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Archive for August, 2009

mozart in 1777
Mozart in 1777
(Wikimedia Commons)

Mozart died in the early morning hours of 4 December 1791. He was two months from his 36th birthday. Official Viennese documents listed the cause of his death as "hitziges Frieselfieber" — meaning very high fever with rash, which describes the symptoms, not the cause. Over the centuries since his death, medical experts have tried to analyze exactly what it was that took Mozart’s life.

On Monday (17 August 2009), researchers from the University of Amsterdam added their theory to the list. They think it may have been complications from strep throat. They say that in December of 1791, Vienna was experiencing a minor epidemic of strep throat, and that it may have begun in the city’s military hospital.

This is the latest chapter in an ongoing mystery story. In fact, the public began second-guessing Vienna’s official paperwork and news reports almost immediately.

One newspaper account from late in December 1791 held sway for generations. It suggested that the real cause of Mozart’s death was poison — that someone did him in. Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory, and the early 19th century was more than ready to believe it.

They were able to find some corroboration, of sorts. In 1829, for example, an English music publisher interviewed Mozart’s widow, Constanze, then 67. She claimed that, though she herself didn’t think Mozart had been poisoned, Mozart had been convinced of it. She said he’d told her 6 months before his death that "someone has given me acqua toffana." Acqua toffana was an arsenic-based preparation.

Death Notice 1792
Death notice, 1792, unidentified newspaper
(Mozart Forum)

Mozart’s second son, Karl Thomas, was also sold on the poisoning story. He wrote years later that the painful and extreme swelling that Mozart experienced was a likely symptom of poisoning. He also pointed to Mozart’s acute foul odor around the time of death — he claimed this is the reason that the coroner didn’t carry out an autopsy — and to the fact that Mozart’s body allegedly didn’t stiffen after his passing. (It’s worth mentioning here that Karl was all of 7 years old when his father died.)

If Mozart really was poisoned, whodunnit? The most common answer: composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri allegedly confessed to the deed while ill and despondent; Beethoven’s conversation books (in which his guests wrote to him after he’d lost his hearing) contain exactly this report.

But other accounts suggest that these were nothing more than wild, unsubstantiated rumors. Certainly Salieri wasn’t prosecuted as Mozart’s murderer. Besides, what motivation would he have had? "Professional jealousy" gets the rap, but by that argument it would have made more sense for Mozart to have poisoned Salieri. After all, Salieri had a steady (and lucrative) court job, and Mozart had to scrape together pennies to pay his rent. Sad to say, by then Mozart’s career was on the wane.

If not Salieri, then whom? There was no shortage of other theories. Most of them tell us more about the writer’s attitudes than about Mozart. One rumor suggested that the Freemasons were somehow offended by The Magic Flute and its Freemasonry theme, and came after its composer. (Why not the librettist Schickaneder, too?) Others attributed his death to various alleged sinister cabals of Masons, Catholics, and Jews.

Some sources even suggested that Mozart poisoned himself. One story is that he was trying to treat a case of syphilis, and accidentally took too much mercury. This falls flat for the lack of evidence that Mozart ever had the disease. Another notion, maybe a bit more plausible, is that Mozart overdosed himself with patent medicines containing antimony.

If not poison, could it have been heart disease? Some newspaper obituaries mentioned "dropsy of the heart." Mozart did indeed suffer from edema in the weeks before his death, but his other listed symptoms don’t fit too well with that diagnosis.

One doctor’s report mentions "a deposit in the brain" — perhaps some kind of tumor. Intriguing, but again, the reported symptoms don’t support this notion.

One physician who had attended Mozart suggested "rheumatic inflammatory fever." A few years ago, this led physicians at the University of Maryland to an obvious conclusion: rheumatic fever. The University of Amsterdam researchers arrived at their strep throat theory by building on this diagnosis and by examining other health records from 1790s Vienna.

Over two centuries after Mozart’s death, the cause continues to fascinate and puzzle health experts. Since we have no way of exhuming his remains — the cemetery in which he was buried was later plowed — it’s not too likely that we’ll ever know for certain.

Further reading:

Strep throat may have killed Mozart from Reuters

What Killed Mozart? by Jan V. Hirschmann, MD

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Gershwin
George Gershwin in the 1920s (Library of Congress)

In 1920s America, Paul Whiteman was a bandleader and the self-proclaimed "King of Jazz" (a title which must have raised Louis Armstrong’s eyebrows, if not his hackles). On 3 January 1924 Whiteman announced that he planned an "Experiment in Modern Music" at Aeolian Hall in New York City. This concert would be a showcase for nearly every form of American music. It would include a new "jazz concerto" by George Gershwin.

The next day, Gershwin learned from the New York Times that he was composing a new "jazz concerto."

Odd way to receive a commission — from the newspaper — but Whiteman browbeat Gershwin into accepting it. The composer of Al Jolson’s hit song "Swanee" had 39 days to throw something together.

Between the time frame and his own keenly felt lack of experience, Gershwin wasn’t quite up to orchestrating the piece. So Whiteman collared his best arranger, Ferde Grofe, and persuaded him to do the deed. With Grofe’s help, on the 12th of February, a somewhat overly long "Experiment in Modern Music" suddenly snapped to life when Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue crackled through the audience.

