Mozart's final year and death - 1791

One of the greats of classical music bows out, but how did Mozart die? Was it Salieri, the mysterious Count von Walsegg, or some badly cooked chops? Here's what happened in his final year.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


In Vienna, each year usually ended with court balls and so Mozart, as one of the court composers, was required to supply dance music. He treated the task with all the care and attention that he would have lavished on his greatest works and many of his minuets and dances continued to be popular in the great dance halls of Vienna — primarily the Redoutensaal — even after his death.

Just as had been the case in the previous few years, many of Mozart’s letters concerned the need for money. He had played his last public concert on 4 March and just over a month later was clearly beginning to feel the pinch again, On 13 April, he fired off a letter to the seemingly ever-faithful Puchberg, his fellow mason, asking for just a small loan:

"I’ll get my quarterly pay on the 20th — is there any chance you’ll lend me something like 20 gulden? If you can, I’d be much obliged, best friend, and, as soon as I’m paid, I’ll give it back to you."

There’s a note scribbled at the bottom of the letter, in Puchberg’s handwriting, which reads:

"Sent 30 gulden, 13th April"

By sending more money than Mozart had requested and by dispatching it the very same day, Puchberg was proving to be a very true friend indeed.

April was to bring more hope to Mozart in the form of Leopold Hofmann. He was a 61-year-old composer who had, for some time, held the top job of Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. In April 1791 Mozart found out that Hofmann was seriously ill. Mozart wrote to the city magistrates, who controlled the jobs at St Stephen’s, suggesting that, given Hofmann’s somewhat tenuous grasp on good health, they consider taking on Mozart as an unpaid assistant, on the understanding that Mozart take over as soon as the old man was gone.

The job paid some 2000 gulden a year and, with all due respect to Mr Hofmann, his early departure would have made a huge difference to the Mozart family finances. Ironically, Hofmann was set to become yet another name added to the long list that is 'people who outlived Mozart'. Despite his illness, he was still around a good 2 years after Mozart had gone.

Nevertheless, the city magistrates agreed to the unpaid appointment on 28 April. Nowadays, Mozart is not specifically remembered for his church music, but this — and, perhaps, the course of religious music in general — might have been different had he survived long enough to become the boss of such an important a cathedral as St Stephen’s.


By May 1791 Constanze would have been around 6 months pregnant with their son, Franz. She was keen to take the restful spa waters of Baden, just a few miles outside Vienna. Mozart wrote to his friend in Baden, the schoolteacher Anton Stoll, who was also director of music at the Baden parish church, to arrange for her accommodation:

"Please arrange for a small apartment for my wif’. She only needs a couple of rooms — or a room and a small chamber. The main thing is, though, it needs to be on the ground floor. I’d really like it to be the one on the ground floor, at the butcher's. . . She’ll be there on Saturday — Monday at the latest. It’s important that it is near the baths, but more important that it is on the ground floor. The one at the town clerk’s, on the ground floor, would be fine too, but the one at the butcher’s would be better."

As if aware of the curiously mundane nature of his writing, Mozart adds:

"PS, this is the silliest letter I’ve ever written in my life — but it’s just right for you."


Constanze left on 4 June, with little Carl, and Mozart missed her madly. Despite the fact that he was in perfectly good health physically, it has been suggested that his mental state was somewhat dark and that he may have been beginning to suffer some sort of breakdown. Certainly, he found the separation from Constanze harder to bear than normal. His letters to her in Baden were still filled with the usual sweet nothings:

"Farewell, then, my one and only. Take these as they fly through the air: 2999 and a half kisses are flying, eager to be snapped up. Now, let me tell you something in your ear [Mozart leaves a space] and now you me [he leaves another space]. Now, let’s open and close our mouths [another space] ever more [space] and more [space] at last we say: it’s because of PlumpiStrumpi... Farewell, a thousand tender kisses from, always your Mozart."

The letters also suggest that Mozart was, at this time, less able to be alone than ever before. Take, for example, this note from July that year, which goes beyond the normal lovers’ talk:

"You won’t be able to imagine how long it’s felt without you. It’s impossible to explain, it’s a certain emptiness — painful — a certain longing which can’t be satisfied and, consequently, doesn’t stop. It just keeps on and on, getting bigger each day."

