Happy Birthday Mozart
By Melinda Bargreen
As we celebrate the month of Mozart with 31 days of his music, it’s time to marvel all over again at the way Wolfgang Amadeus changed music history in his brief 35 years, ten months, and nine days of life. Here are a few facts about that short but incredible life that may surprise you:
Mozart and his father Leopold (accompanied, in the early years, by his mother and his sister Nannerl) were on tour for approximately 3,720 days, or almost one-third of the composer/performer’s short life. Travel in those days was extremely laborious and primitive, with highwaymen lurking about the bumpy roads, and dirty, crowded accommodations awaiting the weary travelers at night.
The Mozarts visited more than 200 towns and cities in today’s Belgium, Germany, England, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Among the people who heard Wolfgang perform: Haydn, Goethe, Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV, Johann Christian Bach, Marie Antoinette, Pope Clement XIV, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Empress Maria Theresa, Emperor Joseph II, and dozens of princes, princesses, archdukes, and other luminaries of the day. So amazing was little Wolfgang’s virtuosity that one aristocratic listener demanded that he remove a ring from his finger, because clearly the ring must be magical or enchanted if its owner could play so well.
In some respects, the most surprising thing about Mozart’s health was not his early death, but the fact that he stayed alive so long – staving off smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, tonsillitis, bronchitis, and periodontitis (gum disease), among other afflictions. Wolfgang and his older sister Nannerl were the only survivors of the seven babies born into the family. This mortality rate was pretty standard for the age and the milieu; later, only two sons (Karl and Franz Xavier) were to survive of the six children Wolfgang and his wife Constanze produced.
What killed Mozart? Not long before his death in 1791, Wolfgang believed he was being poisoned, though he later changed his mind. In our own day, physicians and researchers have posited more than 100 potential causes of death to fit the symptoms Mozart experienced in his final days. The leading contender among the hypotheses: kidney failure due to rheumatic fever. Scientists also have raised another possible cause of death: trichinosis, from one of Mozart’s favorite meals – pork cutlets. In a letter the composer wrote to his wife 44 days before the onset of his final illness, Mozart wrote: "What do I smell? ... pork cutlets! Che gusto! [What a delicious taste.] I eat to your health.”
Are any of Mozart’s descendants alive today? The chances are slim to nonexistent. As far as is known to historians, Wolfgang’s two sons both died without issue.
Henriette, whose mother had a family history of psychoses, also bore a daughter, Bertha, who (like her mother) was institutionalized because of mental illness. Bertha died in 1919 of kidney disease.
Nannerl herself – more properly known as Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg -- lived to a ripe old age, and died in 1829 in Salzburg – outliving her younger brother by nearly 40 years.