Mozart's skull creates debate about his death

February 26, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

What's a Mozart bicentennial celebration without a dispute about his death, burial and remains?

Now comes Pierre-Francois Puech, a French anthropologist who says his study shows a skull held by the Salzburg Mozarteum since 1901 is definitely Mozart's. Puech says the skull shows a left temple fracture possibly resulting from a fall. Further, he says, the fracture caused a chronic hematoma (bleeding between brain and skull) that may have led to Mozart's previously documented headaches, weakness, fainting, coma and death 200 years ago Dec. 5.

Not so fast, says Friedrich Gehmacher, president of the Mozarteum, which is the official home of archival materials and Mozart memorabilia. He says a study by Viennese anthropologists and forensic experts only suggests the skull is Mozart's, and the study disputes some of Puech's conclusions. They will issue an official conclusion soon.

The controversy is revealed in an article by Paul G. Bahn in the March-April issue of Archaeology magazine, published bimonthly by the Archaeological Institute of America. Puech works at the University of Provence in Marseille, France, where his cast of the skull and reconstructed head will be shown next month.

It has generally been contended for years, helped by the movie "Amadeus," that since Mozart was buried in a communal grave common in the Vienna of 1791, the remains and all other details would stay unknown.

Peter A. Young, editor-in-chief of Archaeology and an Evening Sun music critic in the early 1960s, adds "it's not true" that Mozart's burial is all mystery. "We know what cemetery [St. Mark's, near a small village by that name east of Vienna], who buried him [Joseph Rothmayer], where he was laid out and consecrated [The Kreuzkapelle of Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna] and more."

His source is an official Austrian publication, edited by Elfriede Muell: "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Dec. 5, 1991 -- Bicentenary of his Death" (Vienna Federal Press Service, 1990).

". . . in fact, a skull believed to be that of Mozart was exhumed only ten years after his death from a grave in a cemetery east of Vienna," Bahn wrote. "A gravedigger recovered the skull during a 'reorganization' of the cemetery to make way for newer remains. The skull passed from one owner to another in the last century, finally ending up at the Mozarteum.

Puech and his team made its findings and reconstructed a bust of Mozart from known facts about the composer and examination of the skull, which is missing its lower jaw. They compared the skull's egg shape, caused by a condition known as "early closure of the metopic suture," to that of Mozart's portraits and claimed there was a match. Gehmacher says the skull shape is not unusual. Other conclusions involved skull markings and skull characteristics.

Bahn noted "Mozart's death has often been attributed to acute rheumatic fever, his final coma having been induced by bloodletting, the only known treatment at the time for rheumatic fever. Puech believes Mozart may well have suffered from rheumatic fever but that he died of chronic haematoma," perhaps caused by a fall.

For years the Mozarteum skull was exhibited to the public. In the it was withdrawn from public view because of possible questions of bad taste and its indefinite origin. The scientists are now studying it in Vienna. What difference does the whole matter make? "No difference musically," says Young, "but you don't want to go through life believing in myths."

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