The legend first entered the public consciousness, in a significant way, with the 1984 movie Amadeus. In it, Wolfgang Mozart was killed by his jealous rival, the court composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri cleverly took advantage of Mozart's fondness for drink, his financial crisis, and his obsession with pleasing his deceased father, and tricked Mozart into working himself to death. He did this by anonymously commissioning a requiem mass against an impossible deadline, presumably for his own father, until the hapless Mozart simply collapsed under all the various pressures. Salieri then took the manuscript and published it as his own work, while Mozart's body was thrown into a pauper's grave. The movie won eight Oscars including Best Picture and numerous other awards worldwide; and if you ask the average person on the street how Mozart died, the story from the movie is the one they'll probably tell.
But how true is it? Interestingly, although it is entirely fictionalized, there may actually be a grain of fact that's larger than you might think.
The movie was based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 stageplay Amadeus. Like the movie, the story is told in flashback, with Salieri giving his confession to a priest after a failed, guilt-driven suicide attempt. As his own music fades into obscurity and Mozart's grows more and more popular even after his death, Salieri makes a final attempt to be relevant in the public's eye. He leaves a false confession that he poisoned Mozart with arsenic. But ironically, nobody believes his confession, leaving Salieri more marginalized than ever.
Shaffer's play was in turn inspired by the great Russian poet and author Alexander Pushkin, who wrote a short drama called Mozart and Salieri in 1830, only five years after Salieri's death. In 1898, Pushkin's piece was also used almost word-for-word as the libretto for a one-act opera of the same name by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In this darker and much simpler tale, Salieri, jealous of Mozart's skill as a composer and resentful of his low character, invites Mozart to dinner. They play almost a cat-and-mouse game until Salieri finally gets a chance to pour poison into Mozart's drink. Salieri's celebratory song hints at a descent into insanity.
Unfortunately, there will be no unmasking of the true perpetrator today. The cause of Mozart's death in 1791 is as much debated today as it was then; and if poison was indeed the instrument, there is anything but a consensus on who might have been the assassin.
History makes no secret of the fact that Mozart and Salieri were professional rivals. During their years together in Vienna, Salieri was greatly respected professionally. Emperor Joseph II liked him a lot, and Salieri held successive roles as court composer, director of Italian opera, and court conductor. Mozart and their mutual friends often spoke openly of Salieri's efforts to influence the availability of theaters and performers to favor his own shows at the expense of Mozart's. Salieri owned Italian opera in Vienna, and Mozart's forays into the genre were a clear step on Salieri's toes. Other composers in other genres had no such problems with Salieri, and neither did Mozart when he avoided Italian opera. There was no need for Salieri to kill Mozart to get him out of the way; Salieri's position in the industry gave him all the power he needed.
At the core of the question of Salieri's guilt is an enduring legend that he gave a deathbed confession. In 1823, some 32 years after Mozart's death, Salieri did indeed make a failed suicide attempt by cutting his own throat. Rumors quickly spread that he had confessed to killing Mozart, and these rumors became so widespread and persistent that a leaflet was distributed at a Vienna performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony depicting Salieri standing over Mozart with a cup of poison. Mozart's music was widely loved by this time, and with his alleged killer still alive, public fever over the murder ran high. But the hatred of Salieri was not unanimous. Two camps formed: Those who knew Salieri and defended him against the rumors, and the much larger Court of Public Opinion composed largely of people who had not known either man and had little firsthand knowledge.
No reliable evidence exists that Salieri ever made such a confession. The best anyone's come up with is described in a pamphlet published in Moscow in 1953, wherein author Igor Boelza claims he was told by another man (who had since died) that he'd once seen a report of the confession written by Salieri's priest. He also alleged that the deceased man showed the report to a number of academics, whom he fails to name. No such report is known to exist — which would be a huge discovery to any academic who had actually seen it — so judge the reliability of Boelza's pamphlet for yourself. What does exist is a written statement from two men who were Salieri's 24-hour caregivers during the last two years of his life, stating that they never heard him make any such confession.
There is also an anecdote that Salieri once took the very young composer Rossini to meet Beethoven at his home in Vienna. Beethoven allegedly turned Rossini away and shouted "How dare you come to my house with Mozart's poisoner?" Although this story is often repeated, it's inconsistent with what was known of Beethoven and Salieri. Salieri had tutored Beethoven, and the two had always been friends. Beethoven held his tutor in such high esteem that, even after Mozart's death, he dedicated his violin sonatas Opus 12 to Salieri, and wrote a series of variations on a theme from Salieri's opera Falstaff. So even this anecdote seems unreliable.
