In ‘CSI: Mozart,’ the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra puts the composer’s puzzling death to rest

(Thinkstock/Express Illustration)
(Thinkstock/Express Illustration)

Whether it’s “The Magic Flute” soundtracking a medical mystery on “House, M.D.” or “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” lightening the mood of a forensic investigation on “Body of Proof,” Mozart’s works have permeated pop culture. So perhaps it’s fitting that playwright Didi Balle has employed the police procedural format to help audiences hear Mozart with fresh ears — and figure out how he died.

For “CSI: Mozart,” at Strathmore and the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a medical doctor and six actors will share a stage and provide different perspectives on Mozart’s life and his mysterious death at age 35.

“It’s a whole new genre, really,” Balle says.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop will lead the staged investigation with the help of orthopedic surgeon William J. Dawson, author of several papers on Mozart’s death. In between musical excerpts and Dawson’s medical explanations, actors will re-enact episodes from the Austrian composer’s tumultuous life.

“Toward the end of his life, he had fallen from favor with the Viennese, who were a bit fickle,” Balle says. “There was a recession in Vienna, they were at war, and his concerts weren’t selling the way they used to.”

Things began to turn around for Mozart in 1791, when he won a flurry of commissions for new work. “That year, he wrote two full-length operas,” Balle says, “and he conducted the premieres six weeks apart in two different countries.”

Just as Mozart was composing some of his greatest works, including “The Magic Flute” and his unfinished “Requiem,” he fell ill. At first, he complained of a high fever and headache, but that soon progressed to swelling and pain in his hands and legs.

By the time Mozart died, his body has ballooned into comic proportions and stunk badly. Mozart’s doctor pronounced the cause of death “acute miliary fever” and called it a day.

That doctor’s cursory diagnosis, made without an autopsy, launched a cottage industry that’s produced more than 100 theories as to what killed Mozart. Could he have been poisoned by rival composer Antonio Salieri? Was it a cuckolded friend who did the deed? Alsop will interrogate the witnesses and sort through the competing theories — a job she’s well suited for, Balle says.

“I don’t want to say that Marin is a ham,” Balle says, “but it’s a requirement today for conductors to have the ability to talk to the audience, to tell a good story, and to share their insights into the music, and Marin is great at all of these things. This is a natural extension of what she already does.”

Whodunnit?

The 1984 movie “Amadeus” points a finger at rival composer Antonio Salieri, but there are plenty of other theories as to what caused Mozart’s sudden illness and death. A few favorites include:

Franz Hofdemel
Mozart’s friend and Masonic brother, Hofdemel may have poisoned the composer for having an affair with his wife. The evidence? A day after Mozart’s funeral, Hofdemel attempted to kill his five-months-pregnant wife and succeeded in killing himself. Hofdemel’s wife later named the baby after Mozart and her late husband.

The Freemasons
The secret society may have retaliated after Mozart gave away too much about their rituals in his opera “The Magic Flute.”

Pork chops
Mozart may have contracted trichinosis from his favorite food, a 2001 paper claims.

Vampiric habits
Mozart’s tendency to sleep all day and work through the night could have resulted in a vitamin D deficiency, which kept his body from fighting off infection, according to a theory proposed in 2011.

Doctors
Whatever his initial illness, the 2 liters of blood that doctors drained daily from the diminutive composer might have been what finally did him in, according to a 2010 paper.

Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; Fri., 8:15 p.m., $49-$83; 301-581-5100. (Grosvenor-Strathmore) & Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore; Sat., 7 p.m., $44-$73; 410-783-8000.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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