result of his hypochondriasis and his predilection for taking patent medicines containing antimony. In his final days, this was compounded by further prescriptions of antimony to relieve the fever he clearly suffered.[29]

A 1994 article in Neurology suggests Mozart died of a subdural hematoma. A skull believed to be Mozart's was saved by the successor of the gravedigger who had supervised Mozart's burial, and later passed on to anatomist Josef Hyrtl, the municipality of Salzburg, and the Mozarteum museum (Salzburg). Forensic reconstruction of soft tissues related to the skull reveals substantial concordance with Mozart's portraits. Examination of the skull suggested a premature closure of the metopic suture, which has been suggested on the basis of his physiognomy. A left temporal fracture and concomitant erosions raise the question of a chronic subdural hematoma, which would be consistent with several falls in 1789 and 1790 and could have caused the weakness, headaches, and fainting Mozart experienced in 1790 and 1791. Additionally, aggressive bloodletting used to treat suspected rheumatic fever could have decompensated such a lesion, leading to his death.[30]

In a 2000 publication, a team of two physicians (Faith T. Fitzgerald, Philip A. Mackowiak) and a musicologist (Neal Zaslaw) reviewed the historical evidence and tentatively opted for a diagnosis of rheumatic fever.[31]

The hypothesis of trichinosis was put forth by Jan V. Hirschmann in 2001.[32]

In 2009, British, Viennese and Dutch researchers performed epidemiological research combined with a study of other deaths in Vienna at the time of Mozart's death. They concluded that Mozart may have died of a streptococcal infection leading to an acute nephritic syndrome caused by poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis. This disease was also called "Wassersucht" in Austria.[33]


  1. Quotation cited from Solomon (1995:487)
  2. Abert (1923/2004: 1245)
  3. For this point Solomon 1995, p. 586 cites an article in the Berlin Musikalisches Wochenblatt ("Musical Weekly"), written shortly after Mozart's death.
  4. Solomon 1995, p. 490
  5. Deutsch 1965, p. 413
  6. Solomon 1995, p. 490 The words are as related by Constanze decades later to the visiting English diarist Mary Novello.
  7. From Halliwell's article "Mozart" in The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, p. 332.
  8. Wolf 2012, "Prologue". The quotation, of H. C. Robbins Landon's book Mozart's Last Year, appears on p. 2.
  9. Deutsch 1965, pp. 536–7Schildkret 2008
  10. Niemetschek biography, quoted Solomon 1995, p. 493
  11. 1 2 3 4 Solomon 1995, p. 493
  12. English "Hear! hear! hear! a mother's oath". Mozart or Konstanze misremembered exactly what the Queen of the Night sings, which is "Hört, hört, hört, Rachegötter! Hört der Mutter Schwur!" ("Hear, ye gods of revenge!")
  13. Mozart's financial condition had improved considerably during the year 1791; see Solomon 1995, ch. 30
  14. Jahn 1867, p. 
  15. Walther Brauneis, Dies irea, dies illa – Day of wrath, day of wailing: Notes on the commissioning, origin and completion of Mozart’s Requiem (KV 626)
  16. Deutsch 1965:465
  17. Deutsch 1965:418. The original French, given by Slonimsky (1960:17), is "temps doux et brouillard frequent."
  18. 1 2 Solomon 1995, p. 499
  19. (La Chronique Medicale, 13 (1906) 423)
  20. Puech, PF (1991). "Forensic scientists uncovering Mozart". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 84 (6): 387. PMC 1293314Freely accessible. PMID 2061918.
  21. Puech, Pierre-Francois; Puech, Bernard; Tichy, Gottfried (1989). "Identification of the cranium of W.A. Mozart". Forensic Science International. 41 (1–2): 101–10. doi:10.1016/0379-0738(89)90241-7. PMID 2670708.
  22. For discussion, with references, of the poisoning rumor see Solomon 1995, p. 587. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music states flatly, "He was not poisoned"; see Sadie 1988
  23. Deutsch 1965, pp. 522, 524
  24. Stafford (1991:ch. 2)
  25. Solomon 1995, p. 494. Numerous sources, even published biographies (, ), have altered this term to "military fever".
  26. For a thorough survey of Mozart's health history, with an M.D.'s proposed diagnoses, see Davies 1984.
  27. Borowitz 1973, pp. 265–6
  28. W. B. Grant and S. Pilz, Vitamin D deficiency contributed to Mozart's death, Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 26 N2, 117 (2011) article
  29. Emsley 2005, pp. 220–1
  30. Drake Jr, ME (1993). "Mozart's chronic subdural hematoma". Neurology. 43 (11): 2400–3. doi:10.1212/wnl.43.11.2400. PMID 7864907.
  31. Fitzgerald, Zaslaw, and Mackowiak 2000
  32. See , and critical comment with reply at .
  33. Zegers, Weigl & Steptoe 2009, pp. 274–8


Further reading

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