Fact versus Mythology

I can't tell you how many emails I receive from people who have mistaken fiction for truth --either from naiveté or by blatant disregard-- where the life of Mozart is concerned. In all the time that I've had this blog (going on six years now), I've never written about this and it occurred to me that some of my readers might actually enjoy reading this. Let's start at the very beginning.

Mozart's Name
Mozart was baptized January 28, 1756 at St. Rupert's Cathedral in Salzburg as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. The first two baptismal names, Joannes Chrysostomus, represent his Saint's name, following the custom of the Roman Catholic Church. They result from the fact that his birthday, January 27th, was the feast day of St. John Chrysostom. Wolfgangus is Wolfgang, adapted to the Latin used in the parish register. The composer used Wolfgang in German-speaking contexts, being the name of the his maternal grandfather.

Theophilus comes from Greek and is variously rendered as "Lover of God" or "Loved by God". The familiar form Amadeus is the Latin version of this name. Theophilus was a name of Mozart's godfather, the merchant Joannes Theophilus Pergmayr. Mozart's father Leopold announced the birth of his son in a letter to the publisher Johann Jakob Lotter with the words, "The boy is called Joannes Chrisostomus, Wolfgang, Gottlieb", Gottlieb being the German translation of Theophilus. From 1770 Mozart called himself Wolfgango Amadeo, and from about 1777, Wolfgang Amadè. He seldom used the name Amadeus, and then only in jest.

Mozart was never called Wolfie. His nicknames were Wolferl, Wofl and Wolfgangerl. Likewise, his wife Constanze was not called Stanzie, but Stanchen and Stanzerl.

Mozart's Manners
Having grown up as a guest performer in the highest royal courts of Europe, Mozart could hardly have been the brat that Amadeus portrays. Leopold must have schooled his children on courtly protocol and etiquette, otherwise he the family would not have been invited for repeat visits as was the case with the Hapsburgs of Austria. The 18th century had strict codes of conduct, especially when appearing before the crowned heads of any given country. To imagine Mozart, whether as a child or as an adult, acting like a tantrum-throwing ass would never have cut the mustard with Leopold Mozart, who wanted nothing more than to make a good impression wherever the children performed. It would have appealed even less with the royalty and aristocracy. I'm not saying that Mozart's manners in his home, or at private parties were always at their peak --he is reported to have had a serious silly streak-- but while at court or in the presence of someone with which he might have wanted to curry favor, Mozart would have been on his best behavior.

Mozart's Ease of Composition
I have long maintained that to assume that composition came to Mozart as easily as dashing off a grocery list is insulting to his powers as a master of composition, theory, harmony and counterpoint. In his own words he states, "Moreover it is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied."

Did Mozart Have Salieri's "Darling girl"?
Caterina Cavalieri was indeed court composer Antonio Salieri's mistress, and while she sang the part of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction From the Seraglio), there is no evidence at all that Mozart and Cavalieri were any more that colleagues.

Antonio Salieri - Friend or Foe?
Now we come to the real meat of the situation. It’s true that Mozart believed Salieri to behind some of the intrigues against him at the court, but to pin him as the sole instigator of all of them would be naïve and affords Salieri far too much power. Vicente Martín y Soler, a Spanish composer in Vienna, later proved to be far worse than Salieri ever was with his backstabbing and slander of Mozart. While others bad-mouthed Mozart and won disfavor, Salieri was much too clever to fill his sovereign’s ear with petty gossip and tittle-tattle. His cunning was more subtle: he simply saw to it that Mozart's music was not placed upon the royal music stand, thus ensuring ignorance on the emperor's part concerning what music was popular with the public. Thus, Joseph II had no way of knowing how popular Mozart actually was. Salieri was a busy man, writing an impressive number of operas that were very well-received in the capital and teaching many pupils. He was famous and wealthy and enjoyed job security. He would hardly feel threatened by Mozart. There were a number of composers waiting behind him in a line of succession in which Mozart wasn't even at the bottom. I doubt that Salieri ever feared losing his post to him.

In Amadeus, Salieri is shown to be the reason why Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro played only 9 times. Actually, that was quite a run in Vienna! More importantly, Salieri wasn't even in Vienna at the time of the opera's production. He was in Paris producing one of his own.

Leopold I, after ascending the throne after Joseph II's death in 1790, "retired" Salieri from his duties at court. Mozart and Salieri then became friendly colleagues. Mozart was invited to dinner parties with Salieri and his mistress in Cavalieri's house. On October 14, 1791, Mozart wrote, "At 6 o'clock I called in the carriage for Salieri and Madame Cavalieri and drove them to my box... You can hardly imagine how charming they were and how much they not only liked my music, but the libretto and everything. They both said it was an operone [grand opera], worthy to be performed at the grandest festival and before the greatest monarch, and that they would often go to see it. Salieri listened and watched most attentively, and from the overture to the last chorus there was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo! or bello! It seemed as if they could not thank me enough for my kindness... When it was over I drove them home...". Salieri also paid his respects the day before Mozart died. Not long after Mozart's death his two sons studied with Salieri. Salieri was a beloved teacher to many notable composers, including Schubert, Beethoven and Liszt.

