Vienna, 1758.
Painting by Giovanni Canaletto

     For nearly two hundred years the music of Antonio Salieri has been silent; reposing quietly on the shelves of libraries and museums. There was a time though when the music in those dusty manuscripts rang throughout Europe and brought acclaim to it's creator. During his life, Salieri enjoyed a distinguished career in which he wrote over 40 operas and a large body of sacred music and concert pieces. He would rise to the position of Court Composer then Imperial KapellmeisterKapellmeister - The director of music in an orchestra, a church, at court, etc. of the Hapsburg Empire. His operas premiered in Vienna, Paris, Rome, Versailles and Milan and were often sensational successes. He would serve as teacher to Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt and even Mozart's son. Then, at the height of his achievements, something went horribly wrong. He came to be accused of killing Mozart.

     Over the past two centuries, the circumstances of Mozart's death have assumed an almost mythological aura. A mysterious messenger commissioning a requiem, Mozart coming to believe he was writing the requiem for himself and rumors of poisoning all add up to a sinister deed. These assumptions amount to little more than anecdotal fragments passed from one writer to the next with little regard for their accuracy or truthfulness. The following is an evidential account of Mozart's death and Salieri's role in that event.

     In 1791 Mozart was close to completing the Magic Flute when he received a visit from a stranger offering a commission for a Requiem Mass. Early Mozart biographers dubbed this figure as "the mysterious messenger" or "the grey messenger" and were at a loss as to his identity. The circumstances surrounding the messenger were kept under wraps for many years and for good reason.

     The messenger was originally identified as Franz Anton Leitgeb, an emissary for Count Franz von Walsegg. Recent research has uncovered that the messenger may well have been a legal clerk in the service of Walsegg's attorney. Count Walsegg was possibly the most peculiar character in all of music history. He loved to commission works from notable composers and perform them privately at his palace
Schloss Stuppach. Home of Count Walsegg.
. One of the Counts conditions when commissioning a work was that the composer relinquish all claims to the piece. Walsegg was an amateur musician and composer and would lead his audiences to believe these new works were his. It is known that there were several composers who eagerly supplied him on a regular basis but now he needed something other than the quartets he normally obtained. His wife, Countess Anna von Walsegg, had just died and he wanted to perform a Requiem in her honor. After a few meetings with this "stranger" Mozart reluctantly agreed, half the commission was paid (30 ducats) and a promissory note given for the balance upon completion.

     Mozart would not begin work on the Requiem for some time though. Within days of settling business with the messenger, he received another commission. This one for the opera La Clemenza di Tito. It was scheduled to be performed during the festivities honoring the coronation of Leopold II
Leopold II, 1747 - 1792
as King of Bohemia and was to be performed in Prague in seven weeks! The Requiem would have to wait. Mozart immersed himself in La Clemenza di Tito until two weeks before the premiere when he departed for Prague with his student and assistant, Franz Süssmayr. The schedule was tight and Mozart worked furiously to have the opera finished on time. The strenuous workload resulted in Mozart contracting rheumatic fever requiring medical attention while working on the opera. Finished on time, La Clemenza di Tito was premiered in the Estates Theater
Estates Theater, Prague
on September 6, 1791 with Mozart conducting.

     He quickly returned to Vienna for medical attention and where the premiere of The Magic Flute was next on his agenda. Mozart apparently recovered from his illness and was in good spirits when he set to work finishing his last opera. On September 30, 1791 The Magic Flute was premiered at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wiedenon with Mozart himself conducting. It was a resounding success and Mozart attended many of the performances, frequently inviting guests including Salieri.  [1]In a letter to Constanze dated 7-8 October, 1791, Mozart writes that he called on Salieri and Madame Cavalieri in his coach and took them to see the Magic Flute. He tells Constanze, "You can hardly imagine how charming they were and how much they liked not only my music but the libretto and everything...."

     It is generally accepted that Mozart began work on the requiem in earnest upon his return from Prague and after launching The Magic Flute. He appears to have worked on it sporadically, at times setting it aside completely. Mozart had long been obsessed with his own mortality and the earliest Mozart biographers wrote that he came to believe he was dying and writing his own Requiem. During this time he wrote the Clarinet Concerto in A and some smaller pieces. When he finally turned his attention again to the requiem, time was running out.

     Mozart took ill again on November 20, 1791. As his condition worsened, his wife Constanze became too distraught to care for him so his sister in law, Sophie Haibel, stepped in. Sophie later described Mozart's condition at the end as a high fever accompanied by a painful swelling of the body making it difficult to move in bed. Mozart's eldest son, Karl, was seven at the time and recalled later,

"....a few days before he died, his whole body became so swollen that the patient was unable to make the smallest movement, moreover, there was stench, which reflected an internal disintegration which, after death, increased to the extent that an autopsy was impossible." [2]Solomon, Mozart: A Life, pg. 493.

