What drives us to reconcile the unexplained with our desire to bring order to chaos? Making sense of the universe is nothing new, of course, but for a society that claims to be progressive and scientifically minded, we continue to believe in the most fantastic things in order to get down to the “real story.”
It’s why some of us continue to hunt for Bigfoot and Noah’s ark; or why that “shadowy image” poking out from above the hedges on the grassy knoll must be a “second shooter.” It’s also why Elvis has been spotted everywhere from Sydney, Australia, to Sin City, U.S.
“It’s cognitive dissonance,” says Dr. Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and the executive director of the Skeptics Society. “If we look at the death of somebody great, then the cause of death must be equally as great. If it isn’t, we’re uncomfortable with that.”
In short, we concoct theories to make ourselves feel better: Sam Cooke must have been bumped off by racist record-company executives intent on destroying the black singer’s emerging musical empire; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wasn’t suicidal — he was murdered for profit; Peerless soul singer/composer Donny Hathaway, who had rekindled his musical partnership with jazz/soul diva Roberta Flack, could not have taken his own life at the top of his game; and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was poisoned in 1791 by jealous competitor, Viennese court Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri — a terribly misguided view solidified by the success of Milos Forman’s 1984 film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, “Amadeus.”
“In the case of Mozart, this theory derives from Salieri’s insane episode at the end of this life when he claimed to have something to do with Mozart’s death,” explains Cliff Eisen, a music professor at King’s College London (University of London). “It was a very compelling story, so Alexander Pushkin wrote his 19th-century play [‘Mozart and Salieri’]. But there is no real evidence for this.”
More fantastic tales were spun about the great composer’s death: Some believed that the Freemasons, a society to which Mozart belonged, knocked off Mozart because his opera, “The Magic Flute,” revealed too many aspects of the Masons’ secret rituals.
“I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to think that there is nothing Masonic about ‘The Magic Flute,’” says Neal Zaslaw, Herbert Gussman Professor of Music, Cornell University (dubbed “Mr. Mozart” by the New York Times.) “But the attempt to portray it as solely or primarily Masonic, I think, is misguided.”
It’s entirely possible that Mozart suffered from kidney failure, which, ironically, would mean he was poisoned (by his own body, not Salieri). “Since the death certificate was, as they were at the time, nonspecific, this has given rise to any number of diagnoses over the years,” says Eisen.
We may never have an answer as to what exactly happened to Mozart, but that won’t stop people from speculating.
“As general guidelines about [these mysteries], people prefer the good story as opposed to the truth,” says Gavin Edwards, contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine and author of Is “Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed.” “Just the fact that Courtney Love is a half-crazy shrew doesn’t mean she killed her husband.”
Many compelling mysteries in the world of music have captured the fanciful imaginations of the public. Here are some of them: