Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mozart, Mesmer and medicine

James L. Franklin


Paper given at the Chicago Literary Club on February 16, 2004

As a physician, I have long been interested in representations of medical topics in literature, art and music. Examples quickly come to mind: the world of the tuberculosis sanatorium in “The Magic Mountain” of Thomas Mann or an epidemic in “The Plague” of Alfred Camus. In the visual arts we might think of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson” in the Mauritshuis or Thomas Eakin’s “The Gross Clinic” of 1885 depicting the distinguished surgeon Samuel D. Gross in mid-operation. As an amateur musician I have been particularly interested in the intersection of music and medicine. Two examples, the musical friendship of Theodore Billroth and Johannes Brahms and the consultation that Gustav Mahler sought with Sigmund Freud in 1910, have been the topics of papers I have presented to the Chicago Literary Club.
In literature the specifics of a disease or an epidemic can be presented in an objective fashion that allows us to see their human and societal features. If the author is a physician himself, for example Anton Chekhov, his observations take on greater credence and authenticity. In the visual arts, the depiction of an illness or some aspect of medicine or medical practice can be the topic of the work of art or figure in some detail of a painting that might not have even been the focus of the artist. Examples cited in the medical literature have included rheumatologic and endocrine abnormalities noted by modern clinical observers in Renaissance works of art and orthopedic deformities or prosthetic appliances found in the populous canvases of Bruegel.

Music, because of its largely abstract quality, confronts us with a different set of concerns. The study of the biographies of great composers and their medical illnesses is of general interest, yet we may question if the information leads to a greater understanding of their music. We marvel at the achievement of Beethoven knowing that during the last decade and a half of his life he could not hear his own playing on a pianoforte. We speculate that his handicap, which forced him to give up concertizing, enhanced his achievements as a composer.

Few works of instrumental music can inform us about disease, but there are examples. Bedrich Smetana, in the finale of his first string quartet in E minor, subtitled “From My Life,” inserts a high sustained high “E” in the first violin part depicting the whistling in his ears that presaged his eventual deafness. Gustav Mahler, in his Sixth Symphony (The Tragic), depicted the three hammer-blows that fate had dealt him in life which included the diagnosis of valvular heart disease. This led to his demise from subacute bacterial endocarditis in 1911. There are those who also read into a repeated and syncopated solitary “A,” played by the cello section in the opening measures of his ninth and last completed symphony, the irregular rhythm of his own diseased heart.

Opera and lieder (song) with their specific text and dramatic possibilities present us with a greater range of material: tuberculosis in Verdi’s La Traviata, in Puccini’s La Boheme and in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman; mental illness in Donizetti’s Lucia da Lammermoor, and cholera, which had repeatedly ravished 19th century Europe, in Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice and in Alban Berg’s Lulu.

In the finale to the first act of Così fan tutte, “that third and neglected step child” of the collaboration between Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a scene occurs that caught my attention, as an example of this convergence of music and medicine. It is necessary to reacquaint ourselves with the story of the opera and the scene in particular so as to explore the questions raised by the text.

Così fan tutte

To set the scene: The opera opens in a café in Naples. Ferrando and Guglielmo, two army officers, are passionately arguing with the elderly philosopher Don Alfonso for the constancy of their respective fiancées, two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella from the town of Ferrera who are living in Naples. (Their city of birth is a reference to Da Ponte’s mistress, Adriana Ferrarese, who was to sing the opera’s the first Fiordiligi.) The officers are ready to draw swords with the older man on this issue of contention, but he refuses, likening the fidelity of women to the “Arabian Phoenix”; “every one says it exists but where it is, no-one knows. . . .” When Don Alfonso proposes a wager, the officers eagerly accept and propose a sum of one hundred guineas, even offering a thousand if he likes. They agree to his terms of complete cooperation and rejoice at the pleasure they will have spending their winnings. We then meet the sisters, Fiordilighi and Dorabella, in their home. They are being informed by their suitors of their immediate departure to war and are asked to remain faithful and to write every day. Enlisting help from their maid Despina, Don Alfonso seeks to introduce the now grief-stricken ladies to his two wealthy friends, in reality our two officers now disguised in elaborate costumes with moustaches as Wallachians or perhaps Turks. The merchants, wasting no time, declare their undying love to the sisters but are indignantly rejected. Ferrando and Guglielmo exalt in having already won the bet, but Don Alfonso cautions patience.