     Mozart attempted to work on the requiem on his death bed but when he realized the end was likely near, he is reported to have given Süssmayr instructions on it's completion. Mozart died December 5, 1791, leaving the requiem unfinished.  [Note]An extensive account of Mozart's Requiem can be found in Links section of this website.

     Shortly after Mozart's death a reporter from Prague published an article in the Musikalische Wochenblatt in Berlin announcing that Mozart was dead. It went on say that he appeared to have been retaining water and that because the corpse was swollen, it was believed that he had been poisoned. Just who made that observation has never been determined yet that single sentence, merely alluding to the possibility of poisoning was seized upon by the public and relayed in every corner and parlor of Vienna.

     In the years following his passing, those close to Mozart insisted that he had not been poisoned. In spite of this, the rumor kept circulating though no one could name a likely perpetrator. The earliest Mozart biographers covered the subject of poisoning, but they never identified an assassin. Some rejected the idea completely. The rumor persisted and mutated until eventually the "Italian cabalCabal - A group of conspirators. A clique, as in artistic, literary, or theatrical circles." at court was suspected. Suspicion of the Italians grew and around 1820 Salieri, as a prominent Italian at court and perceived head of the cabal was finally named. From that point, the rumor spread uncontrollably and eventually caused Salieri to have a nervous breakdown.

     While being treated in a Vienna hospital for his breakdown, it was reported that in a delusional state of mind Salieri had accused himself of killing Mozart, though there is no evidence of such self incrimination other than hearsay. And finally, after Salieri's passing, news spread that he had confessed to killing Mozart on his death bed. These final twists to a rumor that spent nearly three decades searching for a villain seem almost ludicrous; as though the gossip mongers were insisting on having the last word. The doctor and two nurses attending Salieri in his final days stated that he made no such confession. And the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles
Ignaz Moscheles, 1794 - 1870
, who visited Salieri in one of his more lucid moments just before he died, recorded that Salieri told him unequivocally that he had not poisoned Mozart.

For a detailed discussion of these statements, see the 'Bio Pt III' section of this website. (Use back button on browser to return here.)

     No single shred of evidence was ever brought forth to support the allegations against Salieri nor was it ever considered to put him on trial. With the common thread in all of the rumors being 'death by poisoning', establishing Mozart's cause of death would resolve the question of culpability.

     At the time of Mozart's death a municipal health officer in Vienna, Dr. Eduard Guldener von Lobes, consulted with Mozart's attending physicians and published the following in response to allegations of poisoning,

"Mozart did in fact die some days later with the usual symptoms of a deposit in the head. His death gave rise to sympathy and concern on the part of people generally, but it occured to no one even in the slightest to entertain suspicion of a case of poisoning" [3a]Dr Anton Neumayr, Excerpts concerning Mozart's final illness and death


"He fell sick in the late autumn of rheumatic and inflammatory fever, which being fairly general among us at that time attacked many people....This malady attacked at this time a great many of the inhabitants of Vienna, and for [many] of them it had the same fatal conclusion and the same symptoms as in the case of Mozart." [3b]Solomon, Mozart: A Life, pg. 491-492

     Rheumatic fever is an immune system disease that may result from streptococcal infection. As previously discussed, Mozart had come down with rheumatic fever in Prague prior to his return to Vienna where he died two months later. Throughout his short life, Mozart had experienced several bouts of rheumatic fever.

     In recent times doctors and scholars examining evidence passed down in the historical record have arrived at the same conclusion. In 2000 the sixth annual Clinical Pathological Conference, dedicated to notorious case histories, convened at the University of Maryland School of Medicine to investigate Mozart's cause of death. Dr. Faith T. Fitzgerald, internist and professor of medicine at the University of California at Davis, announced the panel's diagnosis; Mozart died of rheumatic fever. The panel summarized Mozart's last days,

"On Nov. 20, 1791, Mozart is stricken with a high fever, headaches, a rash and pain and swelling in his arms and legs. He remains alert and lucid, but is increasingly agitated and asks to have his favorite pet canary removed from his room because its singing agitates him -- irritation is a classic symptom of rheumatic fever. Week two: Mozart suffers repeated bouts of vomiting and diarrhea; his body swells so his clothes no longer fit, and he cannot not sit up in bed without help. Aware he is dying, he gives instructions on how to complete the Requiem he is composing. As the illness progresses, it weakens Mozart's heart, causing fluid retention and extreme swelling. Fitzgerald points out that Mozart's heart may have been compromised by bouts of rheumatic fever he suffered earlier in his life. After a fit of delirium followed by a coma, Mozart finally dies Dec. 5, 1791...." [4]Franklin Crawford, Cornell Chronicle, Feb. 2000.

