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DIVERTIMENTI IN MOZART DEATH

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

. . . Later accounts of his last weeks tell of his working feverishly . . . at the Requiem, with premonitions of his own end . . . . At the end of November he was confined to bed, and attended by two leading Viennese doctors, Closset and Sallaba. He was nursed by Constanze and her youngest sister, Sophie. His condition seemed to improve on 3 December, and the next day a few friends . . . gathered to sing over with him parts of the unfinished Requiem. That evening . . . his condition worsened; Closset, summoned from the theatre, applied cold compresses; and just before 1 a.m., on 5 December, Mozart died.

--Stanley Sadie, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 1980.

Simple, yes? In the closing month of 1791, beset by the physical ailments of 35 difficult years, and encroached upon by new debilitations, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s body deteriorated and succumbed while his mind gave in to delusions, depression and paranoia.

Simple, no. Succeeding generations of musicians, literati and music lovers have studied the facts--such as were available at any given time--surrounding Mozart’s death, and have embellished upon them. Now, that death, the crucial event in both the play and the screenplay of “Amadeus,” has again become a subject of intense popular conjecture.

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While allegations that the composer was murdered are difficult to prove, they are not entirely unfounded, claims musicologist MaryAnn Bonino, director of the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood, and artistic director of several chamber-music series sponsored by the college.

“The mystery surrounding Mozart’s death has been the subject of endless controversy and conjecture, at least since 1830,” when Aleksandr Pushkin wrote “Mozart and Salieri,” Bonino says. At that time, Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s mentor and colleague, who allegedly killed the younger composer, had been dead only five years.

“Depending on what source you read,” Bonino continues, “Salieri’s deathbed confession--he died in an asylum--either finally admitted, or finally denied, the deed.”

At the end of the 19th Century, Rimsky-Korsakov used Pushkin’s “dramatic scene” as the basis for an opera (1898), also titled “Mozart and Salieri,” dealing with Salieri’s alleged poisoning of Mozart. Since then, the subject has never really been closed.

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Only one of the possible scenarios of such a murder is contained in Peter Shaffer’s screenplay for “Amadeus,” Bonino points out. In the film, as in Shaffer’s play of the same title, Salieri poisoned Mozart.

To consider the question “Who Really Killed Amadeus?” Bonino is producing an entertainment (for the Da Camera Society) Friday night in the Doheny Mansion on the downtown campus of Mount St. Mary’s College (for information: (213) 746-0450, ext. 2211).

This $100-per-ticket benefit for the society--sponsor of concert series like Chamber Music in Historic Sites--will be hosted by Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, UCLA music professor Robert Winter and Bonino.

Bonino insists there is an answer to the question in the title, but refuses to reveal a culprit. Instead, she promises that donors attending the event will have an opportunity to share in the answer.

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“Clues--like letters and other material evidence--will be placed around the entire first floor of the mansion. Robert Winter will be on hand to untangle any red herrings I may throw into the investigation. And, we will even stage a coroner’s press conference during the evening.”

Bonino says there may be as many as 20 suspects--including Mozart’s most famous contemporaries and colleagues, Haydn and Beethoven--up for consideration. The top three, of course, would be Salieri, Constanze (Weber) Mozart, the composer’s wife, and Franz Xaver Suessmayr, Mozart’s pupil and friend (who completed the Requiem after Mozart’s death).

“Constanze and Suessmayr may have been carrying on an affair,” Bonino reveals. “If so, that would provide their motive.”

Much is suspected, but little is conclusive, in studies of the composer’s death.

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Writing in the British journal, Musical Times, last August and October, Dr. Peter J. Davies, a Melbourne, Australia, physician, pointed out that Mozart, from childhood on, was never healthy. The list of his ailments runs into the dozens. And, in the final year of his life, he suffered from fainting spells, swollen hands and feet, depression, inflammation of the kidneys, polyarthritis, fever and diarrhea.

Add to these the spells of melancholy, delusions and paranoid symptoms to which Mozart was susceptible in his last months, and the idea that one of his associates actually murdered the composer may be almost superfluous. In fact, Davies claims the medical evidence is strongly against death by poisoning.

Instead, he says, Mozart died from streptococcal infection; Schoenlein-Henoch Syndrome (an allergic condition that leads to swelling of the skin and inflammation of the kidneys); renal failure; venesections; cerebral hemorrhage, and terminal bronchopneumonia.

Bonino has prepared a script for the Friday night event, and admits, “What we are doing might be called a theater game. Anyone who makes our list of suspects actually might have had either a motive or an opportunity.”

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Besides sleuthing, the benefit also promises music and food. Ensembles made up of members of the society will perform selected movements from works of Mozart during the evening. And the event will be catered by Larry Nicola, owner of the Silver Lake restaurant, L.A. Nicola.


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