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In My Good Books

What Happened to the Head?

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
21 January 2006

A report in this paper by Luke Harding (January 9) recounts the failure of researchers to match the DNA of a so-called Mozart skull kept in the Mozarteum in Salzburg with that of his niece and grandmother. None of the results coincided, and so the question of the authenticity of any of these remains was left open. The result was announced on Austrian television shortly before Mozart's 250 birthday. And in this way our own age is linked, not with Mozart's but with a period not long after the composer's death, when, as one of Mozart's biographers puts it, "respect for the dead was bound up with a curious interest in skulls in the Biedermeier period".

Goethe, we are told, retrieved Schiller's skull from the charnel house in Weimar and for a time kept it in his home, while Haydn's skull, stolen from his grave in 1809, the year of his death, found its way to the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna in 1895, where it was kept until 1954, when it was reburied in his grave in Eisenstadt.

The book I am quoting from is Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791 by Volkmar Braunbehrens, first published in English translation in 1986. It takes a good look at the various myths that have attached themselves to Mozart, and helps us see past some of them. Mozart had been buried in 1791, unmysteriously, according to the customs of his day. As a matter of public hygiene, all the dead of Vienna were laid in mass graves while their bodies decomposed, and were then dug up and their bones reinterred in roughly chronological order of death.

A few years later, burial customs had completely changed, and people had begun to be mystified at the absence of a grave for Mozart. An article bemoaning this appeared in 1799, and was reprinted in 1808. On that occasion, August Griesinger, later Haydn's biographer, decided to do something about it. He read the article to Mozart's widow, Constanze, who agreed to accompany him to the St Marx Cemetery in Vienna. On the way, she told him that "if it was the custom here as it is in some places to collect and display the bones of the decomposed bodies, she would recognise her husband's skull among the many thousands".

However, they found that the gravedigger who would have buried Mozart had been dead for many years, and that the relevant graves had already been dug up and reused. The bones and skulls were not set out in a charnel house, but were reburied. Griesinger says that "there was nothing we could do but inquire which rows served as a final resting place for those who died in 1791. The gravedigger could only tell us that it was the third and fourth rows down from the monumental cross which stands in the middle of the cemetery. No more information could be obtained."

So Constanze was never able to put her belief to the test, that she would have recognised Mozart from his skull. It is clear from the story that she had not ever seen fit to visit the cemetery. Mozart was buried at night, and none of the mourners accompanied the coffin from the funeral to the cemetery. So it is wildly improbable that anybody else had a better chance of identifying Mozart's skull than Griesinger and Constanze on this abortive trip.

Turning to Schiller's skull, we find that the poet, who died in 1805, was also buried in a mass grave and not disinterred until 1826 when the grave yielded 23 skulls. These were set out on a table. The mayor of Weimar pointed to the largest and said, "That must be Schiller's skull." It was this relic that Goethe kept for a while at home (he wrote a poem about it), on a blue velvet cushion under a bell-jar. But in 1911, the mass grave was raided again and yielded 63 more skulls to choose from. So there are two rival Schiller skulls, both at Weimar.

The history of these skulls, of Haydn's and of Beethoven's skull (which I see attracts 350,000 entries on the web), has nothing much to do with the history of music or poetry, but everything to do with the history of hero-worship and relic-hunting, of phrenology and indeed (in Haydn's case) of plain old body-snatching. And it is impressive to see that the Biedermeier taste for skulls is not dead. It seems strong enough to persuade the authorities to dig up a hero's relatives, on the flimsiest excuse. If a mystery can be concocted around it, this is the bit of the biography that has most enduring popular appeal: what happened to the body? What happened to the head?

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