Thursday, October 13, 2011

Perspectives on Mozart

(This essay first appeared as  "Perspectives on Mozart" in The Friends of Mozart Newsletter, Spring 2011. Mario Mercado, president of the Friends of Mozart Society, kindly edited the manuscript)

Wolfgang Mozart in 1782
(the  unfinished 1789 oil portrait,
 by his brother in-law Joseph Lange
with the head recut from the 1782 original)

Who was Mozart?

Of course, we all know his music. The music ! That music, so refined and richly textured, melodic, timeless, ineffably beautiful and sublime.

But, who was Mozart? Who was the man behind those genius creations? So much has been written and said about Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, much true and vetted, yet  more than a little hyped, hyperbolic and apocryphal. There are so many paradoxes with Mozart; for example, that posterity calls him  "Amadeus" when that wasn't even on his birth certificate and a name he never used in his lifetime.

So who was he?

There are many Mozarts. There is the 18th century Mozart, the undiscovered and neglected artistic genius.  There is also the re-imagined 19th century Mozart, a perfect porcelain musical god on a pedestal;  and now the truer and deconstructed 21st century Mozart, the first  "free-lance" musician, recognized as peerless and a foundational composer for so much that came after him. For many listeners, one or another of the above "historical" Mozarts remains their truth, regardless of The truth.

Can we ever know Mozart by his music, someone whose music seems at once so joyous, and yet is always tinged with sadness? Perhaps not. So, let us look at Mozart, the man, by revealing him through aspects of his physiognomy and personality, and by his legacy and "effect," gaining in the process  insight into this most wondrous of stars in the musical firmament. 

The observations below are derived from the vetted written literature and scholarship. They paint a portrait of a man with all the warts and imperfections of humanity, who at the same time possessed a gift so rare and so extraordinary, that its output, the music which we so adore, has been likened to the melodies and rhythms that underlie the universe itself.

W. Mozart
by Barbara Kraft
The posthumous portrait of 1819
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Wien
What did Mozart Look Like?

More than any other composer, Mozart's image remains one of the least certain. An influential German biographer of the early 20th-century, Arthur Schurig, asserted that, "Mozart has been the subject of more portraits having no connection with his actual appearance than any other famous man; and there is no famous man of whom a more worshipful posterity has had a more incorrect physical picture than is generally the case with Mozart." Can any painter even begin to capture genius in a portrait? The answer is self-evident.

Given this perspective, descriptions by Mozart's contemporaries remain the most illuminating. His sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) commented that "my brother was a rather pretty child," but after a bout of smallpox that both siblings sustained in 176l  (he, age 11; she, age l6),  his looks were perrnanently disfigured by scars.

Mozart is also said to have suffered a temporary "blindness" as a result of the marked inflammation of his eyes (this could have been from a keratitis (a corneal inflammation) secondary to the Vaccinia virus of smallpox). Nannerl went on to describe Mozart in her reminiscences in 1792, a year after his death, as being "small, thin, and pale in color and entirely lacking in any pretensions as to physiognomy and bodily appearance."

Nonetheless, in 1770, three years after that same smallpox epidemic,  the composer Johann Adolph Hasse wrote that "the boy Mozart is handsome, vivacious, graceful, and full of good manners." 

Michael Kelly, the tenor much beloved by Mozart himself, and the man who sang the roles of both Don Basilio and Don Curzio in the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), famously reminisced about Mozart in 1826: "He was a remarkably small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of fine hair, of which he was rather vain. He always received me with kindness and hospitality. He was fond of punch, of which I have seen him take copious draughts. He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige; but so very particular that when he played, if the slightest noise were made, he left off."

Thomas Attwood, who was Mozart's composition student between 1785 and 1787, recalled his teacher being "of cheerful habit, though lacking a strong constitution." Attwood also remembered that  "in consequence of being so much over the table when composing, he (Mozart) was obliged to have an upright desk and stand when he wrote."
The evidence suggests that Mozart was small in stature. It has been calculated that he stood about 1.63 meters, or five feet, three inches in height. Mozart himself corroborated this when, as a 14 year-old in April 1770, he wrote to his sister from Rome about a visit to St. Peter's Basilica, stating that, "I had the honor of kissing St. Peter's foot in the church today, and as I have the misfortune of being so small, I, that same old dunce Wolfgang Mozart, had to be lifted up." 

In 1777, at Mannheim, Mozart met the Webers, the family of musicians who would figure greatly in his biography. Although he later married Constanze Weber, he fell initially in love with her elder sister, Aloysia, who spurned him. Many years later, Aloysia was asked why she rejected so famous a man as Mozart, to which he purportedly replied, "I did not know, you see... I only thought...well...he was such a little man."

Mozart himself may have put it all best when he stated, "Mozart magnus, corpore parvus" ("Mozart the great, small in size.")

What Ailed Mozart? His Health and lllnesses

For someone possessed of such remarkable productivity, Mozart was often sick. To be sure, his ill health was in large part a consequence of his era,  to the endemic diseases and epidemics to which he was inevitably exposed as a result of extensive travels, particularly those undertaken in childhood and youth. For example, in the fall 1765, while on the grand tour that included the Hague, first Nannerl, then Mozart, contracted typhoid fever, and both children almost died.

There is a large body of  literature regarding Mozart's illnesses, much of it conjecture (as an autopsy was never performed). The following is a summary of what Mozart may have contracted during his life, as deduced by a careful reading of the primary German medical literature of his physicians, and by the writings of friends and observers:  recurrent streptococcal infections, erythema nodosum (a nodular and painful skin disease related to a systemic inflammation), typhus, variola (smallpox), quinsy (tonsillar abscess), recurrent bouts of acute rheumatic fever, infectious endocarditis, and  renal (kidney) disease.

Some of these illnesses may have led to a chronic carditis (heart disease) and renal   disease, specifically a post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, which in turn could have led to renal failure. Mozart may also have had antimony over-dosage (he  was self-medicating with this potential poison), subdural or extradural hematoma (vide infra) and hypertension. There is also the possibility that he had acute trichinosis (Hirschmann Arch Int Med 161:1381-1389, 2001. Indeed, Mozart wrote to Constanze in  October 1791 that  had eaten some under-cooked pork cutlets).

Dr. Peter G. Davies, a gastroenterologist and Mozart and Beethoven biographer from Melbourne, has posited   that Mozart also suffered from the manic-depressive disorder cyclothymia (J. Roy. Soc. Med. 1991). The possibility of cyclothymia, quite common in many creative types, would explain some of Mozart's bursts of extraordinarily intense creativity, such as in the summer of 1788, when he wrote the last three symphonies, his greatest in the genre, works that were composed with no known commission, nor which Mozart ever heard performed except in his imagination. On the other hand, such an explanation must be weighed against several periods of sustained productivity- witness the years 1784 to 1786, when Mozart created an extraordinary number of masterworks in every musical genre.

A  distinction should be made between these chronic illnesses and Mozart's presumed medical conditions which were immediately proximate to and causative of his abrupt and early demise.  Dr. Davies has suggested that Mozart died of  the consequences of a cerebral hemorrhage resulting from hypertension secondary to an acute nephritis (kidney inflammation) from Henoch-Schönlein purpura, a rare disease which can result from streptococcal infection; Mozart was likely severely anemic and already in uremic coma.  To compound matters, his physician  Dr. Thomas Franz Closset (one of the best in Vienna)  bloodlet him of almost a liter of blood, exacerbating the anemia and hastening his demise.)