We now come to the scene that caught my interest. In the finale to the first act of the opera, the disguised officers return the next morning and pretend to drink vials of arsenic. Bemoaning the cruelty of the women they fall lifeless to the garden floor. The ladies now horrified by the gravity of the situation, call to their maid Despina for help. She hastens to seek a doctor and an antidote.

Despina returns disguised as a doctor and enters characteristically spouting learned pigeon-Latinate phrases. “Salvete amabiles bonae puellae,” she untranslatably intones. The ladies are unable to understand her and the learned “Doctor” responds, “As you command, I know Greek and Arabic, I know Turkish and Vandal; Swabian and Tartar I can also speak.” The omnipresent Don Alfonso calls on her to keep the languages to herself and observe the miserable creatures who have taken poison and “what can be done?” With requisite professional bearing, “The Doctor” intones, “I need to know first the reason and then the nature of the potion; whether it was hot or cold, a little or a lot, all at once or in many doses.” The sisters observe that “The Doctor” is producing a metal object from his black bag. “The Doctor” proclaims: “This is the famous piece of magnet, the Mesmeric stone, which had its origin in Germany and then became celebrated in France.” The treatment is applied with Despina playing her part to the hilt, entreating the patients to be brave. The victims twitch and convulse and are revived. The merchants awaken and, at the sight of the sisters, begin to court each other’s fiancée; Guglielmo trying to kiss the hand of Dorabella and Ferrando the hand of Fiordiligi. Don Alfonso and “The Doctor” assure them that this is the effect of the poison. (Importantly, prominent trills in the woodwind instruments depict their convulsive response to the treatment, signaling the concordance of the librettist and composer on the content of this scene.)

As the opera continues, the virtuous ladies succumb to the advances of the merchants and the ever-resourceful Despina now arrives as a lawyer, “Beccavivi.” She reads the marriage contract for joint matrimony which is to be signed between the Albanian noblemen identified for the first time as Sempromino and Tizio to Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively.

(If you have had difficulty keeping the characters straight; you are in good company. Examination of the autograph score reveals that Mozart at times confused which vocal part he was writing for which character and had to correct the names.)

Events rapidly move to a conclusion as the sound of a military band is heard and the return of the army is announced. The Albanians are quickly hidden off stage by the terrified sisters. They conveniently return as the brave officers with the remnants of their disguise, having sustained injuries to their pride since for each man, their intended has succumbed to the other’s advances. As the conspiracy is quickly unraveled, it remains for Don Alfonso to counsel forgiveness, reason, and humor in the face of the whirlwinds of the world.

What are we to make of this scene with its physician in disguise and the invocation of the famous Dr. Mesmer through the Mesmeric stone? We may ask: who was Mesmer? How did he find his way into this opera? Was it Da Ponte or Mozart who suggested this scene? What precedent did they have for this doctor spoof? How did Da Ponte and Mozart come to write this opera? The answers to these questions provide insight into the medical culture of the late 18th century in Vienna and France. In answering these questions we will also learn the tale of a blind pianist, of an unusual musical instrument and of a royal commission headed by a founding father of our country.


Let us begin with the doctor. Franz Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in the town of Iznang in a region known as Swabia located near Lake Constance. His father served as a game keeper or forester to the Prince Bishop of Constance. Through this service he was able to secure a Jesuit education for his son. It was intended that young Mesmer might enter the priesthood when he enrolled in the Jesuit University of Ingolstadt, but his studies which continued in philosophy, law and astronomy took him far afield. He decided to study medicine and enrolled in the Medical Faculty of Vienna. In 1766, at the age of 32, he graduated, writing his thesis for the degree of doctor of medicine, entitled Dissertatio physico-media de planetarium influxi, in Latin. He was intrigued by the theoretical possibility that the gravitational forces of the universe influence the health of humanity. His formulations reflect a “Nature Philosophy” that believed scientific conclusions could be derived from philosophical ideas rather than from empiric observations. The subsequent events in his professional career can be understood as a stubborn adherence to this doctrine.

