Thursday, October 30, 2008

Tales from the Crypt: Mozart's Skull

Mark Twain writes about two skulls in a Havana museum, both, he is told, belonging to Christopher Columbus: one when he was a boy and the other, when he was a man.

Just before the Mozart Year began in 2006, back when the world celebrated the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, two musical skulls – fortunately belonging to two different composers – had been in the news. In November, 2005, just before his 135th birthday, it was announced testing on fragments of Beethoven’s skull indicate he died of extreme lead poisoning. Then, just after New Years’ Day, 2006, it was announced the results of DNA testing on a skull that since 1902 has been in the Salzburg Mozarteum (the museum founded to maintain the legacy of the city’s most famous son) could definitively prove if the skull is in fact Mozart’s. The results were scheduled to be revealed on a special television documentary being shown in Austria, a great way to kick off the Mozart Year, so to speak.

I have never been fond of the idea of relics, which may or may not have anything to do with my not being Catholic. On a European concert tour in 1970, when I walked into Italian churches that were old in the Renaissance and saw, for instance, the finger of a pope enclosed in a glass case would probably do nothing for my sense of faith. Standing in a museum and looking at the withered mummy of someone who once was close to a pharaoh four thousand years ago may be historically intriguing but perhaps I’m too squeamish to find it anything more than ghoulish. You couldn’t get me anywhere near that exhibit of cadavers going around called “Our Body: The Universe Within” which closes this weekend at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center. But then, maybe I’ve seen too many horror movies when I was a kid, I don’t know...

Well, it’s Hallowe’en, so it seemed a good idea to revisit the Mystery of [insert weird, tremulous chord here] Mozart’s Skull.

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In 1863, the remains of both Beethoven and Schubert were exhumed so the skulls could be examined and compared (you can read about it in this issue of the Beethoven Journal). This was an age when phrenology was being used to explain a lot of things like the relationship between a person's mental attributes and the shape of the head. Parts of Beethoven’s skull were already missing (?) and the rest of it apparently shattered in the 36 years since he’d died (yes, I’d heard the old joke about Beethoven decomposing when I was in third grade). Having removed both composers’ skulls for examination, it was decided, in the interest of science and the arts, not to return the skulls to the caskets upon reburial. This may seem odd to us today, but Vienna was part of a Catholic culture with a deep history of relics at a time when people thought nothing of making death-masks of the recently deceased or even, when the technology became available, photographs of them. (Speaking of photographs, you can see photos of Beethoven’s skull fragments here.)

The mystery, beyond the long involved story of how these fragments of bones ended up in southern California, now becomes how to explain the extremely high amounts of lead discovered in the bones, something that would explain his deafness and other illnesses leading up to his death at the age of 57. It was thought perhaps he drank a great deal from leaded cups, but as he was not known as an alcoholic like his father, the amount he drank and the quality of the cups leads one to wonder why other residents of Vienna in the early-19th Century may not also have gone deaf and suffered similar symptoms. (Will they discover 200 years from now, after digging up someone who’d suffered from Alzheimer’s, that high amounts of aluminum in the bones came from drinking sodas out of cans? Hmmm...)

Since Schubert was also reburied without his skull, I suspect there will be something in the news soon about it, too (hey, his 211th birthday is coming up on January 31st, 2009).

If these bones could speak, the stories they would tell us! Of course, the problem is not the bones or their stories but how we, the recipients, interpret them.

The questions I’d have about Mozart’s skull pertain to one of the oldest myths about Mozart and his death at the age of 35. The mystery continues and while it’s generally believed that Salieri had nothing to do with it (though it makes great theater), the circumstances of that death – and the eerily mysterious circumstances of the Requiem’s commission, left unfinished at the composer’s death – help sustain the mythology. Of course, there are those who would prefer the myth: peeling away old beliefs in the interest of scientific or historical accuracy sometimes is the antithesis of art.

The story goes that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave, too poor and unknown to warrant consideration of a proper burial (and that the weather was miserable so that no one attended the grave-side services of the burial). Consequently, no one knows where Mozart was buried. This is true to a point.