In the end, despite the potential precariousness of the family finances, Mozart felt compelled to join his wife and son in June 1791. He was held up by his promise to take part in a Viennese concert, which was then ultimately postponed. Mozart wrote again on 6 June, this time revealing that he had been composing:

"Out of sheer boredom, I wrote an aria for my opera, today."

The opera in question was to become The Magic Flute.

Once out in Baden with his family, Mozart settled a little. He obliged his friend Stoll — who had arranged Constanze’s accommodation — with a little something for his parish church choir. The manuscript is dated 17 June 1791 and it was first performed on the feast of Corpus Christi. It is a deceptively simple piece, which has since become one of Mozart’s best-loved works.

When heard alongside his Requiem, which was soon to follow, it is easy to see why musical historians have wondered over the years since, what Mozart’s contribution to church music would have been had he had lived longer. Many music lovers feel certain that, had he lived, Mozart’s church music would have changed the face of the genre completely. The simple yet profoundly beautiful nature of the Ave verum corpus, in particular, has led some to suggest that he was on the verge of revealing a whole new style of church music to the world.

The last 12 months of Mozart’s life are often cast as a time of darkness for the composer. It is too simple to say that he was effectively 'dying' all year long. Money troubles were nothing new for Mozart, but if anything, there appeared to be more light than shade at the end of the financial tunnel for him. He was very much in love with his wife, as we have seen. There was no sign either, as yet, of any major illness. Against this backdrop, then, the appearance in July of a messenger, asking for a commission for his boss, was probably not the sinister, spooky affair that some versions of the Mozart legend now insist to be the case.

Mozart had been working on his latest opera, The Magic Flute, for much of the year. In it, he would pay tribute to many of the principles and practices of the masons, incorporating many masonic symbols into the plot. By July, however, it is most likely he had completed it and maybe even had some parts of his next opera, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Thus), sketched out or finished too. The so-called 'mysterious' messenger visited Mozart back at home in Vienna and asked him how long it would take him to write a requiem for his master.


Who was that masked man? The mysterious messenger and his anonymous boss have given dramatists, conspiracy theorists and even Hollywood producers more than enough ammunition over the years to weave a dark tapestry of shadowy, sinister tales surrounding the 'masked man'. Right up there on the grassy knoll is 'the devil': yes, some say the mystery man was the devil emissary who was making Mozart write his own requiem before his death.

Far more, however think it's something to do with Salieri. Now this one is far too tempting for people to leave alone. Salieri and Mozart were great rivals as composers and it is true to say that they had a strong dislike for each other. So, some conspiracy theorists claim that Salieri commissioned the Requiem, which he might then be able to pass off as his own once be had murdered Mozart. Although the story is undoubtedly an attractive one, we would like to consign that one to the bottom of the basket, too.

The true identity of the commissioner of the Requiem is now actually known to be Count Franz von Walsegg. In its own way, the true story of how it came to be written is quite intriguing enough in itself without all of the layers of conspiracy being placed on top…  

A musical Taj Mahal

Franz von Walsegg was a count. A rich, musical man, he owned some lovely land and estates around the River Enns in Austria. He employed a number of servants and staff at his residences. He was particularly proud of his musicians, with whom he whiled away many an affluent afternoon, playing arrangements of various pieces of music that had, at some point, taken his fancy. He also played the cello.

Not content with simply playing music, Walsegg was keen to be seen to compose music too. The mere fact that he actually couldn’t compose was not going to stop him. He commissioned many people, over the years, to write him music, which he then copied out, in his own handwriting. Almost always, the true composer’s name was missing from his version of the score. When folk asked him who composed the work, he would apparently smile, blush, and let those around him infer that it was his own work, although he appears to have fooled very few.

When Walsegg's beloved wife died at the age of just 20, he was grief-stricken. He decided to do two things to commemorate her life. First, he commissioned the respected sculptor, Johann Fischer, to make an epitaph to his wife. Once complete. it was positioned near to his castle in Stuppach, Austia. He also decided to commission a requiem for her, which would be played every year on the anniversary of her death. For this, only the best composer would be good enough. And so he decided to approach Mozart.

It is probably true to say that he intended to pass the work off as his own, although the Requiem was such a strong piece of music that it is even more doubtful than usual that anyone would have believed him. And besides he was, sadly, never to get his requiem finished by Mozart anyway.