Within two years he married a rich widow, Anna Maria von Posch, a woman of noble descent living in a mansion in the Landstrasse suburb of Vienna. The marriage provided him with wealth and status he would not have easily attained through work as a physician. The relatives of Anna von Posch must have had reservations about her choice of a spouse, ten years her junior, when they allowed Mesmer access to her fortune to support his life style but excluded him from inheritance of her estate. The Mansion in Landstrasse was noted for its gardens, groves, walks and fountains also included a small outdoor theater. Mesmer cultivated performance on the cello, clavichord and the glass harmonica.


Glass Harmonica
Since Mesmer was to incorporate the glass harmonica as an adjunct to his therapeutic techniques, and as it was known to Mozart and his family, it is desirable to present some background on this instrument. The production of musical tones from glass vessels of varying size or filled to varying degrees with water by a variety of methods including, striking, rubbing and bowing, was known from antiquity. Diderot in his famous enlightenment encyclopedia referred to the use of musical glasses in ancient Persia. We cannot credit Benjamin Franklin with its invention as is sometimes alleged, but in a letter sent from London on July 13th, 1762 to Gambista Beccaria, he describes the manufacture of this instrument consisting of a series of glass bowls fastened through their center to a metal rod and mounted in a stand and looking to us in drawings or photographs somewhat like a “Singer Sewing Machine.” The rod could then be rotated by a pedal device, the bowls being moistened by water and touched from above by the performers hand. Franklin referred to the instrument as an “Armonica” dropping the “H” to give it an Italian flavor. Marienne Davies, a virtuoso of who popularized the instrument in Europe, had contact with Anton Mesmer and demonstrated the instrument to the Mozart family in 1773. A blind performer Marianne Kirschgessner also became famous in Europe between 1790 and her death in 1808. In the last year of his life, Mozart composed a Quintet, K. 617, for her which was scored for the armonica, along with flute, oboe, viola and cello. The popularity of the instrument peaked in the early part of the 19th century with concern over the possibility that it might have adverse effects on mental health. The virtuoso performer Marianne Davies for example, ended her life in a mental hospital. It is of particular interest that Gaetano Donizetti initially scored the mad scene in act II of his opera Lucia Di Lammermoor to include a glass harmonica.


In 1768, the lives of Mozart and Mesmer converged. Leopold Mozart brought his two children, Nannerel, aged sixteen, and Wolfgang, aged twelve, to the capital of the Hapsburg Empire for the second time. Earlier, in 1762, the six-year-old Wolfgang had appeared in the imperial court and delighted the Empress Maria Theresa. As is often recounted, it was during this visit that he was helped by the Archduchess Maria Antonia (later to be Maria Antoinette), when he slipped on the polished floors of the Schonbrunn Palace.

The timing of this second visit was less propitious. The plague had descended on the Austrian capital in 1767 forcing them to delay their visit for one year. The palace was in a state of mourning and though Leopold and his family were received by the Empress, he did not obtain the commission, pensions or appointments he sought. Perhaps the novelty of the Wunderkind with velvet waist coat and powdered wig had worn off. The co-emperor Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa, did come to their aid and suggested a commission for Mozart to write an opera for the Vienna opera house. The result, La Finta Semplice, was an Italian opera buffa. The impresario, Giuseppe Affligio, having no royal financial backing lost faith in the project and although rehearsals had actually begun, it was withdrawn from production. Leopold Mozart saw a conspiracy in the objections raised to the opera which included that it was too complex, and that it was too good to have been composed by a juvenile and therefore the work of someone else.

Since La Finta Semplice was too large a work for private performance, Franz Anton Mesmer came to their aid and commissioned a new work by Mozart selecting the setting of a play already familiar in the Viennese theater, Bastien und Bastienne, as a German language singspeil. The story derives from a work of Jean Jacques Rousseu: Le Devin du Village. One wonders if it might have appealed to Mesmer, as it features a magician who brings a wayward shepherd back to his blushing maiden. (You will often read that the opening theme of the opera’s overture prefigures the opening of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. This is purely coincidental as it is unlikely Beethoven ever heard music.)