Volkmar Braunbehrens’ incredibly informative book, “Mozart in Vienna,” was published during the last Mozart Year, 1991, marking the bicentennial of Mozart’s death, though it now appears to be out-of-print. Near the end of over 400 pages covering the last decade of Mozart’s life, Braunbehrens discusses the burial policies of the emperor who once accused Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio as having “too many notes.” Joseph II was one of the more enlightened rulers of Europe, no tyrant (with or without his “puritan economics”) but sometimes a little removed from the feelings of his people who might not have found themselves quite as filled with the Age of Reason. In 1783, he decreed that all the cemeteries within Vienna’s then city limits should be closed and burials only allowed in those “a suitable distance from the city.” While funerals would continue their traditions up to the end of the church service, afterwards the remains would be “conveyed by the priest without ceremony to an outlying cemetery for interment.” It was not the custom for mourners to accompany the casket to the grave-site. The body would then be removed from the coffin (which could be recycled – one of the emperor’s cost-cutting reforms) and, still in its ”linen sack,” thrown into the grave which would be filled in with lime and earth and then marked by a simple cross. “Should several bodies arrive at one time, they may all be placed in the same grave.” Loved ones could erect monuments to the dead but not over the grave, only along the cemetery’s walls, because after six to eight years these graves would then be re-opened, the now decomposed bodies removed and the graves made ready for new, er... clients. It was not uncommon for the now skeletal remains to then be stored in “charnel houses,” the corpses piled on shelves like an ancient catacomb or simply reburied elsewhere in a mass jumble of bones, apparently. That would mean by 1799, Mozart’s body would’ve found, uhm... new lodgings.

Around 1807, then, Georg August Griesinger, who would later write the biography of Haydn, asked the now remarried widow of Mozart if she would go with him out to the St. Marx Cemetery where her husband had been buried. There was a monumental cross in the middle of the graveyard, Braunberhrens quotes in his account, but the gravediggers who would have worked there in 1791 presumably were long gone themselves. While the records would be able to tell us who Mozart would have been buried with, it tells us nothing where that grave may have been. Sixteen years after Mozart’s death, the current custodians could only say it was “three or four rows down” from the center cross. Griesinger remarked, however, that Constanze declared “if it were the custom here as it is in some places to collect and display the bones of the decomposed bodies, she would recognize her husband’s skull among the many thousands.” Apparently, it was not.

In the 2006 announcement, it mentioned that the grave’s “likely location was determined in 1855” and mentions the legend how a gravedigger “who knew which body was Mozart’s at some time sneaked the skull out of the grave,” possibly at the time it was disinterred in 1799 or so? (Unlikely he would’ve bothered to go dig it up right after the funeral.) Possible - but why? Had he been in the audience and enjoyed a performance of his new opera, The Magic Flute, which had a great popular success only ten weeks before Mozart's death: did he feel compelled to retrieve this artifact for posterity? Ah, Yorick... who knows?

Through various adventures, the skull (minus its lower jaw) arrived at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1902. What had it been up to in the intervening 105 years? So far, it has remained silent on this account.

But a French anthropologist, Pierre-Fran├žois Puech, examined it in 1991 – the bicentennial of Mozart’s death – and noticed this skull has a fracture above its left temple, leading him to theorize that perhaps Mozart (or at least, the owner of this skull) had suffered a serious fall “which could explain the severe headaches Mozart suffered more than a year before his death.” I am not an expert on Mozart’s letters, but I am not aware of any reference in them to such a fall: if it were that severe, wouldn't he have complained of it or mentioned it even in passing, how it interfered with his work or dealing with those headaches (which are mentioned)? Of course, not all of his letters have survived, but maybe there’s something to look for in the ones we do have from, say, the fall of 1790?

While there have been many theories – Salieri aside – about the cause of Mozart’s death, a recent theory published in June of 2001 that he may have died of trichinosis – from eating under-cooked pork – can be substantiated by a quote from one of his letters to Constanze: 44 days before his illness began, he wrote “What do I smell? ... pork cutlets! Che Gusto (What a delicious taste). I eat to your health.” Symptoms of trichinosis, compatible with those Mozart would soon suffer, appear usually within 50 days of infection. Hmmm....

Mozart’s skull, now, awaited its official verification. What would it tell us?