Mozart's death certificate (as mentioned above, there was no autopsy) stated “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“heated miliary fever”), a common clinical diagnosis of that era, but one which is far too non-specific a term on which to opine a diagnosis; it may relate to the inflammatory rash of rheumatic fever, which in turn may have been a result of Mozart's presumed strep infections

Richard Zegers M.D. (Ann Int. Med. 2009) reviewed the records of 5,011 Viennese adults who died in the two months before and after December 1791, and compared that data to comparable months in 1790 and 1792,  finding a much higher than normal rate of death from an epidemic of presumed streptococcal infection.    

In early 1791, Mozart fell , landing on his left temple, and as a result, may have sustained an extradural hematoma (a blood clot outside the brain membranes) that manifested itself in a fracture to his skull (M. Drake,  Neurol 43: 2400-2403, 1993).

The putative Mozart calvarium (a a skull missing its mandible)
in the Mozarteum, Salzburg

A skull in the possession of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, exhumed in 1801 by the successor of the grave digger who buried him on December 1791, and whose condition reflects such a trauma, may be that of Mozart, but forensic examinations in 2006 were inconclusive.
Haydn on Mozart, and the author Katherine Pilcher on them both

Franz Joseph Haydn recognized Mozart's genius during his lifetime and before most anyone else had realized this. Haydn said as much to Leopold Mozart at a February 12, 1785 string quartet party at which the last three of Mozart's six string quartets dedicate to Haydn were performed. Haydn said:  "I tell you before God, and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, but above all, he has the greatest knowledge of composition." 

In 1792, Haydn also wrote this to his friend, Michael Puchberg, "For some time, I was quite beside myself over his (Mozart's) death, and could not believe that Providence should so quickly have called away an irreplaceable man into the next world. Haydn went on to write that "posterity will not see another talent as that of Mozart in a hundred years."

The author Karoline Pilcher was a contemporary of Mozart and Haydn, and knew both of them personally. In the 1820s, in her reminiscences, Pilcher writes this about them (trans lated here from the German):
"Mozart and Haydn, whom I knew well, were men who displayed in their personal intercourse no other outstanding mental ability and almost no sort of intellectual cultivation of a learned or higher education. Everyday character, flat humor and with the first (Mozart) a scantly sensible lifestyle, was all they publicly manifested, and yet, what depths, what worlds of fantasy, harmony, melody and feeling, lay concealed within these modest exteriors ! Through what inner revelation came to them this understanding, how they must have seized it, to bring forth such powerful effects, and express in tones, feelings, thoughts, passions, that every ear must feel with them, and be spoken to us as well as from greater depths."

The Mozart Effect

W. Mozart
Joseph Lange's unfinished
portrait of 1787

Almost as abundant as the research and speculation devoted to Mozart's health, illness, and death, is the recent literature on the physical, cognitive, and psychophysiological effect of Mozart's music on the listener. This discussion, originally grounded in rigorous scientific study, has also formed the basis of later, popular-and it must be said-facile claims revolving around the so-called"Mozart Effect."

The French otolaryngologist Alfred Tomatis coined the term " the Mozart effect " in 1991 in his book, Pourqoui Mozart?   In his research, Tomatis developed the concept of auditory processing integration. He discovered, while examining opera singers who were having trouble reaching and singing certain notes in tune, that those singers all had, a coincident hearing defect in the same frequency as the vocal problem.

The relationship between audition (hearing) and phonation (voicing) had never been observed or reported previously. Tomatis posited that "the voice can only reproduce what the ear can hear." He subsequently focused his audiological research using Mozart's violin concertos, as well as Gregorian plainchant, at different hearing frequencies, to improve auditory processing, to "retrain the ear," if you will, of patients who had acquired sensori-neural hearing loss. Among those who gained improvement not only in their hearing as well as in their "voicing" by this technique were the actor Gerard Depardieu, the baritone Benjamin Luxon, and the popular singer Sting (Gordon Sumner).

In 1993, the researchers Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and Katherine Ky working in the department of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, further investigated the “Mozart effect" in an experiment which was published in the October 14, 1993 issue of the scholarly scientific journal Nature , under the title: "Music and Spatial Task Performance." 

