Brilliant life, pedestrian death

Mozart: A medical professor offers a common-sense solution to the mystery of the composer's death.

February 12, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

He got drunk and fell on his head.

Doctors accidentally bled him to death.

Antonio Salieri, a jealous court composer, poisoned him.

His mistress' husband did him in.

One by one, more than 100 speculative diagnoses surrounding the mysterious death of one of the world's most celebrated composers have shriveled under scientific scrutiny.

Yesterday, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, while a string quartet tuned in a nearby practice room, a physician announced that she had possibly hit upon the definitive solution to the demise of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

"Mozart was probably the victim of an acute case of rheumatic fever," said Faith Fitzgerald, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Davis.

Fitzgerald presented her evidence at the school's annual clinical pathology conference, which uses the ambiguous deaths of historical figures to train students and residents in how to diagnose challenging cases.

Questions about Mozart's demise have been especially intriguing because of the circumstances surrounding the 15-day illness that sent him to his deathbed in Vienna, Austria, in December 1791.

The mystery about his death results partly from the 35-year-old composer's falling ill while writing the "Requiem," a funeral Mass that became the last testament to his genius. The official medical records were not helpful, listing the cause of death as "severe miliary fever," medical jargon of the time that meant a fever of unknown causes.

Over the years, the composer's gifts and increasingly mythical stature have heightened the melodrama of his final days. Literary figures, family members and medical sleuths have developed convoluted plots and Byzantine theories that have fed a frenzy of speculation spanning two centuries.

Amid an epidemic

"Extraordinary people should die of extraordinary causes," Fitzgerald began, scanning the medical crowd at Davidge Hall with mock seriousness.

With a hint of a smile, she said most theories have ignored the more pedestrian fact that Mozart died amid an epidemic of rheumatic fever, and that his symptoms conform to its clinical definition.

Without access to the bodily remains, deposited at the time in a multiple grave, or to the supposed cracked skull, reputedly unearthed 10 years later by a grave robber, Fitzgerald relied on evidence drawn from written observations by Mozart's family and physicians.

`The greater gossip'

Ticking through "the greater gossip" of more than 200 years of speculation, she discounted the Salieri story, noting that reports of Salieri's mental state at the time showed him to be such "a fruit loop" that he was incapable of carrying out a murder plot.

Another popular theory, that Mozart died of liver disease, went out the window, too, she said, because he would have suffered early, serious losses of his mental faculties, a symptom unsupported by the written record.

She brushed aside suggestions that Mozart died of syphilis ("although we know every famous man died of syphilis"), and dismissed suggestions of kidney disease.

What is known, she said, is that Mozart suffered profuse sweats, an abundant red rash across his torso, swollen joints, a streptococcal infection, a clear mind until the final hours, sudden irritability that drove him to ban his sweetly singing canary from his room and a high fever.

Striking suddenly

The illness struck suddenly, according to the records, during a year when the composer was unusually productive and in robust health.

Neal Zaslaw, a Cornell University music professor and a leading expert on Mozart's life, applauded the diagnosis, calling it "refreshing" after so many years of mythologizing and overwrought speculation. "Hearing this today," he said, "I think we are as close to the truth as we are ever likely to come."

Attempting to mortalize the immortal, Zaslaw offered his diagnosis of history's rapturous accounts of Mozart's life.

Gifts not unique

Records show that though the composer had absolute pitch, his gift was not unique. Though he had an ability to listen to music and transcribe it with precision, that, too, was not a particularly unusual skill among composers. Notions that Mozart composed in a dreamy, God-directed state came from fanciful dramatic accounts. Mozart described his work as "difficult labor."

After an hour of debunking, Fitzgerald and Zaslaw joined the students and physicians for an all-Mozart performance by the Atlantic Quartet.

"How did Mozart die?" Fitzgerald asked. "Who knows? My final speculation is the celestial choir probably wanted a new choirmaster, looked around and found the best guy they possibly could."

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