One of the most die-hard elements of the Mozart myth is the notion that he died impoverished and was buried, on a stormy night, in an unknown, common grave. The motif of the beggars’ grave is certainly an invention. At the time, it was usual to bury all, but members of the aristocracy, in such unmarked graves. The issue of poverty is rather more complicated. What did it mean to be poor in eighteenth-century Vienna? To what a degree was Mozart (1756-1791) poor and if he was poor in some sense, did this imply that he was a misunderstood genius?
In the eighteenth century, there was a huge concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, i.e., the aristocracy of the Habsburg Empire, which was around one percent of the population. This is not so much unlike the situation now. The big difference, though, is that nowadays, in the developed world at least, the huge majority of the population is middle class. In eighteenth-century Austria, the middle class, to which Mozart belonged, was around 2.5 per cent. Everybody else was living at or below what we would call the poverty line. The great majority of people were regularly short of food and would often wear their entire wardrobe on their backs.
Against this background, Mozart was definitely better off that ninety percent of the population. His life style moved in the course of his life between that of the middle-middle class to what has been described as “genteel poverty.”
Genteel poverty, though, could feel extremely degrading and humiliating, as Mozart’s letters show. Throughout his correspondence, there are pleas for loans and expressions of shame at not being able to repay on time. We read of incessant endeavours to secure funds – from giving concerts all over Europe and teaching lessons to desperate attempts at finding patronage and a position as a Kapellmeister.
In his letters, Mozart talks over and over again about the deeply-felt degradations he suffered at the hands of the Archbishop of Salzburg, with whom his father had secured him a position. He had his dinners in the servant area, where, as he remarked with bitterness, “I have at least the honour of sitting above the cooks” - but below the valets, it turns out. Whatever the dinner arrangements, his position was at least relatively secure, so he put up with constant verbal insults from the Archbishop – mainly along the lines of “scum” and “dim-witted little louse.” Eventually, though, he was – quite literally – kicked out.
The dates of the letters are revealing. We see Mozart keeping company to the servants in November 1778, while the previous month he had been lionized in Strasburg. As he wrote to his father: “Strasburg can’t get along without me. You have no idea how I am honoured and loved here. […] Everybody knows me.” Less than a decade later, in 1787, he wrote of the reception of his Figaro in Prague: “Here nothing is talked about except Figaro, nothing played, piped, sung or whistled except Figaro; no opera is attended except Figaro, always Figaro.”
In other words, nothing seems further from the truth than the idea that Mozart was an unappreciated genius. On the contrary, he achieved fame early on, as a child prodigy, and remained famous throughout his life. At the same time, fame didn’t always go hand in hand with fortune. The Archbishop of Salzburg was well-aware of Mozart’s European-wide reputation. He still judged that a commoner, talented or not, belonged among the servants. He showed not the slightest hesitation in calling the music genius of the century “scum” and dismissing him with a kick on the backside.
After moving from Salzburg to Vienna, Mozart never managed to find a stable position. His fortunes would thus continually rise and fall for the rest of his life. The nature of aristocratic patronage was such that musicians like Mozart found themselves in a permanently precarious situation. Being engaged to give a concert for an aristocratic audience in no way meant a guarantee of getting actually paid. The reward often took the form of being invited to a luxurious dinner and leaving empty-handed. What sense of pleasure Mozart derived from the honour of dining among exalted company, rather than being sent off to the servants’ kitchen, I don’t know. After some time, not much I imagine. As he wrote to his wife Constanze from Frankfurt: “I am famous, admired and loved here, it is true, but the people are worse than the Viennese in their parsimony.”
In our world, fame generally equals fortune. This must explain the rather pathetic attempts of people with not the smallest claim to talent of any kind to become famous. If anything what never ceases to amaze me is how often they do achieve fame and fortune. One has to imagine an eighteenth-century society and economy to realize that Mozart, largely seen by his contemporaries as the greatest musician of the century alongside Haydn, whose death was reported by the press across Europe, could have actually found it difficult to make ends meet.