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After all the hype with the aforementioned TV documentary in Austria, the results turned out to be... well, less that definitive. It seems the forensic scientists got great readings on the DNA they were able to extract from one of the teeth but unfortunately it doesn’t match anything they got from the two relatives exhumed from the Mozart mausoleum in Salzburg. In fact the two women’s DNA doesn’t even match each other which means... well, maybe they’re not the grandmother and niece they thought they were. Or maybe they’re not members of the Mozart family at all (then who else is buried in the old family crypt?).

Or... uhm... well, hey – maybe the skull just isn’t Mozart’s?

I love this one: when the skull showed up at the Mozarteum in 1902, “museum staff found it creepy. Prior to being pulled from view museum staff reported strange phenomena they believed emanated from it, staff claiming to have heard music even screams emanating from the cabinet in which it was displayed.” Now, that may be a way to get some young people interested in classical music...

This report, despite a few inaccuracies which make me wonder if the rest of it is true or not, mentions the skull’s career from the time it was exhumed – or can we say, “robbed” – by the gravedigger at the St. Marx Cemetery. But perhaps “robbed” is not accurate here, since the remains were being dug up to be reburied elsewhere (possibly even pulverized before re-internment: one could argue he in fact “saved” the skull from the same anonymous fate of the rest of the skeleton. Here, it seems, we find the gravedigger knew “what Mozart's ultimate fate would be[,] so [he] had tied wire around his corpse[‘s] neck to enable him to distinguish the remains from the others[;] knowing the exact location of the body[,] he sought it out and saved the skull from the bone crusher.” From there, he gave it to a friend who in turn gave it to a friend in 1842 who, after he died in 1868, bequeathed it to his brother, a Viennese phrenologist. When he died, his wife kept the skull until she died in 1901 after which it wound up at the Mozarteum.

Apparently some of the owners had the same creepy reports of eerie music and other manifestations coming from the skull. There’s still time for Hollywood to make a movie out of this, you know!

Okay, I’m being less than reverent here, mostly because I’m not into relics, the hype about the Mozart Year was one thing and the hype about the skull was quite another. Fortunately, Mozart’s music, whether it came from the genius possibly once encased in this skull or not, is far better than all of this circus combined.

I hear spooky music emanating from my study! Do I have some skull lurking on my bookshelves? Oh, no... it’s just my cat Murphy, parading up the piano keyboard: it’s past her feeding time.

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It seems part of the problem with finding the DNA samples that could’ve verified the identity of the Mozart Skull might rest with the relatives chosen by the scientists. The assumption was the skeleton of a young woman was “apparently” that of Mozart’s niece Jeanette who died at the age of 16. So apparently they are not sure whose bones are whose? I had misunderstood earlier reports which seemed to describe either a crypt or some kind of vault, but in reality the “Mozart Family Grave” in Salzburg’s St. Sebastian Cemetery is a typical burial plot as can be seen from these two photographs, posted at and

The tombstones at the plot indicate there are six people buried there. Maynard Solomon, in his excellent biography “Mozart: A Life” (1995) mentions seven but does not include one name clearly visible on the tombstones, nor does he mention her in his biography at all. The news reports mention there were nine bodies found in the grave.

Solomon mentions (on p.502) the following residents of the Mozart grave in Salzburg's St. Sebastian's Cemetery:

Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father
Euphrosenia (Eva Rosina) Pertl (mother of Anna Maria Pertl Mozart, Mozart’s mother)
Jeannete von Berchtold, daughter of Nannerl Mozart von Berchtold (died at 16)
Georg Nikolaus Nissen, 2nd husband of Constanze
Constanze, Mozart’s widow (died 1842, at 80)
Aloysia Weber, sister of Constanze (died 1839, in her late-70s)
Sophie Weber, sister of Constanze (died 1846, at 83)

Not mentioned in Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart” is Genofeva Weber, Constanze’s aunt and mother of Carl Maria von Weber: she died 1798 while her son studied with Michael Haydn in Salzburg. Yet her name is clearly identified on the one marker beside the central monument.

Now, keep in mind that Leopold Mozart despised the Weber family: after he managed to quash his son’s interest in marrying Aloysia Weber, he was convinced Frau Weber was determined to snare Mozart for one of her two remaining unmarried daughters, Sophie or Constanze, especially after Mozart rented a room from the Webers once he settled permanently in Vienna in 1781, far away from Leopold’s daily control. He refused to give Wolfgang his blessing regarding his impending wedding and only reluctantly granted his permission for him to marry her, a letter that arrived in Vienna the day after the wedding which Mozart had been very careful not to mention to his father.

