Richard Powers: Mozart's Skull ... Should We Care If We've Identified It?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Powers is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Time of Our Singing."]

MOZART'S skull may or may not have been rediscovered, and you probably didn't even know it was missing.

Today, live on Austrian state television, scientists from the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck will declare definitively whether the skull held by the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg in fact belonged to the man whom many consider the most sublime composer who ever lived. In what reads like a pilot for a new spinoff - "CSI: Tyrol" - forensic pathologists, employing the highest of high biotech, compared genetic material scraped from the mystery Schädel with DNA gathered from the thigh bones of Mozart's grandmother and niece.

The results, determined last year and "100 percent verified" by a United States Army laboratory, have been held secret for the broadcast of the documentary "Mozart: The Search for Evidence" on this first weekend in the 250th year of Mozart's birth. After a quarter of a millennium, the bones of a man pitched into a common grave are suddenly world news.

Doctors, chemists and forensic pathologists have been prodding at the skull since it was acquired by the Mozarteum more than a century ago, hoping to shed light on the composer's mysterious last illness and death. The skull has come to embody the flurry of myths that swirl around this most inexplicable of humans. In every decade, researchers have vied for the last word about the man's death: rheumatic fever, Henoch-Schönlein syndrome, manic depression, infectious disease aggravated by bad medical treatment, a hematoma caused by a fall or blow to the head or even (the perennial popular favorite) murder.

These investigators have probed the skull as if its evidence might render Mozart's mind-boggling musical ability more understandable and thus less disturbing. That the skull exists separately from the skeleton at all is testimony to the 19th-century cutting-edge science of phrenology, and the habit among budding phrenologists of going about collecting the heads of geniuses.

This story follows another of a month ago, when researchers at the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory announced "solid evidence" that Beethoven suffered from lead poisoning. Fragments of Beethoven's skull (confirmed, of course, by mitochondrial DNA comparison with Beethoven's hair) were scanned by X-rays from the lab's Advanced Photon Source, which, according to a press release, "provides the most brilliant X-rays in the Western Hemisphere." (A test of such importance is clearly not to be outsourced.)

The test revealed large samples of lead concentration in Beethoven's bone sample, relative to a control. The Argonne team hinted tantalizingly that the accumulation of lead might account for the change in Beethoven's personality and music from his early 20's onward. Jay Leno's take: "Hopefully, the Beethoven family now finally has some closure."

Diagnosing art's unsolved mysteries with state-of-the-art medical knowledge is irresistible....

[But w]hat can the bones know that the notes don't? Forget the forensics and face the music. The mysteries hidden in Mozart's skull are everywhere for the hearing.

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