Mozart told Walsegg's messenger that he was due to go to Prague for the coronation of the new emperor, Leopold, as King of Bohemia, and was to contribute an opera to the general festivities. (The plot of La clemenza di Tito , which centred on the leniency and moderation of its hero, was obviously considered a suitable match for the enlightened character of the new emperor.) Therefore, he could only start work on a requiem when he returned. This was agreed.

Mozart and the messenger also agreed that the work, when complete, was to be owned by its commissioner. They settled on a fee, with which the messenger returned some days later, adding that his boss had considered the payment too low and would give Mozart more on receipt of the work. They also agreed that the man who commissioned the work was never to be known to Mozart.

August was a busy month for the Mozarts. Mozart himself was working hard and there was no let up in the concerns about money. For Constanze, though, everything had changed. On 26 July, she had given birth to their son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang. When Mozart set off, in late August, for the coronation festivities of Leopold II, Constanze went with him. Their new baby was just I month old, yet the Mozarts left him behind and headed for Prague. They did not travel completely alone, though: Mozart’s composition pupil, the 25-year-old Franz Xaver Süssmayr, went with them.

At the time, it was quite common for composition pupils and teachers to work jointly on pieces of music, which would then be published in the teacher’s name. In much the same way as artists worked in 'schools', with pupils — sometimes teams of pupils — completing works that today bear the name of just one artist, so it was in classical music at the time. Indeed, the practice is not unheard of today, too: many a Hollywood movie score will credit a team of composers, sometimes working to one uber-composer.

Süssmayr would almost certainly have been invited to work on Mozart’s opera, La clemenza di Tito . Mozart was said to have honed it in the coach on the way to Prague. This particular pupil’s part in Mozart’s oeuvre would almost certainly have been forgotten today, were it not for the course that this last year of Mozart’s life took. Indeed, within months, Süssmayr would be asked to make a vital contribution to Mozart’s output — one that would see his name live on forever.

Mozart and Constanze arrived in Prague on 28 August, just one day before the emperor and his entourage. It is worth mentioning that Prague was sort of the yin to Salzburg’s yang. Despite Salzburg’s trade in Mozart tourism today, which brings the city hundreds of thousands of pounds every year, Mozart, as we have seen, could not wait to get out of the place. Equally, if any city truly took Mozart and his music to its heart, it could be said to be Prague. Mozart was probably more than happy, in his 35th year, to be coming back here.


On Sunday 4 September, some of Mozart’s church music was performed at the service of the emperor’s oath of allegiance, conducted by Salieri in the Cathedral of St Vitus. This was a precursor to the Monday, when La clemenza di Tito was premiered in the Prague National Theatre, and Tuesday, when Mozart’s Coronation Mass was performed at the actual coronation, again at St Vitus’s. Mozart’s head was almost certainly full with ideas for the Requiem too and it would appear that, by then, the increased work rate was affecting the composer’s health. He was becoming either ill or stressed or both. He had worked flat out on the composition of La clemenza di Tito and this huge effort had taken its toll.

The new opera was, on the whole, fairly badly received. To be fair, it was being premiered as part of the coronation celebrations and its serious, albeit suitable, subject was probably not right for its audience. It soon dropped out of the general opera
repertoire and has only recently made a reappearance in the last century. It is now considered to contain some of Mozart’s most beautiful operatic writing, which is not a bad achievement for something composed against the clock and partly in a coach.

Out in Prague, Mozart found time to visit the local masonic lodge, the so-called 'Truth and Unity' lodge and his Maurerfreude — a cantata — was performed. All in all, Mozart’s music was likely to have been the most played of any significant composer during the coronation period.

Back in Vienna, Mozart concerned himself with his brand new opera. It was commissioned by the impresario, Schikaneder, a fellow mason, who frequently rented out Vienna’s Freihaustheater and staged productions. Mozart and Schikaneder planned it as one giant homage to the masons, and it is full of masonic images and symbols, some of them audible, some of them disguised. The three opening chords of the overture, for example, are important simply because they honour 'the power of three', and are repeated, in mid-overture, as three masonic knockings — all of which would have been apparent to any fellow masons hearing the piece. Hidden, too, are various numerical references, such as groups of three and groups of 18, as well as textual references to important masonic episodes.

