Friday, 21 August 2009

Mozart’s Mysterious Death

by Kathryn Hadley

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died on December 5th, 1791, in Vienna. Over 200 years later, the cause of his death still remains a mystery. It has been the subject of considerable speculation with theories ranging from poisoning to renal failure to trichinosis, a parasitic disease caused by eating undercooked or raw pork. However, a Dutch study published on Tuesday August 18th in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that the composer may have died of complications stemming from strep throat.

The research was carried out by Richard Zegers (University of Amsterdam), Andreas Weigl (University of Vienna) and Andrew Steptoe (University College London). According to his death certificate, Mozart died of hitziges Frieselfieber or ‘heated military fever’, a type of fever accompanied by a rash. Researchers argued, however, that previous studies of the composer’s death were based primarily on subsequent accounts written decades after his death by people who witnessed his final days.

Zegers, Weigl and Steptoe based their study instead on official Viennese death records from November 1791 to January 1792 from the time surrounding Mozart’s death , which they compared with the records for the corresponding periods in 1790 and 1791, and 1792 and 1793. Over these periods, the deaths of 5011 adults were recorded (3442 men and 1569 women). The mean ages of death were 45.5 years for men and 54.5 years for women. The records also revealed that tuberculosis and related conditions was the most common cause of deaths, followed by cachexia, a condition of wasting associated with chronic disease, and malnutrition. Edema, a condition characterised by an excess of fluid collecting in the cavities or tissues of the body, was the third most common cause of death.

According to eyewitness accounts, Mozart’s symptoms included ‘inflammatory fever’, severe swelling, malaise, back pain and a rash, closely resembling those associated with edema. Researchers believe that the composer developed complications which led to edema as a result of a streptococcal infection, an epidemic of which may have originated in Vienna’s military hospital. Mozart’s sister in law Sophie Haibel notably recalled thirty years after his death that the swelling was such that he was unable to turn in bed. The official death records for the weeks surrounding Mozart’s death reveal an increase in deaths from edema compared with the previous and following years.

Richard Zegers was quoted in an article published by Reuters:
‘Our findings suggest that Mozart fell victim to an epidemic of strep throat
infection that was contracted by many Viennese people in Mozart's month of
death, and that Mozart was one of several persons in that epidemic that
developed a deadly kidney complication.’

For further information on how Joseph II established German opera in Vienna in an effort to homogenise the Habsburg Empire, read our article The Politics of Culture: Joseph II's German Opera

Mozart family grave, Sebastian Cemetery, Saltzburg


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Daniela said...

Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.

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