Leopold’s correspondence does not document the response to the performance of the work in the Autumn of 1768. Leopold and his family returned Salzburg and they did not see the Mesmers again until 1773. In that year, he wrote to his wife in Salzburg:

“The Mesmers are all well and in good form as usual. Herr von Mesmer, at whose house we lunched on Monday, played for us on Miss Davie’s harmonica or glass instrument and played very well. It cost him about fifty ducats and is very beautifully made. His garden is extremely fine, with views and statues, a theater, an aviary, a pigeon-house and, at the top, a belvedere looking right over the Prater.”

It was during this visit that we learn of the first of two notable patients of Mesmer. The first, Franziska (Franzl) von Osterlin, may have been a relative of Frau Mesmer and was 27 years of age when she came to live in the Lanstrasse mansion. She was quite ill, suffering from fifteen distinct symptoms according to Mesmer which included paralysis, persistent vomiting and urinary retention. Leopold’s correspondence portrays a desperate situation. He found “Fraulein Franzl in bed. She is really very much emaciated and if she has another illness of this kind she will be done for!” Three weeks later she had improved and found time to knit a “red silk purse for Wolfgang which she gave as a remembrance.” Nine days later he reports to his wife: “Fraulein Franzl has now had a second relapse from which she has again recovered. It is amazing how she can stand so much bleeding and so many medicines, blisters convulsions, fainting fits and so forth for she is nothing but skin and bone.” Leopold Mozart fully expected her to die.

In 1774, Mesmer heard of the therapeutic use of magnets by English physicians. He induced Fraulein Franziska to swallow a preparation containing iron and then attached magnets to her stomach and legs. The patient eventually improved greatly and within three years, she married Franz Paula von Posch, Frau Mesmer’s eldest son of her previous marriage. Mesmer postulated that the “magnetic fluid” emanating from his own body was responsible for her cure.

A letter that Wolfgang wrote to his family when he arrived in Vienna in 1781 reports in March 17th of that year:

“Where do you think I am writing this letter? In the Mesmers’ garden in Landstrasse. The old lady is not at home, but Fraulein Franzl who is now Frau von Bosch, is here and asks me to send a thousand greetings to you and my sister. Well upon my honor, I hardly recognized her; she has grown so plump and fat. She has three children, two young ladies and a young gentleman.”

Mesmer’s success with Fraulein Franzl led him to a collaboration with the Royal Astronomer in Vienna, Professor Hell, who fashioned magnets of various shapes for application to different parts of the body. He toured Bavaria and demonstrated his skills in front of the Elector of Munich and thereby expanded his public recognition as a healer. Thus, when he returned to Vienna his growing reputation began to arouse the hostility of his medical colleagues.

As an indication of Mesmer’s growing reputation, in 1777, Mozart wrote to his father Leopold to discuss the possibility of asking Mesmer to write a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette that might be useful to Mozart in his upcoming journey to Paris.


Maria Theresa Paradies
The year 1777 marks the date that Mesmer undertook the treatment of a second patient, the blind pianist Maria Theresa Paridies,1 whose life was also to intersect with that of Mozart. She was three years younger than Mozart. Not insignificantly, she was named after the Empress who also was her godmother, since her father, Joseph Anton von Paradies, was secretary to the Court Chamber of Commerce, later secretary to the Austrian Court Chancellery and lastly councilor of the Lower Austrian Government Board.

She appeared at first to be a normal child but at the age of three, she woke up one morning and was unable to see. Her family, with the support of the Empress, sought help from the most notable physicians of the Vienna Medical Faculty. She had also demonstrated unusual musical gifts, performing at an early age as a pianist and singer. In 1770 she performed the soprano part in Pergolesi’s Sabat Mater before the Empress Maria Theresa. The Empress had awarded her an annuity said to be 200 ducats a year. Her musical education and keyboard skills were fostered by Leopold Kozeluch, who was a recognized master in Vienna and popular both at Court and with the public.

Because Mesmer’s reputation for cures had spread among the Viennese public, the parents of Maria Theresa approached her physician, Anton von Stoerck, with the request that he refer her to Mesmer for treatment. Stoerck, president of the Vienna Medical Faculty, had, as a fellow Swabian, been Mesmer’s friend, teacher and a witness at his wedding. We would regard the referral as being somewhat half-hearted since Stoerck told them that Mesmer’s treatments could not hurt her.