It is interesting to note that Leopold Mozart had his own family problems as a young man: after dropping out of school and then being expelled once he decided to resume his studies, he also was in love with a young woman, the daughter of an impoverished family in Salzburg, whom his mother back home in Augsburg did not approve of. Without her official permission (and before he had obtained the necessary license from the city of his birth), he secretly married Anna Maria Pertl. When his mother discovered this, she refused to grant him the ‘dowry’ she had given her other children upon their marriages (it was the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time) and they remained estranged for the rest of her life, though she lived till her grandson, the composer, was 10 years old. During one of their numerous tours around Europe, Leopold returned home with both his children for a series of performances but no one from the Augsburg branch of the Mozart family bothered to attend. In fact, Leopold’s mother never even saw her two grandchildren. Considering the parallels with his son’s marriage to Constanze Weber, I wonder if Leopold appreciated the irony?

This may also explain the episode near the end of his life with "Little Leopold," Nannerl's first-born son, whom he demanded to have live with him rather than with his mother so he could raise him and turn the boy into another amazing prodigy, a plan that was cut short by the elder Leopold's death! Poor Nannerl, first sacrificing her own musical talent to the greater glory of her brother, and then giving up her own son for two years to see the whole scheme ostensibly played out again!

Though Constanze, Mozart’s wife, had never been accepted into the Mozart family by Leopold or Nannerl, she later petitioned to have her second husband buried in the Mozart family grave in Salzburg. A year later, Nannerl changed her will to announce her intention not to be buried there. Ultimately, Constanze allowed her two sisters to be buried there as well, so ultimately Leopold Mozart found himself resting eternally amidst the whole lot of the Weber Family he despised – speaking of turning over in one’s grave...

Since the DNA has to be traced through the female line, the only ones who might possibly yield anything conclusive would be Mozart’s maternal grandmother and his niece. Since neither of the two subjects taken from the family grave even matched each other, it’s possible the scientists might have gotten one of the Weber sisters (both of whom were elderly when they died) and, perhaps, Constanze’s aunt-by-marriage (and therefore no blood-relation to either the Mozarts or the Weber sisters).

By the way, it should be pointed out – since many people dislike Constanze even today, considering her self-centered and condemning her for turning her widowhood into a kind of cottage industry – the fact her marker is the focus of the grave is not her doing as is often mentioned: in 1855, in advance of the centennial of his father's birth, Karl Thomas Mozart had a new monument built to replace the original and much decayed tombstone at his mother's grave.

Apparently the plan was then to exhume Mozart’s sister Nannerl who, after deciding she didn’t want to share the family plot with Constanze after all, chose to be buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery, near the grave of family friend Michael Haydn, a court composer at Salzburg and perhaps better known as the younger brother of Franz Josef Haydn. Apparently Michael Haydn’s heart was buried separately from the rest of him, encased in this shrine (though hopefully he was able to hang on to his skull). Curiously, there is an old tradition that Nannerl’s grave is actually empty. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

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Image credits: Image credit: Some Skull that could be the one they think is Mozart’s skull (or maybe not) from the Mozarteum, unless it’s just clip art, found at

If you’re familiar with the famous
Mozart Bullets, those delicious candies that are a must-have souvenir of Salzburg, you’ll enjoy the “Mozartkugel take-off” (see above) which I found posted at a truly amusing but now long gone blog where I also found a link to Mozart’s Own Blog (once more, a healthy dose of “suspension of disbelief,” maestro, if you please).

Dr. Dick

1 comment:

  1. The historicity of Mozart's skull has an understandable specificity. The facts have been described very positively, and not assumed from reported assumptions. After identification, it also contributed to the history of forensic sciences.
    Forensic Science or Criminalistics is the use of science and technology to enforce laws. Forensic comes from the Latin word “forensis” meaning forum. In the Roman times, the most fundamental purpose was to discover the truth through speeches based on different sides of an exposed story. The individual with the best argumentation would determine the outcome of the case. In 1989, forensic scientists uncovered the truth concerning the death of Mozart.