The Rauscher team found that a group of students who were "pre-treated" for ten minutes by listening to the first movement and part of the second movement of Mozart's two-piano sonata in D major, K. 448, performed better on a spatial-task reasoning Stanford-Binet test than when the same students were pre-treated with a "relaxation tape" or after thy had sat in silence for ten minutes prior to testing. (Stanford-Binet testing is a form of IQ test, which measures aspects of verbal and non-verbal reasoning. In the Rauscher study, the students were given a paper folding and cutting test: a piece of paper is folded several times and then cut. The students had to mentally "unfold" the paper and choose the correct shape from the numerous examples that they were given).

These results were temporary, lasting only through the time taken for the experiment, about fifteen minutes, and were specifically related to visual-spatial task reasoning, and not to other measures of intellect. More recent research has both confirmed and contradicted the results of the Nature study, among them "Arousal, Mood, and the Mozart Effect," Psychological Science (2001; l2l3); "Re-examination of the Effect of Mozart's Music on Spatial Task Performance," Journal of Psychology (1997; 13l/4); "'Brain-Based"' Learning: More Fiction than Fact," American Educator (2006; fall issue); and "Prelude or Requiem for the Mozart Effect," Nature (1996).

The music educator and researcher Don Campbell was influenced by Tomatis' work, and the results of the Rauscher study, and went on to write the best-selling 1997 book The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen rhe Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell's claims went far beyond spatial intelligence improvement to include notions that Mozart's music improved mental health and cognitive ability. Unfortunately, over time, "the Mozart effect" as put forth in Tomatis's original work and subsequent misinterpretations of the Rauscher's group study has devolved by others into facile argument and assertion, suggesting that early childhood exposure to classical music has, ipso facto, a beneficial effect on mental development, leading to advantages and a range of lifetime achievement.

As an ophthalmologist with knowledge of the neuroanatomy of the sensory system, I accept as valid the findings that there is something specific to the music of Mozart and brain function (cf., J. Jenkins, Royal Society of Medicine; 2001). Neurologists John Hughes and John Fino at the University of Illinois subjected to computer analysis fully 8l works by Mozart, 67 of Johann Christian Bach, 67 of J.S. Bach, and 150 works by 55 other composers. They found that the music of Mozart. as well as that of J.S. and J.C. Bach, but not the music of the other composers, contained a very high degree of long-term periodicity. They hypothesized that these specific harmonic patterns and chordal repetitions, found especially in the music of Mozart, J.S. and J.C. Bach (the latter was an influence on the young Mozart) have a function in brain coding: they act to align or "symmetrize" neurons in certain regions of the brain involved with auditory processing and memory (specifically the parieto-occipital cortex and right pre-frontal cortex) and which can lead to heightened mental capacity and function, even if only temporarily. Thus, there is neurophysiological evidence for a Mozart "effect" (as well as a "J.C. Bach effect" and a "J.S. Bach effect").

There are fundamental and physiological aspects that underly the "Mozart effect" and to the music of Mozart in general - the pleasure, felicity, and depth of emotion of his music can provoke and stimulate a heightened intellectual, even spiritual awareness, and rapture.  Perhaps this timeless remark, ascribed to the Nobel-prize winning physicist Albert Einstein, himself a genius, resounds most compellingly: "Mozart's music is of such beauty and purity that one feels that he merely found it, that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed."
Vincent P de Luise, M.D.
Copyright @ 2011 -2015 


  1. I found your article very interesting and it even taught me new things about Mozart! So, thank you for that:) It's a pleasure reading something as well written as this.

    1. Thank you Monica,for your kind comments.
      Mozart was indeed a fascinating individual, musicologically
      and in health and illness. For all of us, there will be an endless fascination with him, and an eternal delight in his
      sublime music and timeless art.