The Medical Faculty in Vienna, with whom Mesmer was beginning to come into conflict, had been organized under the direction of the Empress Maria Theresa in 1748. The Empress had appointed Gerhard van Sweiten2 to be the president of the Medical Faculty and had been given him a mandate to form a new faculty of medicine. He had been one of the leading pupils of the famous Dutch physician, Hermann Boerhave, in Leiden. Because Sweiten was a Catholic, he could not expect to succeed Boerhaave in the Protestant Netherlands. Anton de Haen, another pupil of Boerhaave, notably advocated the use of electro-therapy in nervous aliments and may have played a role in the treatment of Maria Paradies. The Vienna Medical Faculty also was distinguished as having the first department of ophtalmology of any European University. Its first head, Professor Joseph Barth (another of her physicians), is referred to in an article “Sketches of the Medical School of Vienna” published in London in 1819 in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine and Surgery, as having “no publications in the branch of eye surgery.” His successor Professor Joseph Beer, a real authority in the history of ophtalmology, describes Barth as “insufferable, of an arrogant disposition and having alienated every subalternate who was not welling to kiss his boots.”

Mesmer had been familiar with the blind pianist, Maria Paradies, since her case had been demonstrated to the faculty and students during his training. It was the general consensus that the optic nerve was undamaged and that there was no fundamental reason why she could not see. (It is uncertain how this could have been known since visualization of the ophthalmic nerve had to wait almost seventy-five more years for Herman Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz’s discovery of the ophthalmoscope in 1851.)

In addition to the presence of amaurosis (blindness), when Mesmer began his treatment he found that his patient suffered from spasms of her eyes, depression and transports of delirium. To make matters worse, she had received what would seem to us to be horrific treatment at the hands of her prior physicians. She had been treated with the application of a plaster cast of her skull and face that had caused a suppuration of her eyes and had also been given a series of over 3000 painful electrical shocks to her eyes during the prior year. Her face and eyes were described as being contorted and deformed with spasm to the extent that they appeared asymmetrical to both her parents and to Mesmer.

In 1777, Maria Paradies, then age 18, had been without sight for 15 years. Mesmer dispensed with all prior treatment and began a process which included developing rapport with his patient, assuring her that no painful operations or gadgets would be employed. Mesmer’s therapy consisted of the transmission of “Animal Magnetism” through what we might refer to as the laying on of hands. These measures were reported to have met with rapid signs of improvement and the patient was able to follow a wand and eventually perceive the doctor’s face. Mesmer also mentions painful visual sensations associated with the resumption of vision after so many years. He urged the parents to allow their daughter to remain in his clinic to facilitate treatment. It was also at this time that her father was moved by these results to write a testimony to the success of the treatment.

One unintended consequence of her beginning to regain her sight was that the accuracy of her keyboard playing deteriorated and she became self-conscious in front of an audience. Her parents began to turn against Mesmer who suspected that they were being influenced by Barth, the ophthalmologist of the Vienna Faculty who had failed to help her. Barth disputed the effectiveness of the treatment because of her apparent confusion in naming objects. Mesmer attributed the confusion to her not having the use of sight since early childhood. Perhaps her father resented her dependence on another man or even the fear that if her sight was restored and her musical gifts diminished, she might lose her pension. The antagonism with her parents reached a climax when her mother came to the clinic and demanded the release of her daughter and began screaming and stamping her feet when Mesmer refused. The patient, observing this scene, was apparently thrown into a convulsion. The mother berated her and according to Mesmer hurled her into a wall. The father arrived with a drawn sword and the servants had to struggle to disarm him. In Mesmer’s own words, “he finally rushed from the house calling maledictions on me and everybody on the premises.”

These scandalous events reached the ears of the Empress, and von Stoerck, writing from the palace on May 2, 1777, ordered Mesmer “to cease this imposture” and return the patient to her parents. Mesmer claimed the patient was now too ill to be returned to her parents and this fact at was confirmed by a court physician sent to verify his claim. Mesmer was able to resume treatment and the patient again began to improve. Finally her father was able to get her out of Mesmer’s hands promising to bring her back as an outpatient. Not surprisingly she never returned to Mesmer’s care and relapsed into blindness for the rest of her life.


