Top Five Heads for Classical Music

Thursday, July 05, 2012

X-ray of skull X-ray of skull (erix!/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Austrian authorities recently announced they are investigating who stole Johannes Brahms’s and Johann Strauss’s teeth from their grave sites. Oddly enough, the heads of Austrian and German composers have been in high demand since the late 18th century. (The trend even inspired Colin Dickey's book Cranioklepty). We've found five notorious cases of exhumed skulls, dug up to promote the study of phrenology, as well as to serve for macabre trophies.

1. Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn’s death in 1809 occurred at the time Napoleon’s army’s had overtaken Vienna. There was no time for grand commemorations of his considerable contributions. Shortly after he was buried, a man named Rosenbaum along with an accomplice stole the composer’s noggin, apparently to satisfy their interest in phrenology. The skull passed to Rosenbaum’s wife and was eventually willed to the Society of the Friends of Music. It finally joined the rest of his body in 1954. 

2. Beethoven

In 1863, 36 years after his death, Beethoven’s body was exhumed to study causes surrounding his death, as well as his deafness. When he was reburied, several of his skull fragments stayed above ground in the care of Dr. Romeo Seligmann, who also happened to be a skull collector. The fragments passed through the family, and surfaced in 2005, when Seligmann’s great-great nephew brought them for study at the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University.

3. Mozart

The whereabouts of Mozart’s head, like the rest of his body, are a mystery. However, that wasn’t the case when the celebrated composer was initially buried in an unmarked grave in 1791. Rumors circulated that a gravedigger wrapped a wire around Mozart’s neck to identify him. The ruse may have helped some opportunistic grave robbers seize the skull. Collectors have since claimed they found the authentic skull, most famously the Mozarteum in Salzburg. DNA tests of the bones were inconclusive.

4. Schubert

Along with Beethoven, phrenologists also exhumed the remains of Franz Schubert, in Vienna in 1863. The researcher who conducted the examinations, Gerhard von Breuning, wrote: "[The skulls] seemed to reflect the characteristics of the composers’ works. The walls of Beethoven’s skull exhibit strong density and thickness, whereas Schubert’s bones show feminine delicateness.” While Seligmann took fragments of Beethoven’s skull, Schubert’s were returned to his body after they were studied and photographed.

5. Schiller

For years German academics have been trying to authenticate two skulls rumored to have belonged to playwright Friedrich von Schiller, whose works inspired Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and Verdi’s Don Carlo and Luisa Miller, as well as the “Ode to Joy.” The mystery began in 1826 when the Weimar mayor ordered an exhumation of the mass grave where Schiller was buried, and decided that the largest skull must belong to the revered wordsmith. Meanwhile, Schiller’s confident Goethe claimed he had the true skull (and even wrote a poem about observing the remains). 

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