H.C. Robbins Landon comes to 1791: Mozart’s Last Year with a mission to debunk the myths and rumors about Mozart’s death reignited by the popularity of the play and movie Amadeus. In this book, Landon examines the Mozart family’s personal letters and records, as well as the letters and records of their contemporaries, in an attempt to reveal the truth behind the many rumors about Mozart’s death.
As the title implies, Landon focuses more on Mozart’s death than his life. Was the genius musician really destitute at the end of his life? Was he really visited by a ghostly presence that told him to write his own “Requiem?” How did he really die? Was he murdered by Salieri? Landon takes on all these questions and more, and answers them with various degrees of satisfaction.
One of the world’s leading Mozart scholars, Landon assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the part of his readers. Presumably, the readers already know about Mozart, Amadeus, and Vienna in the 1790s and have already formed their own opinions. Though the author argues persuasively against popular rumors, he would do well to provide more background for his readers who are not academics or experts on Mozart.
Landon follows Mozart’s life and career from Frankfurt to Vienna to Prague, examining personal letters, financial records, and diary entries—from the Mozart family and others—to trace the great musician’s path. Although the records do not always form a coherent picture, it is valuable to see how well the prevalent beliefs about the composer hold up against what evidence there is.
Landon shines in examining Mozart’s relationship with his contemporary, Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn. Although Haydn was older and richer than Mozart, the two were close friends and career rivals, sometimes competing for the same commissions and honors. By comparing the two composers, Landon shows how Mozart’s life as a musician looked alongside one of his few peers and gives readers a peek into the fiercely competitive world of the 18th-century musicians.
Another valuable insight 1791 provides are the translated letters between Mozart and his wife, Constanze, who was pregnant during the final year of his life. The letters are printed in long excerpts and sometimes shown in their entirety. Mozart’s writings are at turns concerned, amusing, sweet, and even smutty, showing a shockingly personal look into both his career and his married life.
“Adieu—dear—my only one—take them as they fly through the air—2999 ½ kisses are flying, waiting to be snapped up,” Mozart wrote in one letter.
Landon’s efforts to disprove popular myths about Mozart’s life and, especially, death come to their fulfillment in the final two sections of the book, titled “Myths and Theories” and “Constanze: A Vindication.”
“Constanze Mozart is perhaps the most unpopular woman in music history,” Landon writes. “For the last hundred years or so she has been subjected to an increasingly slanderous series of attacks: she was a sex kitten, she was a superficial, silly woman incapable of understanding Mozart, she mismanaged the household finances and encouraged him to live a scatterbrained, if not absolutely dissolute, life.”
He goes on to disprove the slander while acknowledging its beginnings, concluding, for example, “Constanze started her marriage with Mozart as a silly and irresponsible girl, but under his tactful guidance, and even more under the wise diplomatic eye of [second husband Georg Nikolaus] Nissen, she improved and became, towards the end of her life, a good citizen and mother.”
After walking the reader through Mozart’s last year of life, Landon evaluates the plausibility of rumors and theories about the composer’s life and death. He looks especially closely at the rumor that Salieri murdered Mozart, drawing on records from musicians of the 1820s—Beethoven’s contemporaries—who met with Salieri before he died, as well as Salieri’s own letters and records.
Landon concludes, based on letters from Mozart’s physicians and modern doctors’ interpretations of their findings, that Mozart died of a streptococcal infection he contracted in childhood.
Unfortunately, like much of Landon’s writing, this new analysis of Mozart’s death will be difficult to decode for those who are not medical professionals—terms like “exanthem,” “uraemia,” “conjugate gaze,” and “terminal bronchopneumonia” abound.
The final section of the book is given to a surprising, but welcome, subject: Constanze. Although Mozart’s wife infrequently appears in the bulk of the book—mostly as the addressee of Mozart’s personal letters, printed to show his travel plans or financial straits—Landon uses his final chapter to sketch a portrait of an infamous, enigmatic woman, and attempt to debunk persistent myths.
“Myths will continue to pursue Mozart,” Landon writes. “Amadeus, play and film, has already created another, and it may prove difficult to dissuade the public from the current Shafferian view of the composer as a divinely gifted drunken lout, pursued by a vengeful Salieri.”
“By that same token, Constanze Mozart, she (in the film) of extraordinary décolleté and fatuous giggle, needs to be rescued from Shaffer’s view of her,” Landon adds.
Landon’s defense of Constanze is impassioned and convincing, but, unfortunately, less than 20 pages long. Ultimately, the reader may come away from 1791: Mozart’s Last Year with more questions than answers—questions about what Landon’s analyses mean, how much it’s actually possible to know about Mozart based on the scant records and persistent rumors, and, finally, a desire to learn more about Constanze.
Erika W. Smith is a freelance journalist who is a regular contributor to BUST Magazine.