Debunking some Mozart Myths

Mozart c. 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Mozart and his music have been enthralling listeners for centuries. As a musician, right from an early age, he was incredibly inventive and adventurous. The only instrument he failed to master was the harp, and no sooner had the clarinet been invented than he began composing for it and incorporating it into his arrangements. Liszt once said that Mozart composed more bars of music than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime. I suppose that when you are faced with such an extraordinary human being, there are going to be those who try to bring him down, and of course, given the superstitious times into which he was born, there were bound to be the inevitable myths.

I’d like to challenge a couple of those myths. Let’s start with the biggest myth of all – that he and fellow composer Antonio Salieri were bitter rivals. No-one has done Mozart a greater disservice in this regard than film and playwright Peter Shaffer. The story that Salieri was responsible for poisoning Mozart is a complete fantasy and a gross libel on that hardworking and perfectly innocent man. It’s true that Salieri was often accused, not least by the Emperor Leopold, of intrigue, but then for that matter were all Italian composers. If anything, Salieri was well disposed to Mozart and the young man himself noted that at a performance of Die Zauberflöte, Salieri greeted every item with a bravo. It’s easy also to get the impression from watching that film that Salieri was a much older and wiser man than the young Mozart. In fact he was only six years older. So how did these stories of rivalry between the two begin? Well, we can trace one possibility back to 1780 when the 24-year-old Mozart’s benefactor Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg had to go to Vienna because his father was ill. He took with him a miniature court which included a castrato, a womanising Italian violinist and young Mozart. Colloredo didn’t want his servants poached so he restricted them to giving private concerts at the house where he was lodging. They ate with the other servants in the servant’s hall below stairs. Mozart resented this treatment and resigned from the Archbishop’s service. The trouble was that he now had to make a living and the only way for him to do that in Vienna was as a piano teacher.

Mozart saw this also as a form of servitude. “I was not born to this sort of work,” he wrote to his father. I can’t be expected to have to keep an appointment or to have to wait for someone at a house. I won’t do it. That sort of work is for those who can’t do anything else except play the keyboard. I am a composer and was born to be a Kapellmeister.” Nevertheless, within months he found himself teaching in return for meals and then the opportunity arose that he might be employed by the Emperor to teach his niece, the Princess Elisabeth of Würtemberg. Here then was his chance to move in higher circles. However, in the end, the job was given to Salieri. Was Mozart jealous? We shall never know as he made no other comment in any of his letters except to say “the King has killed it for me as there is no-one in his eyes other than Salieri.” But there were bound to be those around who read something in it.

Now to the second myth. If you are to believe the likes of Peter Shaffer, Mozart was given a pauper’s funeral by an impoverished and penniless Costanze. On the contrary, evidence supports the fact that she was advised not to make it in any way ostentatious or expensive. The quiet burial in a mass grave in the churchyard of St Mark’s outside Vienna was in accordance with burial customs of the times. 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. A number of musicians, including Salieri, were present and various ceremonies marked his death. As for the family being penniless, the truth is that there were no lasting money troubles.

It’s been calculated that Mozart’s total income averaged at least 3,500 gulden a year in the last eleven years of his life. I’m not sure quite what that equates to in today’s money, but you can compare that with say male servants who were paid about 120 gulden a year, or a primary school teacher 100 gulden.

I hope that clears up two of the many myths.


About Michael Morton-Evans OAM
Trained originally as a professional pianist, singer and actor, Michael spent many years as a journalist and writer. After spending time working for the London Evening Standard in Fleet Street, he spent five years with the BBC before coming to Australia where he spent five years with ABC Radio presenting and producing a morning radio programme with Caroline Jones. For the past 11 years has been a classical music Presenter with Fine Music. For seven of those years, he presented the station’s flagship In Conversation programme. His guests included the last two governors of NSW, the late Bob Hawke, Justice Michael Kirby, Ita Buttrose and a great many well-known composers, conductors and musicians. Michael currently presents Fine Music Drive on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month.

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