Paradies and Mozart
While the existing correspondence of Mozart does not mention Maria Paradies, it is quite likely that when he took up residence in the city in 1781, he encountered her in salons or heard her play in concerts. It is also likely that they knew each other as she taught students from the same class of society. In 1784, as part of a tour, Maria Paridies and her mother journeyed to Salzburg on their way to Paris. Through the writings of Mozart’s sister we know that they visited the Mozart household at the same time that Wolfgang and his wife Constanze were there visiting with his father. It is believed that during this visit Mozart promised Paradies a piano concerto for her performances in Paris. The concerto he wrote is generally thought to be No. 14 (K. 456) in B flat major, which has been named “Paradis.” There is a famous letter of Leopold Mozart, dated February 13th, 1785, Vienna to his daughter:

“Your brother played a magnificent concerto that he had composed for Mademoiselle Paradis in Paris. I was sitting in the back only two boxes away from the beautiful Princess of Wurttenburg and had the pleasure of hearing all the instruments so clearly that tears of joy came to my eyes. When your brother left the stage, the emperor waved his hat to him and shouted bravo Mozart.”

For Leopold this visit provided his greatest satisfaction as a father and, for Mozart, it was the time of his greatest popularity in Vienna. The letter is silent as to the key of this concerto, complicating its identification. Herman Ullrich, in a carefully documented article in “Music and Letters,” written from London in 1946; contends that given the date of the visit in Salzburg and the dates of the pianist’s visit in Paris, the B flat major concerto cannot be the one described in the above letter. Ullrich explores the earlier concerti that might have been played, but no satisfactory answer to this mystery can be found.

Maria Paradies was in Paris at the same time as her former physician, Mesmer, was in the city. While they did not meet, we have this account of Baron Fredrich Melchior von Grimm, a one-time patron of the Mozart family, of a concert that she gave at the Concert Sprituel, on Good Friday (April 16, 1784), when the court and the cream of French society was in attendance.

“All eyes turned toward Mesmer who had been unwise enough to come to the concert. He was well aware of being the center of attention and suffered one of the worst humiliations of his life.”

Maria Paradies ultimately returned to Vienna where she taught music and composed (five operas and three cantatas) through the aid of what seems to have been a unique peg board system for musical notation that had been designed for her. In 1808 she founded a school of music. She lived in her native city until her death in 1824.

The account of this blind pianist’s life and her heightened auditory abilities can be view through the prism of modern neurology. The difficulties she encountered in adapting to the resumption of sight (if indeed this was the case) after having adapted for fifteen years to functioning with out the use of her visual cortex would be of interest to neuroscientists today. In an article published in the New Yorker (July 28, 2003), the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote insightfully on the experience of several such individuals who regained their sight after years of blindness and on the adaptation of patients who have lost their sight at various ages.


Mesmer in Paris
Returning to 1778, as a consequence of the scandal that surrounded his treatment of Maria Paridies, Mesmer elected to leave Vienna and his wife who he was never to see again. He sought acceptance for his theories and methods of treatment in the capital of the enlightenment, Paris. Though Mozart, accompanied by his mother, arrived in Paris at the same time, the correspondence with his father in Salzburg gives no indication of any contact between the young musician and his former patron. The last direct comment we have from Mozart on Mesmer before he was to write Così fan tutte appears in a letter to his sister dated December 15, 1781. He comments that the Mesmer’s house was not what it was and, “If I want to get a free meal, I need not drive out to the Landstrasse for it, there are plenty of houses in town to which I can go on foot.”

In Paris, Mesmer sought approval of his theories from the established medical community. The Faculty of Medicine of the University was already hostile toward him, having received reports of the events that had occurred in Vienna. He sought acceptance from the French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine. He doggedly pursued the officers of these organizations to accept his theories, but when he met with either skepticism or a tepid response, he responded with either anger or the suspicion that they were motivated by jealousy. He did attract one prominent physician to his cause, Charles Deslon, who was the physician to Comte d’Atrois, brother of King Louis XVI. Deslon was a member of the Royal Society of Medicine but also failed to budge the opinion of the members whom he had persuaded to observe the successes they were having with individual patients.