     In 2009 a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine outlined an epidemiologic study of deaths just before and just after Mozart's death as recorded in Vienna's death registers. The data revealed a sharp increase in deaths due to edemaEdema - An excessive accumulation of serous fluid in tissue spaces or a body cavity causing swelling. and concluded that the most likely cause was a streptococcal epidemic and that some of those affected would have developed post-streptococcal glomerulonephritisA specific type of kidney inflammation that affects the kidney's ability to filter waste. The condition is uncommon these days as it is treated with antibiotics.
or in some cases, rheumatic fever.  [5]Richard Zegers, MD, PhD
Andreas Weigl, PhD
Andrew Steptoe, DSc
The Death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: An Epidemiologic Perspective.
Annals of Internal Medicine, Aug. 2009.

     And finally, Dr. Anton Neumayr, a Viennese doctor and music historian,

"In sum, if we consider all sources available to us, as well as contemporary medical-historical factors and the level of medical understanding at the time, Mozart's fever-ridden illness . . . was almost certainly an acute polyarthritis with the clinical picture of recurrent acute rheumatic fever." [6]Neumayr, Music and Medicine: Haydn Mozart Beethoven Schubert: Notes on Their Lives, Works, and Medical Histories, 1994.

     From Mozart's time to the present, repeated objective examination of the evidence and symptoms has consistently concluded that Mozart died of natural causes, namely rheumatic fever complicated by eighteenth century medical practices. The case for Salieri having poisoned Mozart, a case built exclusively on rumor, has no basis in fact.

     A footnote to death by rheumatic fever involves Mozart's predilection for patent medicines. He was a hypochondriac and frequently took medicines containing antimony. As his final illness worsened, the intake of this deadly substance was augmented with prescriptions of yet more antimony. Or to put it succinctly, in addition to dying of rheumatic fever and loss of blood through excessive blood letting, Mozart may have hastened the process by unwittingly poisoning himself.

     That still leaves the question, why has the allegation of wrong doing on Salieri's part persisted for so long? In short, from the early nineteenth century to the present, the public has been exposed to imaginative, popularized accounts of Mozart's final days and Salieri's alleged role in them. These 'stories' have captured the public's imagination with a titillating murder story.

     The first popular depiction of Salieri as a murderer was a play by the Russian author Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Pushkin, 1799 - 1837
. In 1830 he wrote the play, Mozart and Salieri in the comfort of his summer dachaDacha - A Russian country house or villa. without benefit of research materials. Solely on the basis of rumor, he had already tried and convicted Salieri in his mind. In writing the play, he carried out the sentence. In his fable, Pushkin portrays Salieri as a mediocre composer who becomes jealous of Mozart's divine gift. Angered at God for this seeming injustice, he poisons Mozart's drink after which Mozart feels ill and leaves.

     More than 6 decades later, in 1898, the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov
1844 - 1908
, transformed Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri into an opera. Rimsky-Korsakov applied his considerable compositional skills to the scenario to produce an exquisite transformation of Mozart and Salieri that was elevated to the opera stage and revived the characterization of Salieri as a murderer. Ironically, the through-composed form of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera was one of the operatic innovations that Salieri had helped to create.

     Most recently, in 1979 Peter Shaffer
Peter Shaffer, Born 1926
wrote his play Amadeus which was based on the same premise as Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri. Amadeus was transformed into a motion picture
Amadeus, 1984
in collaboration with film maker Miloš Forman
Miloš Forman, Born 1932
and producer Saul Zaentz
Saul Zaentz, Born 1921
. The movie garnered eight Academy Awards and was a spectacular box office success. Rich period costumes and authentic sets along with convincing performances by the actors, most notably F. Murray Abraham
F. Murray Abraham as Salieri,
Born 1939
, combined to make Amadeus a captivating motion picture viewed by millions. It should be noted that in this film, Salieri does not kill Mozart even though he speaks of it throughout the screen play.

     Thankfully, these accounts of Salieri as murderer have been laid to rest and are now regarded by an informed public as fabrication. Amadeus though, has had one positive effect; it has caused a resurgence in Salieri's music. Thanks to the interest generated by the film, his works are now increasingly featured on orchestra programs and the recording industry has released numerous CDs and DVDs containing Salieri. This renewed interest is restoring Salieri's reputation and perhaps one day he will enjoy a status comparable to that of his eighteenth century acclaim.