The Face of a Genius: Mozart’s Death Mask

On December 5th, 1791, around 1:00 am in the morning, the great composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart passed away at just 35 years old. He had lived a prolific musical career, creating operas, concertos and symphonies–often for royalty–and around 800 works in every musical genre of his time. His influence is still widely felt throughout the world as he was one of the most prominent figures of classical music.

The circumstances surrounding Mozart’s early death are not entirely certain and have been largely mythologized. Rumors of the existence of a Mozart death mask, a sculptural likeness created by laying plaster over the face of the deceased, have circulated, but have been unsubstantiated. Still, his admirers love to speculate about who he really was and how he really looked.

Possible Mozart Death Mask. Unauthenticated, unknown Artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mask Surfaces – Is It Real?

The Mozart Code by Rachel McMillan is the novel we’ve been reading this month for our online book club, Travel Europe Through Books. It’s the story of two British undercover operatives working in Vienna in the late 1940s, Simon Barre and Sophie Huntington-Villiers. Sophie is tasked with finding and returning treasures stolen during the Second World War. Both she and Simon are people of means and Allied agents, and both become involved in a hunt for Mozart’s death mask.

As the two go about their undercover work in Vienna, Sophie is approached by two different parties interested in obtaining the legendary Death Mask of Mozart. Why they want this particular artefact is uncertain to her, but she surmises that it could have to do with the funding of ‘Eternity,’ an organization formed to promote socialist propaganda in that part of Europe; or it could be used as a means to unify Austrians behind one ideology.

According to the author’s ‘Historical Note’ at the beginning of The Mozart Code, actual death masks associated with Mozart do exist, though their authenticity is unverified. This legend inspired her to include it in the novel. Apparently a death mask which some claimed to be Mozart’s was found in a pawnshop in Vienna in 1947. Since Mozart had been buried in a common grave, the creation of a death mask would have been unlikely; this was an expensive process generally reserved for the rich and aristocratic. However, supposed replicas of a mask made after his death can now be found in both the Michaelerkirche near the Hofburg; and in the Mozarthaus Museum in Domgasse. McMillan visited these places in Vienna during the research of her novel, but the guides gave conflicting views about their mask’s authenticity.

Michaelerkirche, Wien. Cha già José from Vienna, Austria, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mozart Haus Domgasse, Dguendel, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for Clues in the Details of Mozart’s Death

If we look back in time and try to recreate the events surrounding Mozart’s death, more comes to light:

The earliest accounts of Mozart’s death by his wife and sister were recorded years after it happened. According to his wife Constanze (who, with her second husband, wrote a biography of Mozart published 1828), Mozart’s health declined sharply in August of 1791, while he was writing his commissioned Requiem. As he was traveling to Prague to supervise his opera La Clemenza de Tito, he became more and more ill. Constanze told the story to Franz Niemetschek, who also recorded it in his full biography of Mozart: 

“On his return to Vienna, his indisposition increased visibly and made him gloomily depressed. His wife was truly distressed over this. One day when she was driving in the Prater with him, to give him a little distraction and amusement, and they were sitting by themselves, Mozart began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the Requiem for himself. Tears came to the eyes of the sensitive man: ‘I feel definitely,’ he continued, ‘that I will not last much longer; I am sure I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea.'”

Although historians debate the causes and chronology of his health decline, Mozart’s health did indeed worsen until December 1791 when he passed away. Yale medical professor and music scholar Vincent DeLuise records the following details about his death:

“… The details of Mozart’s last days are fraught with inconsistencies. The testimony of Mozart spouse and widow Constanze Weber Mozart Nissen, and that of her sister Sophie Weber Haibl, not only do not jibe, they were only offered in 1825, thirty-four years after Mozart expired. On the last full day of his life, December 4th, 1791, Mozart was said to be in bed composing the Lacrimosa and rehearsing other sections of the Requiem with family and colleagues. Mozart had been working in the prior week with Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a composer of some repute who was also the copyist who had previously assisted Mozart with several of the arias for the opera seria “La Clemenza di Tito.” Mozart was extremely uncomfortable by this point, his body markedly edematous (Wassersucht), with myalgias that made it painful for anyone even to touch him. Sophie Haibl recalled that Mozart was puffing out his cheeks to imitate the trombone solo in the Tuba Mirum section of the Requiem when he lost consciousness. Mozart’s chronic illnesses may have included chronic post-streptococcal nephritis and rheumatic fever. Mozart’s physicians, Thomas von Sallaba and Nicholas Closset, two of the most respected in Vienna, who also consulted with Doctor Gudener von Lobes, diagnosed Mozart as having “una deposita sulla testa (“a deposit on the head)” from rheumatic fever. However, they actually may have hastened Mozart’s demise by blood-letting him, creating a hypovolemic state, even as Mozart was already anemic from the putative renal disease.”

