This November is WQXR’s Month of Mozart, a festival devoted to one of the most beloved yet frequently misunderstood composers in the canon. More then 250 years since his birth, Mozart still faces rumors about his life, his genius and death. As the festival kicks off, we've dug up five of the most infamous myths and researched the facts behind these tales.
1. Myth: Antonio Salieri, jealous of his fellow composer’s success, poisoned Mozart.
Fact: Salieri, five-and-a-half years Mozart's senior, certainly knew the younger composer while they both were writing music in late 18th century Vienna. However, the charge that the wildly successful Salieri was so threatened by the less established Mozart that he killed his rival is pretty baseless. In fact, Mozart accepted commissions (such as the operas Cosi fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito) that Salieri had originally turned down. This myth came about because towards the end of his life, Mozart was suspicious that he was being poisoned by a circle of Italians. Conspiracy theorists pointed fingers toward Salieri, and the elder composer didn’t do himself any favors, confessing to the crime (though he was most likely suffering from dementia at that time). Peter Schaeffer’s play and movie Amadeus, which will screen at Symphony Space on November 9, only reinforced the myth.
2. Myth: Listening to Mozart makes you smarter.
Fact: It’s one of the most misconstrued scientific studies: In 1993, a psychologist found that students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart temporarily improved their performances on a spatial reasoning test. Somehow the findings exploded into claims that listening to Mozart made you smarter. All of a sudden The Jupiter Symphony was being prescribed for anyone wanting to increase his or her IQ. Mothers bought CDs with Eine kleine Nachtmusik and The Magic Flute for their toddlers. The correlation between Mozart's music and general intelligence has since been debunked, but if the study helped introduce a few people to Mozart who wouldn’t have listened to it otherwise, it wasn’t all for naught.
3. Myth: Mozart’s compositions came from divine inspiration.
Fact: We're not contesting Mozart’s genius, which is unassailable. What’s suspect is rather the idea that Mozart didn’t labor over his compositions, and instead pulled the notes out of thin air without careful consideration. This fable can be traced back to a letter in which the composer allegedly wrote that inspiration came to him like bolts of lightning. However, this letter was later proven a forgery, full of inconsistencies. In fact, many of Mozart’s relatives and acquaintances described him as continually working and perfecting his pieces at a keyboard.
4. Myth: Mozart struggled financially and died a pauper.
Fact: This myth stems from the fact that Mozart was buried in an unmarked grave. During their lifetimes, the Mozarts spent beyond their means, but the couple lived in relative comfort. Mozart’s unceremonious funeral was due to an edict from Emperor Joseph II, who tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to simplify burials within Austria. This has led people to assume that Mozart’s body was dumped into a mass grave, rather than deposited into a common grave, which was the convention for non-royal subjects of the time.
5. Myth: Mozart’s skull was exhumed and now is on display in the Mozarteum.
Fact: Of all the incredible rumors circling around Mozart, this one may actually be true. The authenticity of the jawless skull that once contained one of the greatest musical brains rests on the word of a gravedigger, who claimed that he attached a wire to the deceased composer’s noggin so that it would be more easily identifiable within the unmarked grave. The skull passed through various hands until it was donated to International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg in 1902. In 2006, researchers attempted to verify whether the skull was truly Mozart’s through DNA analysis. The results were inconclusive, perpetuating the mystery that surrounds the composer.