Top Five Myths about Mozart

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

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.


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Comments [23]

Donal from United States

It is NOT a fact that Salieri confessed to a murder. That was a rumor, and it probably never happened.

Apr. 23 2015 08:46 PM
Steve L from morristown, nj

Listening to, speaking of, or even thinking about Mozart is an otherworldly out of body experience to me. That God could endow one individual with such profound skill and power of expression is beyond comprehension. Mozart could express the full range of human emotion within a single act of an opera, a single movement of an orchestral piece or concerto. He composed a towering masterpiece in virtually every musical form and was rivalled only by Schubert in terms of the magnitude of quality output for such a tragically short life. The deceptive simplicity of his beautiful melodies belies the underlying complex harmonic ideas; the sign of a true genius. No doubt, his likes we will never see again.

Nov. 30 2013 04:08 PM
BDwolfhound from NJ

I originally did not care for Mozart that much and though such of his music as I heard to be rather light, and as Joseph II is said to have commented, it was full of notes. Then I bought the DVD of the movie Amadeus and after hearing fragments from Symphony 25, Don Giovanni and of course, the Requiem, realized my opinion was ill-founded. Now I try to listen to all the notes!

Nov. 24 2013 02:37 PM
Bill Lucey from Cleveland, Ohio

In keeping with WQXR’s theme, I checked in with some musical historians and scholars to see if they might clarify some common misconceptions concerning Mozart.

-Bill Lucey

Nov. 07 2013 03:22 PM
Juan Carlos Correa from Santiago, Chile

Very interesting!! Of course Mozart did not have the musical notes dictated directly by God. However, it seems like his genious surpassed what we would consider "normal". I have heard and read several times that he composed the Lintz Simphiny in just a couple days. Is it true? or is it yet, another mith?

Nov. 05 2013 04:10 PM
Zachary Fox from New Jersey

Saint-Saens was also a child prodigy. He may have benefitted from Mozart,
but was in his own right a very gifted and versatile composer.
And in my view, his grand Organ Symphony (#3) surpasses all of Mozart's
works. Yet he and especially yet Beethoven are not "celebrated" as Mozart is. I second Meir DeVilna's comment.

Nov. 05 2013 11:04 AM

As a ps to my previous post, I've been listening to WQXR since about 9:00 a.m. and have yet to hear any Mozart. lol

Nov. 04 2013 09:34 AM

While I agree with several posters about Mozart's music being "easy", it certainly is easy listening and a good place to start someone into Classical music (Mine started with Mozart when I took a record [remember vinyl?] from my local library). But I'd like to remind people who don't want to listen to Mozart all day, I don't want to listen to my favorite Bach or, for that matter, Bruckner or Mahler, or my favorite modern composer, Messiaen. I guess, what I want is a good mix, which is why I listen to WQXR!

Nov. 04 2013 09:32 AM
Aviva Cantor from Manhattan

The most accepted myths about Mozart are that the day of his burial was stormy (it was misty)and that burial customs of the day determined his being dumped into a mass grave (this practice was discontinued by the time Joseph II became emperor). So why was Mozart buried without having lain in state at St.Stephan's Cathedral for an appropriate length of time; and why was he interred in a mass grave? The reason is as follows: Mozart believed he had syphilis and was self-medicating with mercury, the "cure" of the day. He actually died of mercury poisoning. His sometime patron, Baron Von Swieten, was the son of the former court physician who introduced mercury into Austria as the disease's treatment. The baron also thought Mozart had syphilis and, to protect his reputation, wanted to make sure that his body was never subject to an autopsy that would confirm this, either before burial (hence its haste) or after (by exhumation, hence the anonymous grave). The baron paid for a third-class funeral and is likely to have bribed the gravedigger to bury the composer, instead, in a mass pauper's grave.
(NOTE: I posted remarks to this effect on the wrong site, so please post the ones given above and disregard the ones elsewhere. tnx)

Nov. 03 2013 05:09 PM
Judith from New Rochelle, NY

There is a distinction between an intellectual appreciation and an emotional response to music, and the Arts in general; and people commonly
state their comments without this distinction.
While Mozart's music may be highly entertaining, Beethoven's reaches one's

