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Mozart’s murder myth makes for masterful music

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Antonio Salieri.

On Nov. 15, Masterworks Chorale, conducted by Steven Karidoyanes, pairs Antonio Salieri’s Grand Mass in D with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart and Salieri are, of course, protagonist and antagonist of one of music’s more inextinguishable myths. The idea that Mozart was poisoned began with Mozart himself, who, during his final illness, was intermittently convinced of more nefarious causes. Rumors were being spread and denounced within a decade of Mozart’s death — ironically, the denunciations, which appeared in more widely read publications, only spread the rumors further. When, in 1823, Salieri was hospitalized, in poor health and suffering from dementia, Viennese scuttlebutt was that he had confessed to Mozart’s murder and then attempted suicide — gossip with enough buzz to be preserved in the conversation books of Salieri’s one-time student Beethoven.

Like most myths, the idea of Mozart’s murder thrived on its adaptability to numerous agendas. It originated in the rivalry between supporters of Italian opera and those preferring its German-language counterpart, a friction echoed in the wake of World War I. In the 1930s, Mathilde Ludendorff (wife of Erich Ludendorff, German general, nationalist, and Treaty of Versailles conspiracy theorist) combined the Salieri story and another conjecture, Mozart as victim of a Masonic hit job, into an elaborate, anti-German plot. Soviet musicologist Igor Boelza revived the murder hypothesis with a class-struggle twist, explaining seeming anomalies — Mozart’s pauper’s burial, the paucity of attendees at his funeral — as a Holy Roman cover-up, keeping Mozart’s death at the hands of a foreigner from the workers, lest they revolt.

The reality was a sometimes cordial, sometimes contentious relationship between a supremely talented outsider (Mozart, who moved to Vienna in 1781 after being fired by the Archbishop of Salzburg) and a consummate insider (Salieri, who spent two decades slowly climbing the ladder of Vienna’s official music hierarchy). The two would compete for jobs and commissions, and Salieri would occasionally pull bureaucratic levers that left Mozart complaining about intrigues and cabals, but, under the circumstances, it seems that the composers were on remarkably collegial terms. A few weeks before his death, Mozart took Salieri and his wife to see “The Magic Flute”; Salieri was entranced. “[F]rom the overture to the last chorus,” Mozart recorded, “there was not a single number that did not call forth from him a bravo!”

Masterworks Chorale, conducted by Steven Karidoyanes, presents “Mozart vs. Salieri,” Nov. 15, 8 p.m., Sanders Theatre, Cambridge. (Tickets $25-$45; www.masterworkschorale.org.)

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.