Every great composer, it seems, has a secret history we weren’t taught in our childhood piano lessons. Berlioz was high on opioids. Schumann spent the end of his life in a psychiatric facility. Wagner? Extremely racist and anti-Semitic.
But what about Mozart?
“Mozart was the child prodigy who composed some cheerful music,” Ricardo, a professor of music history in Mexico City, tells me. “But we also know he went through horrible situations, and yeah… he talked about weird butt stuff with his cousin.”
Mozart loved jokes about farts, butts and poop. In fact, there’s a whole wiki devoted to his scatological humor:
I asked a few leading Mozart scholars, historians and professors about the composer’s love of ass jokes. David Schroeder, author of Mozart in Revolt: Strategies of Resistance, Mischief, and Deception, says there’s “actually quite a lot” of evidence — and yes, the cousin thing is real. “Most of it is directed to a cousin of his — a young woman who was referred to as the Bäsle [little cousin], but her real name was Maria Anna Thekla [Mozart]. Pretty much all of the letters he wrote to her are just full of it.”
Take this goodnight greeting in one letter to Maria:
Well, I wish you good night
But first shit in your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove.
In German, Schroeder says, these all rhyme and are “quite a bit funnier.”
Schroeder tells me another “very famous joke in German [that Mozart] got a lot of mileage out of”: “‘Was kannst du tun das kann ich nicht?’ Which is ‘What can you do that I cannot?’ and the answer is ‘Leck mich das Mensch im Arsch’ or ‘Kiss my ass.’”
Mozart also wrote some musical canons, “like ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ kind of thing,” Schroeder says, “except a little more sophisticated. … He did use some scatological language for one or two works, but again, he was just having fun with them.” One such example is Mozart’s canon in B-flat Major, titled “Leck Mich im Arsch” or, translated literally, “Lick Me in the Ass.” (Here is a very proper choir performing it.)
Though these were simply common jokes at the time, Schroeder says, Mozart’s letters to his cousin take a more pointed and sexual turn. “I think with all the things about shitting in the bed and so on, those are just expressions,” Schroeder tells MEL. “Now, when he gets into some of the more sexualized language, especially with his cousin, then it becomes something a little different. Because, he may very well have had sex with her when he met her in Augsburg before he started writing all these letters to her. So that takes a different turn.”
For example, Mozart writes in the aforementioned letter to his cousin: “Oui, by the love of my skin, I shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin.”
In another, he makes a pun of her name, a rhyme on the year, and request that she “blow into his rear.” He then finishes the verse: “Nothing could be finer, bon appetit!”
I ask Ed Goehring, Vice President of the Mozart Society of America, whether this was Mozart simply being funny — or something hinting at a more complicated relationship. “I don’t know a whole lot about his relationship with his cousin,” he says. “But, yes, I think there was more sexual innuendo here.”
We may never know. The letters got heated enough for the two to invent their own language. And though Mozart eventually asked his cousin to bed, another lover entered Mozart’s life before anything happened — or so Mozart biographers would have us believe.
According to Schroeder, those involved with Mozart’s earliest biographies went so far as to “ink out” any scatological references at first. “It’s the kind of thing that for many years people [who] worked to produce the first biographies of him tried to suppress — this was not the kind of image they wanted to project for Mozart.
“We’ve got this notion of Mozart as being deeply spiritual,” he adds. “Religious people have made much of the spirituality in his music, and it doesn’t quite fit with that narrative if you have somebody using this kind of language. So, it’s not been easy for everyone to embrace how different and how complex [he was], and the different things going on with him.”
One great example is the tongue-lashing former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher allegedly gave Sir Peter Hall, head of the National Theatre, over his portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus, as reported in the Independent:
“I think it is disgraceful that the National Theatre shows Mozart uttering such obscenities, Mr. Hall,” [Thatcher] said, ignoring his knighthood, “a composer of such elegant and wonderful music.”
“But Prime Minister,” he protested, “it is actual fact that he did talk like that. He used four-letter words.”