Nov. 03 2013 05:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

All the comments made earlier are personalized and therefore legitimate. As an opera composer myself
I find most of my ideas derive from the stream of consciousness syndrome. I spend enormous hours of revision and emendations on ideas that come to me at all hours of the day, many of them when I am settling down to get some rest. Everyone is different. Lee Strasberg, the Method guru, with whom I studied, advised me that everything that one experiences can be archived for future application. I have found that philosophical projection to be positively an adjunct to me in every project I'm involved with. All my solo concerts in the main hall of Carnegie Hall and elsewhere I schedule with a single unifying theme, incorporating music from Gregorian chant to the present with often exciting results. Universality from specificity is so tasty a concoction for the musical gastronome. To offer my credentials to my critiques, I suggest to those interested to hear what a real ECHT Wagnerian heldentenor sounds like to go to my website. LAURITZ MELCHIOR was the CARUSO of the Wagnerian heldentenors. None can compare to him vocally. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute and may be heard at the RECORDED SELECTIONS venue on my website in 37 out of the 100 selections that I have sang in four three-hour-long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of CARNEGIE HALL. On last Sunday October 27th at 5 PM, at the NEWLIFE EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel I sang my fourth concert in New York of the series "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, Movies, and The Grammys." The 300 Love Songs on ten DVDs recorded live on the VALHALLA RECORDS label will be obtainable commercially on February 14th, 2014, Saint Valentine's Day.

Nov. 03 2013 12:17 PM
Chuck from Clark, NJ

It can be difficult for us to relate to artists who lived and worked before Romanticism and the cult of the individual. We in the modern West place so much importance on originality, it is hard for us to understand artists like, for example, Vergil and Thomas Gray, whose cultures regarded imitation of great predecessors not as slavish but as highly desirable, even necessary, even to the point of what we might consider plagiarism.

Nov. 02 2013 10:53 AM
Don from Brookfield CT

Mozart's age at any particular composition (approximately) may be calculated by dividing the K number by 20, then adding 8.

Nov. 02 2013 09:20 AM
sal from EU

Such an idiotic "myths", it is stupidity of todays "educated" idiots. Just listen to nice music if u do not like it - listen Bethoven, but don't spend time on "inventing" idiotizms.

Nov. 02 2013 04:45 AM

Indignant n00b from Brooklyn, your journey largely reflects mine as I came at Mozart from both ends, not only from the Romantics, especially from early romantic L. v. Beethoven, but also from the inimitable J. S. Bach. It took me years to acquire a taste for Mozart but, like you, came to appreciate the economy of structure and emotion. Thanks for the erudite comment.

Nov. 01 2013 06:34 PM
Raquel from ARGENTINA


Nov. 01 2013 04:29 PM
Indignant n00b from Brooklyn

re: Mozart's lightness, lack of substance, etc

I'm a younger listener (32) who's only been into classical for the last three or so years. I came to classical via the later romantics and for a long time I shared that feeling about Mozart's music--I once confessed to a friend that I couldn't tell the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn apart. But as I've progressed (regressed?) in my listening life, I've gravitated increasingly towards the earlier, more "classical" romantics--Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn especially, and Brahms as the only late romantic still exemplary of that sound. Those composers led me in turn back to Mozart and Haydn. NOW a lot of romanticism sounds to me overdone, full of wasted energy and unnecessary motion that doesn't know when to quit. Mozart and Haydn may keep their emotions more "contained," it's true, within the economical structures of classicism, but that doesn't mean the emotions contained within are any less profound.

In fact, I've begun to feel that what's expressed by those composers is even more profound. When Tchaikovsky wrings his hands in despair, it's complete and total, with no redemption, no opportunity for any other perspective; when Wagner overwhelms you with emotion there's almost no room left for the intellect. Haydn and Mozart never become that histrionic because their music remains, above all, enraptured with the glory of simply being alive, of living and experiencing--and even emotions like pain, despair, anger, and grief, all of which are undoubtedly contained in their music, serve as further evidence of life's wonder, not ends in and of themselves. I think this is why some people say that Mozart and Haydn's music is so full of joy--it's not that it's happy all the time, but that no matter how dark the emotions, there's a wonder at simply being alive and able to experience those emotions.

I don't mean to tear down one era to defend another. I still enjoy the music of Wagner, Mahler, and many others from the later 19th century. The romantic era is the lyric era par excellance--long-breathed melody and dense orchestration are apt techniques for conveying the sort of overwhelming, life-altering emotions that the romantics so often esteemed as the heights of experience. Mozart's and Haydn's pieces are more enamored of counterpoint, proportion--the perspective to encompass life's full round, not only its highs and lows. The best evidence of this is their incredible chamber music, which the late romantics produced very little of, and little of that of lasting substance. Different eras esteem different values, and for many of us, the restraint, balance, and nobility found in the classical era are every bit as vital and necessary as the grandeur and lyricism of the romantic.

