Wednesday, 17 February 2016


As we have already seen in my posts on Haydn and Bruckner, Beethoven the Johann(es) (Brahms and Strauss II), such megalithic talents would exude not only a mass adoration, but also a lasting curiosity that would prevail even after death – creating an entire industry of quack medicine as contemporaries and later classical aficionados struggled to try to explain the seemingly other-worldly aura of genius that circumnavigated our beloved composers of yore like some sort of mystifying intellectual halo.

"The Anatomist Overtaken by the Watch in Carry'ng Off Miss W--ts in a Hamper," William Austin, 1773

Grave robber Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and his partner in crime Johann Nepomuk Peter attributed the presence of a so-called “organ of tune” – a protrusion of the skull above the brow thought to be indicative of inherent musical genius – on the heads of the great operatic masters of the classical age, not the least of whom was said to possess the ‘feature’ was the composer Joseph Haydn, whose skull Rosenbaum and Peter illegally possessed. 

The 'Brothers in Bumps Three': L to R: Ludwig van Beethoven, (Franz) Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang "Wolfie" Amadeus Mozart.

The composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were also a part of the “organ” phenomena, and, based solely on the likeness of both composers in portraiture, both composers found themselves (allegedly, in the case of Mozart) fall victim to the phrenology cult[1] that had peaked in Europe and across (the) America(s) in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Even cultural icons were thrown into the mix – Poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe purported to be in possession of both Mozart and Beethoven’s skulls at various times; while other, more sinister hands would cradle the fragmented skull of Beethoven throughout the height of the Second World War and it’s Nazi regime (as documented in Russell Martin's book "Beethoven’s Hair" (link in LIBRARY); also, read a record of travel by author William Meredith on this external link: THE HISTORY OF BEETHOVEN'S SKULL FRAGMENTS). 

Others were more lucky: composer and pianist Franz Schubert’s skull was exhumed at Vienna in 1863, and later re-buried with it’s host after research scientist Gerhard von Breuning documented the following observations: “[The skulls] seemed to reflect the characteristics of the composers’ works. The walls of Beethoven’s skull exhibit strong density and thickness, whereas Schubert’s bones show feminine delicateness."
Plaster-casts of the skulls of Franz Schubert, Franz Joseph Haydn & Ludwig van Beethoven; Alois Wittman; Beethoven-Haus, Bonn c. 19th century

Much like in the case of Haydn’s missing skull in the 19th century, Wolfgang Mozart’s cranium is also said to have been the unfortunate object of a nocturnal heist, although in "Wolfie’s" case, the culprit this time was not a wannabe scientist of note but rather, at least according to legend, the gravedigger who worked the grounds of the St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna where Mozart’s body was first laid to rest in one of the burial grounds’ common graves.

Mozart’s celebrated cranium was later said to have been acquired by the venerated anatomist Joseph Hyrtl, who, it is believed attached a note to the skull with the inscription “Musa Vetat Mori” – a promise to the future curator of the heisted skull of it’s supernatural protection: translated, the inscription reads: “The Muse Prevents Death”.

For a period of some 50 years, the skull of the classical icon Mozart could be found on display at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, who had first acquired, through confidential sources, the skull in 1902. It was later removed from display after public backlash due to its macabre nature – and the fact that the skull was said to haunt those who visited it. Although some damage to the skull, believed to have been caused pre-mortem have been linked to Mozart’s symptoms of headache and dizziness which were experienced by the composer during the final mysterious illness which prematurely took his life, later DNA tests, performed in 2006 (and which used DNA acquired from the cadavers of other members of the Mozart family for comparison) proved problematic. It’s not that the DNA of the alleged skull of Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t match with his kin per-sae – the test would show that the cadaverous members from which the scientists sourced familial DNA proved not to be Mozart DNA at all - opening up a huge can of worms and a giant question mark over the Mozart family tree.

To date, no one knows for certain the whereabouts of Mozart’s skull or whether the tale of it’s “absence” is purely one of folklore, and exhumation is not currently possible: to date, the memorial tablet at the St. Marx Cemetery is but a placeholderConstanze herself (Mozart’s widow) failed to locate Mozart or his mass grave when she searched for her late husband some 17 years after his death.  A temporary gravestone (where the tablet now stands) was erected in 1855 by the Cemetery in a presumed – yet unconfirmed - location of the grave.

[1]The false science that suggested the cranial structure of man dictated both character and personality. Adherents to this now defunct ‘science’ believed the brain to be a segmented ‘organ of the mind’, with each segments (‘mental faculties’) size determined by an individual’s propensity and capacity to convey certain personality traits, which they believed would form on a relatively proportional basis, and which could then, in turn, be determined by the informed observer by “reading” the “bumps and fissures” of the skull.

Navigate the pages in the book below* to read just one of many fascinating treatises on the quack ‘science’ of Phrenology (this one by author Louis Allen Vaught, published in 1902) to learn more about what motivated grave robbers like Rosenbaum and medical ‘scientists’ in the 18th century:

*This book is part of the public domain and is shared legally.


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