Drunken Pauper
This is a subject that has been written about in so many books that no serious lover of Mozart takes it seriously any longer. There simply is no evidence to support it. In fact, all the evidence suggests otherwise. Mozart had a domestic staff, his eldest son was enrolled in a prestigious boarding school in the country, and his wife went to the spa at Baden-bei-Wien (where Mozart kept a second apartment) for extended stays. A pauper who had to pawn his furniture as shown in the movie could hardly keep up these expenses. As for drunkenness, I will simply present you with a list of what he composed in the last year of his life, a year fraught with illness and excruciating pain:
  1. Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge (song), K.596
  2. Im Frühlingsabfang (song), K.597
  3. Das Kinderspiel (song), K.598
  4. Dance music, K.599
  5. German Dances, K.600
  6. Dance music, K.601
  7. German Dances, K.602
  8. Contradances, K.603
  9. Dance music, K.604
  10. German Dances, K.605
  11. German Dances, K.606
  12. Contradances, K.607
  13. Fantasia for mechanical organ, K.608
  14. Contradances, K.609
  15. Contradances, K.610
  16. German Dances, K.611
  17. Per questa bella mano (aria for bass), K.612
  18. Piano Variations, K.613
  19. String Quartet in E-flat, K.614
  20. Vivano felici (for solo voice & orchestra - Lost), K.615
  21. Andante for mechanical organ, K.616
  22. Adagio & Rondo for glass armonica, K.617
  23. Ave verum corpus, K.618
  24. Die ihr des unermesslichen Weltalls Schöpfer ehrt (Cantata), K.619
  25. Die Zauberflöte (opera), K.620
  26. La clemenza di Tito (opera), K.621
  27. Io ti lascio (aria for bass), K.621a
  28. Clarinet Concerto in A, K.622
  29. Laut verkünde unsre Freude (Cantata), K.623
  30. Nun, liebes Weibchen (comic duet), K.625
  31. Requiem Mass, K.626
I doubt that a drunk in the last agonizing year of his life could produce such a body of work.

The Pauper's Burial
Mozart's funeral and burial were arranged by his friend, patron and masonic brother, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who followed the Josephine burial reforms at the time. Amadeus enacts what must be an accurate portrayal of these burials of the middle, merchant and educated working classes. To us, the sight of a body being dumped into a communal grave seems unimaginable, but in 1791 it was common; about 85% of Vienna's population was buried in this fashion. It had nothing to do with being poor. In fact, Mozart was given a second-class burial, which was paid for by his masonic lodge.

What Killed Mozart?
This subject is still hotly debated, and there is a great deal of speculation. Mozart's death certificate is cryptic at best, so all I can tell you is what did not kill Mozart:
  1. He was not poisoned by Salieri.
  2. He did not work himself to death
  3. He did not drink himself to death
  4. The masons did not murder him
  5. His pupil, Franz Süssmayr did not poison him
  6. His wife did not poison him
The most widely accepted theory is that he died of kidney failure due to infection, which was compounded by secondary infections and perhaps rheumatic fever. The practice of bloodletting is believed to have further weakened him. It is recorded that a streptococcal epidemic had invaded Vienna at the time, killing a number of people. This, too, cannot be ruled out.

Don't get me wrong. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Amadeus. It did and still does introduce people to great music, which is wonderful, but it was never meant to be a biography of the life of Mozart. Unfortunately, too many people would rather watch a movie than crack a book, and this is the reason why the real Mozart remains shrouded in mythology.



  1. What a great post!

    "Amadeus" made a bigger deal out of Mozart's and Salieri's association than what was ever there. And as you stated, Mozart's greatest rival in Vienna was Martin y' Soler.

    There were also several important relationships in Mozart's life that were never mentioned in the film. No mention was given to Joseph Haydn, who was probably one of Mozart's most beloved friends and colleagues. His English friends including Michael Kelly, Nancy & Stephen Storace, and Thomas Attwood, who were quite important and influential in the early Vienna years, were never mentioned. And no attention was paid to the importance and influence of Mozart's Masonic friends/brothers.

    Of course these wouldn't be mentioned because they weren't central to the story line, but that only enhances the point that "Amadeus" was based more upon myth than actual truth.

  2. It's a little like people believing that William Wallace (Braveheart) was the father of Edward Longshanks's grandson, because that's what was in Mel Gibson's movie. Movies are fun, but very few people's lives are organized in a way that makes for a two- to three-hour narrative.

  3. "Immortal Beloved" is another film in this vein. The entire movie is built upon one paragraph in one of Beethoven's many letters. I like IB, but as we now know, it was metallic poisoning that caused the composer's deafness, not his abusive father. (See Beethoven's Hair, another great film directed by Larry Weinstein and written by Thomas Wallner, the team that made Mozartballs.)


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