Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Many Mozart Myths: A pauper’s grave, labor screams, and more!

Happy 261st! Don’t worry, we’ll
still treat you like you’re 11.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday is nearly upon us: On January 27, he’ll be turning 261 years old. ’Tis the season for listicles touting the miraculous powers of the Mozart Effect (which I’ve discussed here and, more recently, in the article I wrote for The Outline). Some website or publication might mention his rivalry with Salieri, or extol his otherworldly perfection. But The Telegraph got a head start and already published “Myleene Klass on the enduring appeal of Mozart” (Warning: Video autoplays), an article filled with so many myths and clichés that debunking them might take care of my Mozart quota for a while.

Prior to learning of this article through a Tweet from musicologist Barbara Eichner, I had never heard of the article’s author, Myleene Klass, and I didn’t realize she was enough of a celebrity that merited her name in the title of the article itself. I’m not saying this to be catty or to congratulate myself on my ignorance (I hate when people do that), merely to point out that her fame in the UK has not crossed the pond, so some readers will know more about her than I do. She is a singer, pianist, model, and television presenter. I’d seen some people on Twitter disparage her because of her background, but…I don’t want to resort to ad hominem attacks. I’m glad that she’s using her celebrity to share her enthusiasm for Mozart with a wider audience. However...

As I mentioned in my essay for Musicology Now, I usually leave “Yay! This is awesome! Check it out!” articles alone, because I think it’s important to encourage people to listen to classical music in the first place and not let fact-checking stomp out sparks of enthusiasm. If Klass had just posted this on her personal site, I wouldn’t have even bothered with this post. But it was published by The Telegraph, a pretty reputable publication, so I have to call them out for their lack of fact-checking. Besides, I would have had to get around to that “pauper’s grave” thing at some point; why not now?

There are so many individual myths cited here that I’m going to list them and address them one by one. Some can be debunked, some can be confirmed (She isn’t entirely wrong!), and some occupy a nebulous area where they can be neither confirmed nor denied. Klass uses her examples to paint Mozart as a modern-day pop star, part of a larger trope of making classical music “cool,” which I hope to unpack in a future essay (perhaps off-blog again).

Many Mozart myths have already debunked, deconstructed, and analyzed by philosopher William Stafford in his book, The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment (1991). (Excerpts are available through Google Books.) While Stafford’s book isn’t perfect—it oversimplifies some things and doesn’t take all relevant scholarship into account—his chapter “The Rebel” offers an alternative interpretation of some of Klass’s examples.

Here we go!

Klass: “There’s one story that he was still composing while his wife was in labour and there are some flourishes in the resulting score that represent her labour pains.”
  • This one is UNCONFIRMABLE. The story originated with Mozart’s wife herself, Constanze, who mentioned it in a letter in 1829, over three decades after Wolfgang died. The score in question was his String Quartet no. 15, K. 421. Now, I can definitely believe that Mozart worked while his wife was in labor, as birth wasn’t really part of the man’s sphere at the time. Perhaps he was inspired by her shouts, perhaps he just told her he was, perhaps Constanze even invented the story (She cultivated the mystery surrounding his Requiem, understanding how it would enhance her husband’s legacy)—short of traveling back in time, there’s no way to know. Here’s the movement that allegedly features the screams, represented through rising notes:

Klass: “As a young man, he visited St Paul’s in Rome and heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere being performed. This sacred piece of music had never been written down but Mozart went back to his boarding house and transcribed the entire mass from memory, perfectly.”
  • This one is MOSTLY TRUE, but the details are wrong. Mozart’s father Leopold wrote in a letter to his wife,
    “You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, to copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down.”
    However, Mozart heard the Miserere at the Sistine Chapel, not St. Paul’s, and the piece was part of a Psalm, not a whole Mass. Nevertheless, it was still an accomplishment (one that another famed prodigy, Felix Mendelssohn, would replicate decades later).
Klass: Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro to mock the aristocracy, which shocked Viennese nobles.
  • This one is generally FALSE. Here’s Stafford’s take:
    “No contemporary document says that Figaro was thought politically suspect. It is true that there is a letter by Mozart himself, describing the opposition of a prominent lady in Prague…It is by no means obvious that the unsuitability perceived by this ‘high and mighty’ lady was in fact political — perhaps she found it too frivolous, or licentious. She was overruled by [Emperor] Joseph II himself” (201-2)
    He goes on to explain, “It has recently been suggested that Figaro disappointed the Viennese because it was not more inflammatory; they were expecting a scandal and a sensation and they did not get it” (202).

