10 Mozart myths
We rethink some commonly told ‘facts’ about Mozart
Did Mozart transcribe Allegri’s Miserere after hearing it just once? Does listening to his music make you cleverer? We rethink ten myths commonly associated with the composer.
1. He died in a pauper’s grave
Mozart was buried in an unmarked ‘simple’ grave (not a communal pit), which was standard for Vienna’s middle class at that time. The poor were buried in sacks whereas Mozart probably wore a black suit. He was buried in a coffin bought by his wife Constanze and patron Gottfried van Swieten.
2. He had Tourette’s Syndrome
In 1992 the British Medical Journal claimed that Mozart’s mannerisms and his scatological letters showed he had Tourette’s. But his bums-and-poo humour was evidence of high spirits and was common in middle-class Vienna.
3. He died rehearsing the Requiem
In the decades after his death, the new Romantic ideas of composer-as-tortured-artist embroidered the story of the Requiem’s composition. But the day-of-death rehearsal with friends, and his sobbing during the Lacrimosa, is fanciful: the last sing-through happened earlier.
4. Salieri poisoned him
As early as Dec 1791, the rumour was circulating that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart. Alexander Pushkin wrote a play about it and as late as 1984, the film Amadeus was made based on the idea. But Constanze didn’t think so, even though she said the dying, delirious Mozart mentioned it.
5. He wrote Symphonies Nos 39-41 as testament, for posterity
There’s no firm evidence he heard them played. But he didn’t write them for posterity: he was a pro, not an egotist. He undoubtedly wrote them for commercial performance, but was probably stymied by Vienna’s 1788 recession.
6. As a teen he wrote out Allegri’s Miserere after one hearing
Remembering and transcribing the layout of this formulaic piece was within his powers, but no Mozart manuscript of the Miserere is known. The only references are his dad’s vague letter at the time, and his sister’s recollections 20 years later.
7. He constructed a system for generating minuets by throwing dice
A portion of his String Quintet, K516f manuscript has music fragments possibly associated with the alphabet – but no instructions on how to ‘convert’ names to melodies, and nothing about dice.
8. He wore brightly coloured wigs
Not only did Mozart never wear the party-joke hairpieces featured in the film Amadeus – he rarely wore a wig (only for official occasions). What you see in those portraits is his own fair hair, dressed and beribboned, as society men did then.
9. Mozart increases your intelligence
Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993) reported that hearing ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata K448 temporariy increased IQ scores, compared to silence, something that came to be known as ‘The Mozart Effect’. But nobody else has replicated this – they’ve only concluded that it’s an effect of mood.
10. A photograph of Constanze Mozart was taken in 1840
An old lady seen standing in a group photo taken at the house of composer Max Keller is rumoured to be Mozart’s widow, Constanze. It is almost certainly not her – the lenses needed for such outdoor group shots were not pioneered until after her death in 1842.
Words: Rob Ainsley