Pinchgut Opera, Salieri & Mozart – Medical Moments in Opera

Tom Hulce as Mozart and F Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus (1984)

Sydney based Pinchgut Opera has been uncovering some interesting health facts in their preparations for Salieri’s opera The Chimney Sweep, which they’re presenting in July at City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney.

This Opera is a premiering in Australia after more than 200 years. It is the first professional staging since the 18th century and Salieri is really a composer one can describe as “Mozart before Mozart became Mozart!”?

Eighteenth-century composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) has long been infamous as the rival alleged to have poisoned Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) – readers may have seen the very popular fictional film Amadeus on this subject. The rumours have no basis in fact; both composers were musical colleagues, simply competing for patronage, as was common at the time.

Antonio Salieri

Feelings seem to have been good between them, other than some healthy collegial rivalry, and Salieri continued to teach Mozart’s son after Mozart’s premature death at the age of 35.

Pinchgut is seeking to restore Salieri’s good name with their Australian premiere of The Chimney Sweep.

In preparing for these performances, a number of very interesting health links have surfaced; so many links, in fact, they began to wonder if it was worth holding a medical conference on the side!

Firstly, the influential physician, Johann Leopold von Auenbrugger, wrote the libretto for this opera.

A public figure in his time, Auenbrugger was famous for developing the technique of Auscultation, the term for listening to the internal sounds of the body to make a diagnosis.

Given the importance of listening in music, it was almost certainly a technique that arose from his musical knowledge and ability to differentiate tones quite accurately.

Auenbrugger’s daughters were well known to have been wonderful musicians and Josef Haydn dedicated a set of six sonatas to the two girls.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The name stuck and today those delighted keyboard works are known as the “Auenbrugger” sonatas.

Now to address the Salieri and Mozart rumours.

Recorded on Mozart’s death certificate is that he probably died from Hitziges Frieselfieber – a severe fever accompanied by a rash. No hint of misadventure at the hands of Salieri!

This infectious disease was doing the rounds of young men in Vienna during the early winter months of 1791 and caused disfiguring oedema as death approached.

Salieri assisting Mozart to complete his requiem - Tom Hulce and F Murray Abraham from Amadeus (1984)

Tom Hulce as the dying Mozart - Amadeus (1984)

Mozart died early in December, somewhat bloated.

This link to Mozart’s death has only come to light formally via a recent epidemiological study of all the individual death records in Vienna for the period 1790-1793 by a group of Dutch researchers, and published in 2009.

Whether it had anything to do with the unusual weather patterns on the southern fringe of Europe at that time is only speculation.

But we certainly know that many infectious diseases are sensitive to temperature and humidity for their onward transmission.

Pinchgut has discovered another health-related factoid in looking into the lives of chimney sweeps in research various aspects of their chosen opera.

Chimney sweeps were the first known group to be afflicted by a site-specific cancer.

First documented by England’s Sir Percival Pott (1714 – 1788), it was determined that the soot that collected around the groin in lowly paid sweeps – who had little access to washing facilities at home – caused scrotal cancer.

A grim end indeed!

Being a chimney sweep of the 18th century must surely be up there with the top occupationally hazardous professions, also predisposing many to respiratory cancers.

Fortunately for Pinchgut, the chimney sweep of their opera, young Australian tenor Stuart Haycock, has a good set of lungs and can fill a hall with a wonderful tune!

Anna McMichael, Guest Author, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Pinchgut Opera Presents
The Chimney Sweep

Antonio Salieri (1741)

Stuart Haycock
Amelia Farrugia
Frau Habicht
Alexandra Oomens
Janet Todd
Fraulein Nannette
David Woloszko
Herr Bär
Christopher Saunders
Herr Wolf
David Hidden

Conductor Erin Helyard
Mark Gaal
Emma Kingsbury
Luiz Pampolha

Orchestra of the Antipodes

Sat 5 Jul 7pm
Sun 6 Jul 4.30pm
Mon 7 Jul 7pm
City Recital Hall Angel Place

Libretto by Leopold Auenbrugger
Performed in the vernacular


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