    Klass misunderstands the context of these operas—the aristocracy liked seeing their class roasted onstage. If Mozart had antagonized them as much as Klass implies he did, he would not have had a career.

Klass: Don Giovanni “couldn’t be more different from the bawdy The Marriage of Figaro.”
Klass: Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for the “common man,” not the aristocracy.
  • Ultimately FALSE. Although The Magic Flute reflects some egalitarian social beliefs, it’s really misleading to claim that it’s for the “common man” when it contains layers of coded references to Freemasonry—the true meaning of this opera was intended for a select few.

    Some people make a big deal about The Magic Flute being in German rather than Italian, but generally Mozart was willing to work in any genre if the conditions were right. Or, as Stafford says: 
    “The hypothesis that Mozart’s socially progressive stance is revealed in his attitude to genre – preferring German Singspiel to Italian opera, and opera buffa to opera seria – must also be rejected. His passion was to compose opera, and he was ready to write in whatever genre was required” (202-3).
Klass: Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave.
  • This is one of the most popular Mozart myths, but it’s FALSE. He was buried in an unmarked grave, true, but it wasn’t a reflection of poverty—it was common procedure for a non-aristocrat at the time. But this myth persists because:
  1. We like thinking of artists as unappreciated in their own time, because it assures us that we know better, and 
  2. The thought of Mozart dying in poverty fits with our image of him as impulsive and irresponsible.
It’s ironic that Klass complains about people canonizing Mozart when that’s what she spends her entire article doing. Yes, she wants to get away from “stuffy images of Mozart wearing a wig or a velvet coat,” but after the movie Amadeus—which, granted, is 33 years old but still part of the cultural lexicon—how many people think of him that way? Instead, he’s canonized as an eternal child who loves fart jokes and doesn’t respect authority. I’m not saying that he wasn’t playful or vulgar; he certainly was. But there are many other dimensions of his personality that get ignored when Klass cheerily proclaims, “He never grew up.”

Many thanks to Barbara Eichner for the link, and to Mark Everist, Sasha Metcalf, and Bruce Alan Brown for their assistance with this post.

“Myleene Klass on the enduring appeal of Mozart” by Myleene Klass for The Telegraph 

The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment by William Stafford (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991)


  1. Thanks for the post! About the Allegri Miserere (which is the subject of many myths itself), its form is ABABABABABC, giving a potential transcriber plenty of reinforcement for the most part. The final C section is in nine parts. Perfectly transcribing the detail (such as it is) of the inner parts after one hearing would difficult even for a talent like Mozart. His sister said he went back to the chapel to "proof" it, which I find quite credible (link).

    1. Thank you for the information! Sometimes it's hard to strike a balance between, "Well, this isn't really THAT difficult, with training and practice..." and, "Yeah, this was a huge feat that few people could have pulled off!" At times, it's a combination of both, as your explanation indicates.

  2. Hi Linda! I love this article and your blog, but I have a question. How is it that words from Mozart's father can be taken as more credible than the words of his wife? The way in which your first two cases are presented seem very similar situationally in the amount of historical information provided, yet Leopold's words are accepted as "Mostly True" and Constanza's as "Unconfirmable." Is there more evidence to substantiate Mozart's notating the Miserere?

    1. Hi, Rachel! Hm, good point. Leopold was actively promoting Wolfgang as a prodigy, so we can't take his letters as absolute truth. However, I'd be more confident in his claim because his letter came from the time of the event, and it was a claim that could be verified (Did Wolfgang notate it correctly? Was he the one who actually did it?). Constanze's seems like family lore, and while I suppose there may be truth to it, I do wonder how much the tale changed in the decades before she wrote it in her letter.

      The "mostly wrong" stems from the details that Klass herself got wrong about the incident (which were pointed out to me by Barbara Eichner): the location, and the nature of the Miserere (that it's not a Mass). That's the distinction I made, and I didn't intend for it to be a comment on the trustworthiness of Leopold vs. Constanze, but on how accurately Klass represented the history.