Mozart Skull Investigation Hits Sour Note

Sean Markey in Salzburg
National Geographic News
January 9, 2006
Call it the mystery of the decomposed composer.

Researchers announced yesterday that they failed to prove whether a skull locked in an Austrian museum since 1902 belongs to famed 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The scientists based their study on DNA analysis of the skull and bones exhumed from a Mozart family grave in 2004. But speaking in a documentary broadcast on Austrian state television last night, researchers said their efforts were inconclusive.

The Associated Press quoted Walther Parson, a scientist with the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck who led the investigation, as saying, "For the time being, the mystery of the skull is even bigger."

Austrian broadcaster ORF commissioned the study to mark the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth in Salzburg on January 27, 1756.

Common Grave

Doubt over the skull's true owner, long rumored to be Mozart, has shadowed the relic since it was first presented to the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg in 1902.

Part of the mystery stemmed from Mozart's unceremonious burial at an unmarked grave at St. Marx Cemetery outside Vienna in 1791.

To identify his remains, the cemetery's gravedigger is said to have fixed a wire to Mozart's neck when he was buried, according to the London Times.

When the gravesite was re-dug a number of years later, the laborer reportedly gave the skull to a friend. It passed through several more hands before it was finally given to the Mozarteum.

Hoping to resolve the mystery once and for all, researchers exhumed skeletons from a Mozart family grave at St. Sebastian Cemetery in Salzburg in fall 2004.

The small plot holds remains ascribed to Mozart's father, Leopold; maternal grandmother; and niece.

Scientists took samples from the thighbones of the skeletons for genetic testing.

But DNA analysis by researchers at the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck and the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Maryland, proved inconclusive.

The team found no link between the skull and the exhumed remains, nor among the remains themselves.

"The identity of the individuals concerned remains a mystery," Parson told Austrian television viewers last night.

Mixed Views

Since it began, the identification project has provoked mixed reactions among residents of Salzburg. The medieval city of 147,000 takes pride—and profit—from its status as Mozart's birthplace.

"[The] curious … want to know, Is it really Mozart's skull?" Maria Altendorfer, a city tourist official, said in an interview last year. Others "are saying, It's not good to open the graves after so many years. Let them rest in peace."

"But of course it's interesting, and I think I'm more for the curious side," she said.

Horst Reischenböck, a local music critic and tour guide, said the skull holds little interest for him. "For me, they should leave the dead in the graves," he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Genevieve Geffray, a librarian at the Mozarteum since 1973. (The foundation, which owns the skull, was not involved in the research project.)

"A skull cannot compose," she said. "It's not so interesting."

But some experts think the skull could offer valuable clues about Mozart's life and early death at age 35.

Most historians believe Mozart died from rheumatic fever. But the skull, should it ever be conclusively linked to Mozart, could open other possibilities.

In a similar but unrelated project, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory reported last month that x-ray analysis of skull fragments from Ludwig van Beethoven showed that the German composer died of severe lead poisoning.

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