It started with a rumor. Rumors tell us why, and give an event purpose. They also comport with what we think we know about the way things work.
“Mozart is dead,” a Berlin newspaper wrote in December of 1791, less than a month after his death….”Because his body swelled up after death, some people think he was poisoned.”
Although his doctors later went on the record saying his symptoms matched the same disease that carried off any number of his fellow Viennese that same winter, Mozart couldn’t just die that way. After all, he was young, and a genius. You can’t just die of some random disease when you are a young genius, right?
Nobody seems to have been saying who did the poisoning at this point. At least, we have no written accusations. In fact, if there was any poisoning, one of the hundreds of theories about Mozart’s death suggests that he may have been doing it himself, taking frequent doses of medicine that, not uncommon to the 18th century, had some ingredients in it that were harmful, like mercury, for instance.
It wasn’t until 1823 that a suspect was connected with the crime, and this bit is rather sensational. Antonio Salieri, a ripe old 73 years old, and probably in only partial custody of his wits, tried to kill himself. This much is history. And the rumor that swirled around Vienna afterwards was that he had confessed to the crime of killing Mozart.
People who were with him tried to undo the damage, claiming, in a signed newspaper article, that they had been with Salieri the entire time, and that he never said any such thing. And there is the story that on Salieri’s deathbed he dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.
But it was an attractive rumor. Even Beethoven’s friends were talking about it. We know because in the conversation books of the then completely deaf composer are the written queries and responses of those friends, and these seem quite certain that Salieri is guilty of the crime. Since Beethoven could speak, we do not have records of his answers.
The rumor persisted. It was, after all, very useful. It explained why Mozart had not made more of an impact earlier in the musical world. Musicologists of the succeeding century, often a combative bunch, liked to take out their ire for the non-recognition of Mozart’s genius on the fickle Viennese public, giving themselves the sacred duty of righting a great wrong, and giving the great man a reputation and a career supposedly denied him in life.
The people, on the other hand, the same ones who in many cases had made some of this operas and instrumental pieces the 18th century equivalent of smash hits, or at least minor hits, needed a reason that all of this came to such a premature end.
Every story needs a good villain.
Salieri was a foreigner. His music was going out of style. And his last name even begins with an S.
I mean, what else could you possibly need?