On 30 September, Mozart himself conducted the premiere, the first of 20 performances running into October. Ironically, the successful premiere of The Magic Flute coincided with a sudden upturn in fortunes for La clemenza di Tito , which received vigorous applause at its closing performance, on the same day. Mozart completed the orchestration of the Clarinet Concerto in A. Despite now being seriously overworked and suffering from depression, he also began to compose the Requiem. Perhaps it was around this point that the necessarily sombre subject matter of the commission began to hit him. Certainly, his depression had by now started to manifest itself in delusions that he had been poisoned. This may well have contributed to the myth surrounding his death.

There were still moments of fun and frivolity at this point of Mozart’s life, though. He took Salieri to see The Magic Flute and his arch-rival was seemingly genuinely impressed, shouting “bravo” at several points. He also found time to play practical jokes on the opera’s cast. One of the arias in The Magic Flute calls for a glockenspiel to be played by a singer. Usually, then as now, the glockenspiel is played offstage by a musician and the singer has to make it appear that he is playing a dummy instrument onstage. During this first ever run of The Magic Flute, the part was played by Schikaneder’s son. One night, Mozart turned up and played the offstage instrument himself, but deliberately refused to play certain sections, or added extra bits, to fool the poor young Schikaneder:

"As a joke, I played music when he was speaking. He started, looked sideways, and then clocked me. He stopped, and wouldn’t carry on. I guessed what he was doing and played some more. He was forced to hit the glockenspiel, mumbling 'Stop it!' Everybody laughed."


To add to Mozart’s increasing depression, he was without Constanze, who was again at the spa in Baden. Mozart busied himself with another small cantata and then spent most of October on the Requiem. Accounts of this period vary wildly, but what is certain is that Mozart was getting more and more unwell. The weather in Vienna was bad, with rain, sleet and snow all making an appearance. As a result, Mozart’s rheumatism was triggered and he also began to experience abdominal pains. Some musical historians claim that he put this down to having been poisoned. But whether he ever said this or, more to the point, whether the claim was actually true, is very much open to doubt. Over the years, the theories have flowed thick and fast: from malicious poisoning — by Salieri, of course — to Mozart having cooked his chops wrongly, inadvertently poisoning himself in the process. It seems far more likely that he contracted a kidney disease and that his organs eventually failed altogether. In Mozart’s own words:

"I'm writing this Requiem for myself."

These words are repeated so often, in so many different accounts, that it seems almost certain that Mozart probably did say them. It is, however, worth remembering that they would have been spoken by a man in pain, suffering depression and, to some extent, hallucinations. Throughout October and part of November, Mozart completed or sketched out nearly one hundred pages of the Requiem. His only real moments of pleasure in this period seem to come from trips out with Constanze — now back from Baden — although these were few and far between because the weather was so bad.


He went to hear a lodge performance of his Kleine Freimaurer cantata, which apparently cheered him up no end. Both this and his occasional coach rides to the park lifted his increasingly sombre mood only temporarily and his depression soon returned. On 20 November, he felt particularly unwell and took to his bed. He was visited by his physicians, Doctors Closset and Sallaba, 7 days later.


In the early days of December, Mozart’s condition began to rally a little, giving new hope to everyone around him. Mozart himself was still convinced of his own impending death. He was concerned enough, though, about the first performance of his Requiem to gather some friends from the Freihaustheater around his bedside to sing through some completed parts of the work, with Mozart himself trying to sing the alto part. When the 'rehearsal' was over, a very weak Mozart pulled Süssmayr close to him and gave him detailed instructions of how to finish off the work.

Early that evening, he appeared lucid to Constanze. Later on, though, he was visited by his sister-in-law, Sophie. She was concerned enough to fetch Doctor Closset, who was at the theatre. He found Mozart feverish and burning up and applied a poultice to his forehead. Mozart lapsed into unconsciousness. The last sounds to come from his lips were an attempt to sing the one of the drum parts from the Requiem to Süssmayr.

Monday 5 December 1791 — if any day can claim to be 'the day the music died' it is surely this one. At 5 minutes to one in the morning, Mozart’s life ended. Constanze wept uncontrollably by his corpse and refused to leave his side.

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