After Mozart’s Death, an Endless Coda
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Direct medical evidence? None. Autopsy? Not performed. Medical records? Nowhere to be found. Corpse? Disappeared.
Yet according to a recent article in an academic journal, researchers have posited at least 118 causes of death for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
A modest industry of medical speculation has grown up around the subject, evidence of our fascination with what cut down great creative artists in history. In Mozart’s case published speculation began within a month of his death in 1791, and musicologists, physicians and medical scholars have regularly joined the fray ever since.
Dr. William J. Dawson, a retired orthopedic surgeon who is the bibliographer for the Performing Arts Medical Association, decided to organize the theories. He examined most of the 136 entries in the association’s database dedicated to Mozart’s death, a list by no means comprehensive.
“Reviewing the publications on this topic finds many of them to be confusing, complicated, conjectural and contentious,” Dr. Dawson, an emeritus professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, wrote in the latest issue of the association’s journal, Medical Problems of Performing Artists. His conclusion is not surprising: controversy will rage on, unabated.
With direct evidence lacking, researchers have had to rely mainly on accounts by Mozart’s widow, Constanze Mozart, and her sister, Sophie Haibel, given some decades later. Evidence also comes from an undated document by Mozart’s son Karl Thomas and from a description — again, decades later — by a Viennese doctor who spoke to the physicians who treated Mozart in his final days.
Scholars have also examined accounts of Mozart’s ailments in letters written by family members, especially his father, Leopold, to uncover signposts regarding his final sickness. Speculation about an abnormality in the shape of his ear has even led some to suggest that kidney failure was likely, since urinary tract deformities are sometimes related to ear abnormalities.