These maladies would have caused a great deal of swelling of Mozart’s face and body. According to an article in the PBS News Hour:

“During his last two weeks of life, Mozart developed severe edema (swelling of the hands, feet, legs, abdomen, arms and face due to retained body fluid). Mozart complained of pain all over his body, a fever, and a rash of some kind.”

The Likelihood of the Mask’s Existence

Relying on a few different factors, the evidence for the existence of a mask is not in favour. Mozart’s excessive swelling at the time of his death may have made the creation of an accurate mask impossible. Also, having no fortune at the time of his death, Mozart left his widow in a difficult financial position. Neither he nor his widow would have had the means to make arrangements for a mask. His wife did not even attend his funeral. Still, as McMillan describes in her meticulously researched novel, Mozart’s death was mourned in a big way in Prague where he was already considered a musical master. He was also well known and loved in Vienna, and crowds came to mourn his death the day after. It may have been possible that a wealthy admirer, either in Prague or Vienna, funded the creation of such a mask of Mozart, a man that many wanted to immortalise and remember.

One blogger called The Revisionist says the following:

“According to legend, Count Joseph Deym von Stritetz made a plaster cast of Mozart’s face upon his death and subsequently exhibited the death mask in his gallery/museum, placed on a wax figure dressed in fancy clothing. When the Count died in 1804, the mask went to his widow and upon her death in 1821 it vanished. Then, in 1947, a death mask turned up in an antique shop in Austria and ended up in the ownership of a sculptor named Willy Kauer who, thinking it looked like Mozart, tried to get the Austrian Ministry of Education to commission an inquiry in 1948 as to its authenticity. Although the mask had several features in common with Mozart, including pox marks, they released their findings as inconclusive in 1949. There was another investigation in 1950 and this time they decided that the mask was unlikely to be Mozart’s and it was returned to Kauer.

“By 1956, the Mozarteum sponsored yet another examination of it and studied two initials inside it, seemingly from a bronze caster in Vienna who worked during Mozart’s life named Thaddaus Ribola. He had a studio next to Count Deym’s gallery during the 1790’s. Still, not enough evidence to be sure.” 1

Unverified Mozart Death Mask, GuentherZ, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What Mozart Left

Since Mozart died at a young age and without fortune, planning for his own death was probably not foremost in his mind. However, his comment retold by Constanze about thinking he was being poisoned indicates that he felt he was writing the Requiem for his own death. As we listen to it, we can feel that he poured his heart and soul into it. His words were portentious. He died only a few months later, as he was working directly on the Requiem. DeLuise writes more about the Requiem, which transported Mozart–either as a comforting convoy, or a ruthless taskmaster–to his untimely death:

“According to Constanze, Mozart had given Süssmayr instruction on how to finish the Requiem in the eventuality that Mozart would die before its completion. He likely was given some instruction by Mozart as to how to finish some sections. However, at the time of Mozart’s death, of the fourteen individual sections in the Requiem, he (Mozart) fully completed only the first section, Introitus: Requiem Aeternam. Mozart wrote out the vocal parts and supporting bass line for eight subsequent sections (particella writing), along with episodic inner instrumental motivic measures in some of the movements, from the Dies irae to the Hostias. Mozart composed only the first eight bars of the Lacrimosa, but did not put pen to paper for the Sanctus, Benedictus or Agnus Dei. The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were fully by Sussmayr. There are no “Zettlchen” (scraps of composition paper on which would have been fragments of written music) for these movements either found or kept by Constanze, nor found by anyone in the 1790s or 1800s.”

Johann Nepomuk della Croce, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mozart. Dora Stock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even if no true mask exists, we still have the Introitus: Requiem Aeternum and Lacrimosa movements of the Requiem, a type of signature like a death mask, of the man at his death. And we have much more evidence available to us to see into the visage, character, and work of this man. The Della Croce painting above, and other depictions, give us a good sense of his face. The well-loved Mozart Kugeln chocolates sold in Vienna bear a likeness to the Della Croce portrait. Various biographers help us hear Mozart’s words and see into his behaviours, sometimes odd and vulgar, but also genius, and endearingly human. And his happier music of “ineffable beauty but also logical precision,” as McMillan describes, still speaks to us from Mozart’s heart.

As Sophie in the novel says, “To find Mozart’s death mask would be to recognize the face of a friend…”

Fascinated by European history?

Check out the historical thrillers of V M Karren, author of The Deceit of Riches Trilogy and others.

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