And then there's Beethoven, who bridges the eras so successfully that he sounds like he belongs to neither...

So QXR--when will Haydn get his month?

Nov. 01 2013 04:28 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Robert, I can appreciate how you feel about Mozart, and I am not implying that his music is easy or saying that it is not valuable. I was merely expressing my own personal response to his music.
Just as Mozart's music sustains you, Bruckner's music sustains me, and I am sure that anyone else who loves classical music can say that about their own favorite composers.
I think it is great that there is so much variety in classical music - there is something for everyone! And so, even though I guess I won't enjoy the Month of Mozart as much as you will, I wish you happy listening!

Nov. 01 2013 04:21 PM
Concetta nardone

Glad you debunked myth #3. He wrote and rewrote. He did not just pull it out of the air. Don't think his music is overrated and pretty. His Don Giovanni is a real look at the dark side. And the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola in e (don't know sharp or flat), particularly the first movement, sounds like two lovebirds serenading each other. My parakeet Reggie would chirp along with it and dance on his perch. I thought that was really odd.

Nov. 01 2013 04:20 PM
Naancy from Denville

Naomi stated that she named her cat "Papageno". I named my American,Canadian Champion Bedlington Terrier"Starcastle's Papageno,DFD. His call name is "Dieter" for DFD(Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau).

Nov. 01 2013 04:13 PM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

The comments that Mozart's music is just "playful", "ditty-like" (Hello, Papageno and Papagena), and the ever-cloying "pretty" reminds me of the quote about Claude Monet and his paintings: "He is nothing but an eye, but, my God, what an eye." Just because something sounds easy, doesn't mean making it was easy. There is a need in this world for the music of Mozart with its joy,serenity and light (with incredible depths of earthly and spiritual shadows). And this is from someone who loves Beethoven and Bruckner. To me, Mozart is No. 1 and it has been since I first heard his music as a child. I'll be seventy in two months and his music has never failed to sustain me in good and bad times.

Nov. 01 2013 02:34 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

I have to agree with Meir on this. I think that while some of Mozart's music is very beautiful, much of it is somewhat light and, to me, starts to sound the same after a while. That is why I am not listening to WQXR's All Mozart Day, and instead am listening to today. Mozart's music is pretty and entertaining and serves as a pleasant background, but that's about it for me. The music that really touches me most deeply is that of Anton Bruckner. Now that is music I simply cannot do without!

Nov. 01 2013 11:18 AM
Meír DeVilna from New Rochelle, NY

The reverence for and idealization of Mozart assumes a fashionable
aura in the music world. In my view, Mozart has been grossly overrated,
and his importance has been drummed up to mythological proportions.
The fact is that the adoration of his music amounts more to an indoctrinated conformable popularity than to genuine individual appeal. Moreover, Mozart has been popularized extensively for commercial reasons - as witness the yearly advertised "Mostly Mozart" concerts, etc.
Yes, Mozart was a child prodigy - and he remained a child prodigy
for the rest of his life. The bulk of his music is simply playful, pretty,
ditty-like, and frequently pretentious in nature (seemingly a reflection
of his personality), and it nowhere reaches the depth of Beethoven's
creations. Seemingly, Mozart's motive was to entertain; he rattled
off music with ease. Beethoven, on the other hand, was demonstrably
serious and laborious about expressing in musical terms his and
mankind's emotional breadth.
Indeed, Mozart was a talented composer, and when an occasion arose,
a thoughtful one too. After all, arias "lsis and Osiris" and "ln
these Holy Portals" reign supreme. "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,"
"Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni" arias are distinctly appealing
as well; and I find his rather not frequently played piano piece,
Fantasia in D minor, to remarkably possess a contemporary (XX century)
musical language. So does, to some extent, the "Elvira" theme.

Nov. 01 2013 10:40 AM

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About Month of Mozart

Mozart is arguably the most admired and most adapted composer in the history of Western music. He has the most recordings (nearly 10,000 in print and has been referenced endlessly in popular culture. His life has been filtered through many theories of genius and creativity – some plausible, others outlandish. Unlike many composers, Mozart has never gone out of fashion, in part because his music has come to stand for so many aspects of classical music. Throughout November, WQXR celebrates Mozart's work through concert broadcasts, multimedia projects, marathons and other features.