“It is not possible,” she responded, “not from someone who could create works of such beauty.”
Some have even tried to explain Mozart’s behavior by theorizing he had a psychological disorder like Tourette syndrome. Schroeder and the Mozart experts I spoke to, however, vehemently disagreed with this assessment.
“Personally, I think that’s absurd,” says Schroeder. “It’s based much more on Mozart’s writing than his speech, and you certainly can’t make that kind of judgment about the way somebody writes. Even if he did use it in his speech, which he probably did, there’s nothing pathological about it. It’s not a form of disease, it’s simply the way he enjoyed talking at least to certain people. The idea of Tourette syndrome is that it’s an involuntary action, and that’s certainly not the way it was with him.”
Goehring adds, “For myself, attributing this to some psychological conditions is to practice a very cheap kind of psychology — as if this were a condition requiring diagnosis and treatment.”
“Maybe he was a very weird guy,” says Ricardo. “We know he spent a very, very, significant part of his life traveling, that he was playing quite a lot as a child to be shown as a prodigy all over Europe, that he was very busy as a grown man. It would not be shocking at all to see he was a little… odd.”
A Man of His Time
For the most part, Schroeder says, Mozart “was really pretty normal,” and that the language in most of his correspondence fits that of his contemporaries in southern Germany at the time. “Some of the greatest German writers used it as well. … In fact, German literature kind of started this way. One of the earliest well-known German writers, somebody by the name of Grimmelshausen, certainly includes it in his writing. In his most famous story, Der abenteuerlich Simplicissimus, the main character must learn the art of silent farting.”
Dr. David Buch, author of the article “Mozart’s Bawdy Canons, Vulgarity and Debauchery at the Wiednertheater,” agrees, saying even Mozart’s family loved a good fart joke: “Both he and his family appear to use this language freely, father and mother included,” he says. “It appears to have been a normal aspect of their communication and sense of humor.”
Buch argues in his article that Mozart’s “scatological language was relatively mild for the time and that accounts of the composer’s debauchery in his last years have little evidentiary basis. … These views are apocryphal, originating after Mozart’s death and embellished in 19th-century commentary and scholarship.”
In other words, this is all blown out of proportion, and trying to make Mozart into a scat man is simply the result of modern audiences trying to connect to the artist.
“Years after his death, the early romantics depicted Mozart as a Byronic hero, a debauchee producing elevated and pure art,” Buch tells MEL. “It was an image and a narrative from their own time, not from Mozart’s time.”
Buch adds, “The other aspects of his reputed debauched behavior (drinking, partying, gambling, womanizing, etc.) have absolutely no solid, direct evidence at all. These tales come from years after his death, from people who never really knew Mozart at all.”
Today, Mozart’s scatology is well accepted in music circles, Ricardo adds. “These days, the whole scat situation is not hidden or taboo, at all. There might have been a time when this was considered to tarnish his reputation, or to be too harsh for the classroom, but that’s not really the case today.”
Ricardo says Mozart’s scat humor is small pickles compared to Wagner’s complicated legacy. “Do I think less of Mozart because of the butt stuff? Not at all. It’s not a secret, but we focus on other stuff. … There are some cases for which the personal life of the composer is more polarizing, but I think it’s not the case for Mozart. Wagner, that’s where the controversial stuff is. That guy was a stupidly great composer, produced insanely gorgeous music … but he was also a very racist twat who goes on and on with stupid racist crap, and he was super-high on nationalism.”
As for the Mozart Society of America, Goehring says they don’t “have an official stance” on Mozart being into butt stuff. “How much any of this behavior helps us make sense of his music is another matter altogether — even with the more esoteric scatological canons, which were, after all, very marginal works of limited musical interest.
“And I’m pretty sure Mozart would agree, too: that [The Marriage of Figaro] was a much more significant musical achievement, and therefore said more about Mozart, than a canon.”
That canon, of course, being about eating ass.