Rhapsody in Blue was a smashing success. "Swanee" had made Gershwin’s name in America; now he suddenly had an international reputation.

So he wouldn’t have to rely on Grofe again, Gershwin began studying harmony and counterpoint in earnest. He traveled to Paris and called on Maurice Ravel, whom he knew had instructed other composers in orchestration. Ravel demurred: "Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"

Stravinsky also turned him down, but in Hollywood, Gershwin finally got Arnold Schoenberg to work with him on orchestration (when they weren’t playing tennis). Schoenberg muttered that, considering his income against Gershwin’s, maybe Gershwin should be giving him music lessons.

Taxi Horns
Taxi Horns
(Cambridge University Musical Society)

In 1926 Gershwin was in London for the opening of his musical Lady Be Good, and he visited Paris again in a side trip. He spent much of his stay there wandering round the city on foot. He not only explored the usual tourist sites, he also visited an auto parts store on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. When he returned to America, he brought back a few authentic Parisian taxi horns — and a jaunty "walking theme," just the tempo of his own Paris-traipsing gait.

So Gershwin had the opening of An American in Paris — but that was as far as he could get. He needed another, longer visit to La Ville-Lumière to tie down the rest of his "rhapsodic ballet." He got it in March of 1928. Such European musical luminaries as Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Milhaud graciously welcomed Gershwin. He also bought more taxi horns.

Gershwin was back in New York on 20 June and had the piano sketches for An American in Paris wrapped up within 6 weeks.

This time, Gershwin proudly orchestrated the work himself. It took him an agonizing 2 1/2 months. When he finished An American in Paris on 18 November, Gershwin had less than four weeks until the premiere. Walter Damrosch conducted it with the New York Philharmonic on 13 December, 1928.

So just who is the American in Paris? Gershwin tried to be vague. In August of 1928, he told a writer for Musical America magazine, "My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere."

But that’s exactly what Gershwin did in Paris in 1926 and 1928: he strolled the city, listened to its sounds, absorbed its atmosphere. "Write what you know," that’s the author’s axiom, and in 1926 and 1928, it worked for Gershwin. It would be awfully difficult to argue that anyone but George Gershwin himself was the American in Paris.

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Mozart
Mozart

About 15 years ago, a professor of psychology stirred up the music world with the idea that listening to Mozart could make you smarter. Before the decade was out, the work of Dr Frances H. Rauscher, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, had brought forth a veritable flood of pop-psych books, tapes, and CDs promising in newspaper inserts and on television infomercials to boost your brain (or your baby’s). One enterprising author even went so far as to trademark the phrase "The Mozart Effect."

Dr Rauscher had a group of college students mentally unfold a piece of paper and try to identify its shape. She found that the students who had listened to a recording of Mozart’s K448 sonata were better and faster at the task. Dr Rauscher published the results in the journal Nature in 1993.

There were only two problems with the Mozart Effect. One was that it didn’t last: the students only held on to their newly acquired spatial skills for ten or fifteen minutes. The other problem was that when other researchers tried to verify the effect, some just couldn’t. So, over the years since, the idea that Mozart can make you smarter has lost much of its credibility.

However, a recent study has found that the Mozart Effect is real — but only for certain people. It definitely works for right-handed non-musicians.

Psychologist and Royal Holloway PhD candidate Afshin Aheadi assembled her own group of 100 university students — half musicians, half non-musicians. She had them listen to the same Mozart sonata that Dr Rausher used. Then they viewed a drawing, and were asked questions about it which forced them to mentally rotate the image.

Aheadi found that listening to Mozart helped the non-musicians with the task, but not the musicians. It seems that it’s the right hemisphere of the brain which processes spatial information. That’s the part of the brain that music tends to grab — in non-musicians. In effect, the Mozart "revved up" their right brains.

The musicians didn’t get the same right-brain boost because musicians process music with both brain hemispheres. And although the trial didn’t include any left-handed non-musicians, Aheadi’s team theorizes that they too might not get much benefit from listening to Mozart. That’s because southpaws tend to use both hemispheres of their brains more equally.

And the musicians? Mozart does them no good? Well, not exactly.

True, they didn’t get an immediate boost in their spatial processing skills from listening to Mozart. But that’s because they already had it. Thanks to their years of music study, the musicians were better at spatial processing right from the start of the test, long before the researchers ever hit the go button on the CD player. That finding confirms what we’ve known for years: early musical training improves mental ability. And that Mozart Effect lasts a lifetime.

Further reading:

A Limiting Feature of the Mozart Effect at Royal Holloway, from Sage Journals Online

Music and spatial task performance in Nature (14 October 1993)

The Mozart Effect: A Closer Look at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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QuoteConcerts used to be much more of a free-for-all … Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten that great music can be rude and visceral; we have put conductors on pedestals, and turned our audiences into passive subjects.

– Charles Hazlewood, The Guardian

Further reading:

Why classical concerts need a breath of fresh air in The Guardian

Play the Field, "a new breed of orchestral festival"

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