Defending Salieri against the rumors of murder were all of Mozart's principal biographers, and Salieri's other pupils, which included Mozart's closest confidant, his own student Süssmayr, who completed Mozart's Requiem after his death. Süssmayr was with Mozart nearly daily throughout his final months, and knowing the causes of Mozart's illness as well as anyone, he did not hesitate to continue his studies under Salieri. It's also noteworthy that Salieri was never under any kind of official suspicion of criminal activity. Indeed, his professional career continued to flourish despite the rumors. Many great composers continued studying under him, including the young Franz Liszt and Franz Schubert.
Although it was Salieri who took the heat for Mozart's alleged murder, he was not the only suspect. In contrast to the popular legend, Salieri was not even the one who commissioned the Requiem upon which Mozart forced himself to work so hard even until the day of his death; that patron was Count Franz von Walsegg, who wanted the Requiem to honor his late wife.
A number of authors have put forward the hypothesis that Mozart, who was a Freemason, was killed by a Masonic conspiracy. Why would the Freemasons murder one of their own? The most often cited reason is that Mozart's opera The Magic Flute somehow violated Masonic rules. One claim is that the story conceals an allegory for an alleged plot to overthrow Freemasonry; another is that it contained misuses of Masonic symbols. Author Georg Friedrich Daumer was the most vocal proponent of these theories, which he first published in 1861. However, his belief that Freemasons poisoned Mozart should be viewed in the context of his other claims: He also believed that Freemason conspiracies murdered many heads of state and leaders in religion and philosophy.
But even the very idea that anyone was responsible for Mozart's death is not generally accepted among modern historians. The most thorough accounts of Mozart's four months of illness all come from his wife, Constanze, and from shorter reports from the friends and associates who frequently visited him, including her sister Sophie. None thought he had been poisoned. Several times, Mozart told Constanze that he believed he had been poisoned with a popularly known arsenic-based potion called aqua tofana, however he dismissed the notion himself during a spell in which his health seemed to return for a time. His principal symptom was swelling, particularly of the extremities, which caused him great pain when it was at its worst. At the application of a cold compress to his forehead on December 5, 1791, the shock caused him to lose consciousness, from which he never awoke, and died two hours later. Mozart's own doctors blamed his death on "high miliary fever", but this was a prescientific diagnosis and does not correspond to any specific diseases now known.
After his death, Mozart's first biography was written by Franz Niemetschek and was based on interviews with Constanze and Sophie and numerous documents provided by them. His second biography was written by Constanze's second husband, Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. Neither book suggests that Mozart died from any cause other than illness. Together, these two works comprise the most detailed reports available of Mozart's physical condition, and it's from these books that modern doctors have tried to theorize what disease he might have had.
The prevailing theory is chronic kidney disease. Mozart was probably at high risk of this anyway; as a child he'd been ill with what's now believed to be scarlet fever and rheumatic fever, both of which can cause kidney damage. This diagnosis is consistent with the reports of Mozart's condition. Kidney failure would have caused the type of edema, or swelling, that was reported, and the uremic poisoning would have ultimately killed him. But some have noted that people so afflicted are often unable to work at all or even comatose, while Mozart was doing some of his best work during his final months.
Mozart's self-diagnosis of arsenic poisoning from aqua tofana seems unlikely. Although that poison was easily obtainable (it was actually in commercial production and sold as a murder weapon), arsenic poisoning does not produce any of the symptoms which afflicted Mozart.
Some doctors have also speculated that he could have died of mercury poisoning, which may or may not have been given to Mozart by someone else. Mozart may have even been administering mercury to himself as a cure for syphilis — a treatment that some physicians of the day were promoting. It's unlikely that the true cause of Mozart's death will ever be known. It has never been possible to exhume Mozart's body for testing because he was, as depicted in the movie, buried in a mass, unmarked grave.
It was a small service on a cold morning. Mozart and Constanze had both expressed their dislike of the pomp and ceremony of funerals, so they chose a burial in a style that had actually been a law under Joseph II until it was repealed just a few years before Mozart's death, and that was to dispense with caskets and lavish services in favor of simple burials with the body sewn into a cloth sack. Constanze herself was too bereaved and chose not to attend, and so only a very few close friends and family walked with the body. They stopped at the cemetery gates and bid their last farewells. Mozart was taken alone to his final resting spot, and the mourners turned away. Among this small group dressed in black, this tightest circle of those who were the last to be with him, was Antonio Salieri.
Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly gave Mozart's middle name as Amadeus, as is commonly believed. His middle name was actually Gottlieb, which like the Latin Amadeus, means "beloved of God". Mozart had many joke names for himself, and one of these was Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus. - BD