Your RDA of Irony

Finding a Good Scapegoat

Mozart Crime SceneOn this day in 1791, Antonio Salieri was framed for murder. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart couldn’t possibly have died of natural causes at the age of 35. Even by the standards of 18th century medicine, if you survived childhood’s 50 percent mortality rate, you likely would live to 43. Yes, doctors could bleed you to death; the medical profession seemed unaware that a shock-induced coma might be unhealthy–however restful it looked. And if the blood-letting doctor had previously used that lancet on an infected boil, who knows what other surprises were entering the patient’s circulatory system?

Through the science of second-guessing, historians now think that Mozart actually died of rheumatic fever. But that is too prosaic an autopsy. The public demands a conspiracy! Someone had to kill Mozart. Salieri became the popular scapegoat; there were rumors of his deathbed confession to murdering Mozart. For some reason, the gossip especially appealed to Russians; at least, it passed Tsarist censors–although they would have preferred a story incriminating liberals and Freemasons. In 1831, six years after Salieri’s death, Alexander Pushkin wrote “Mozart and Salieri” to dramatize the alleged rivalry between the two composers. (Pushkin was shot six years after that, but the killer was Mrs. Pushkin’s lover and not Salieri’s ghost.) However unfounded and unfair, the Salieri rumors still incite and inspire artists. In 1897, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera “Mozart and Salieri;” but it was nothing to drive Tchaikovsky to murder. (Actually, Tchaikovsky was already dead–and there are rumors about that, too.) Of course, we are familiar with Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”; if his play does not exonerate Salieri, at least it presents an unbearable Mozart we’d all like to strangle.

But Salieri really is an implausible villain. The man was a respectable composer and a highly esteemed teacher; if he really possessed a homicidal envy, he would bumped off one of his students–a youngster named Beethoven. Yes, Salieri was Italian but that is not always criminal. Salieri was from Northern Italy; they don’t kneecap in Milan. Any crime there is strictly white-collar and no one has ever accused Salieri of embezzling Mozart.

But if you want a versatile culprit, you should consider Mozart’s favorite librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte. They collaborated on “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutti”. (Without Da Ponte’s Italian libretto, “Don Giovanni” would have been “Ritterherren Johan.” How seductive is that?) So why blame Da Ponte? Even if he had no motive for killing Mozart, Da Ponte possessed an all-encompassing guilt that could fit into any conspiracy theory. In his remarkable, scandalous life (1749-1838), Da Ponte was a Jew, a defrocked Catholic priest, and an Ivy League professor. There’s something to offend everyone.

However, I personally suspect that Mozart was done in by his final opera. Try explaining the plot of “The Magic Flute”. You will either have a cerebral hemorrhage or get diabetes.

  1. Susan Lieberman says:

    Fascinating! It will not surprise you that I saw the Broadway production of Amadeus. But it still surprises me that I saw — and wrote an article for Theatre Crafts Magazine about the set design for — a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera.

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