A Mozartian pilgrimage (Vienna)

The day after Mozart died on 5 December 1791, his funeral took place in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, and his body was removed for burial to St Marx’s cemetery in a nearby suburb. No one cared to see or, later, to find out the last resting place of music’s greatest genius.

Records show that Mozart was sealed in a wooden coffin and buried in a plot along with several other people. A wooden marker was used to identify the grave. This was standard practice for middle-income families of the time and such burials were dignified and far from haphazard. At some point during the next decade Mozart’s plot was dug up to make room for more burials. The bones may have been re-interred in a communal grave elsewhere.

In 1829 the English musician Vincent Novello travelled to Salzburg and Vienna on a Mozartian pilgrimage of his own. He met Mozart’s wife, Constanze, and several people who had known the composer. Early one morning he visited St Marx’s to try to discover what he could about Mozart’s resting place. He accosted the Sacristan, who claimed to know nothing about Mozart. In his travel diary, published in 1955, Novello noted:

“The church, or rather chapel, is a very small one with only one altar and no side aisles, three windows on each side and no galleries… The only part of a very confined space surrounding the church which appears to be appropriated as a burying ground is on the left-hand of the church where there are a few grave stones stuck up against the surrounding walls… Flowers there were none, or I would have gathered some. I, therefore, plucked a few green leaves to bring away with as a memorial of my visit to this sad but interesting spot.”

In 1999 I visited the cemetery myself and it has, of course, changed. The chapel is no longer standing, but no one is unaware of the Mozart connection. But wherever Mozart lies, his skull may no longer be with him. It is alleged that a gravedigger “rescued” it during a re-organisation of that part of the cemetery, recognizing it by means of a piece of wire attached for that purpose. This seems highly improbable, unlike Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, who recognized “poor Yorick”, the court jester he knew as a child.

Skulldiggery or skulduggery? In 1902 a skull claimed to be Mozart’s came into the possession of the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg. Scientific tests have been unable to prove the case one way or the other. Scientists based their study on analysis and comparison of DNA in the skull and in bones exhumed from a Mozart family grave at St. Sebastian Cemetery in Salzburg. Curiously, there was no definitive match.

What does it matter? Not a whit. As H. C. Robbins Landon points out in his book 1791 Mozart’s Last Year, “His joys are our joys, his sorrows our sorrows… the Mozartian legacy, in brief, is as good an excuse for mankind’s existence as we shall ever encounter and is perhaps, after all, a still small hope for our ultimate survival.”


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