In spite of these difficulties, Mesmer’s reputation as a healer had spread to Paris and from his arrival; his help was sought by many patients. His methods employed the bizarre and now notorious Baquet. This was a large wooden tub filled with “magnetized water” and iron rods protruding from its sides to which patients attached themselves or the afflicted parts of their anatomy. Treatment proceeded according to a concept that included a trance-like state and a crisis including convulsive activity.

Responding to the hostility of the established medical community, Mesmer threatened to leave Paris. Because of his popularity, news of this reached the Queen Marie Antoinette. She offered him a sizable annuity and funds for his clinic. Mesmer wrote the Queen with disdain for this offer and yet in his reply goes on to ask for even greater funds and a country estate. Equally disturbing is a secret society Mesmer formed with a lawyer Nicholas Begasse, which solicited paid subscriptions for what we might regard as “franchise clinics” which sprang up in numerous cities throughout France.

The popularity of Mesmer’s methods with the public, particularly the aristocratic members of society, and the controversy and antagonism that it generated within the scientific and medical community during the six years since Mesmer had arrived in Paris, led the King, Louis XVI, to satisfy himself on the merits of these theories and methods of treatment. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin, serving as the American Foreign Minister to France and lionized in Parisian society, was appointed to head a Royal commission charged with the investigation. Franklin’s fame as a scientist was renowned throughout Europe. At this time, he was seventy-eight years of age and would leave France the next year (1785) to spend his last five years in Philadelphia, famously attending the continental congress of 1787. He was already markedly limited by physical infirmity and out of respect for his esteemed status, the commission and Charles Deslon would travel to his residence in Passy, a suburb of Paris, to demonstrate and review their findings. Other members of the commission included Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, a great name in the history of chemistry, and Joseph Ignace Guillotin, whose name was to be immortalized by the historical events which were soon to follow.

Earlier, Franklin had commented on Mesmer, noting that if these methods persuaded patients to take less medicine, they might have been better off. This of course was one of the problems since the established medical community relied heavily on its pharmacopoeia. The commission, which proceeded quite logically, focused on the validity of Mesmer’s theories of “Animal Magnetism,” objectively testing in what was quite literally a series of blinded tests the ability of patients to perceive these forces. By modern standards, the commission was quite expeditious, convening in March of 1784 and issuing their official report by August. They found no evidence to support Mesmer’s theories of “Animal Magnetism” and raised concerns about the harmful effects of the so-called “crises” that patients were induced to experience. They also issued a secret report questioning the potential harm to female patients from quite literal physical contact with male magnetizers. Accusations of this kind had surfaced earlier during the scandal that surrounded his treatment of Maria Paridies, of what he might be dong with a young woman in his “clinic.” These concerns were quite reasonably fostered by descriptions portraying therapists sitting with the knees of female patients between theirs and stroking of the lower portions of the abdomen.
During the year of 1784, the French theater also weighed in on the subject with two lampoons, “Modern Doctors” and “The Baquet of Health” by Pierre Yves Barré and Jean Baptiste Radet. The findings of the commission and the subsequent events of the French Revolution eventually led Mesmer to leave Paris. After a final return to Vienna and his Lanstrasse estate, notably only after his wife’s death in 1790, he spent his final years in the Swiss Republic and the Swabian soil of his birth where he died on March 5, 1815 at the age of eighty-one. We have an account of a friend and priest, a Father Fessler, coming at his request to his home on the day of his death to play his glass harmonica for him.


Mesmer’s Legacy
Before his death, Mesmer may have had an indication that his name would not fade totally into oblivion. In 1812, he was visited by a delegation from the Berlin Academy of Science that subsequently honored him after his death with an elaborate monument marking the site of his grave. The evolution of his methods in the treatment of nervous disorders took a turn that he could not have foreseen as the focus shifted toward hypnotism and its therapeutic application. He is further credited with having initiated the early beginnings of psychiatry. The history of these trends during the 19th century up to our present time could well be the subject of a separate presentation. It would include the study and treatment of hysteria by the famous neurologist Jean Martin Charcot in France. There existed a fascination with the altered mental state induced by hypnotism in the literature of the 19th century, most notably in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Just as the name of one of his judges of the Royal Commission of 1784 has been imbedded into our language, so too since as early as 1837 his name is part of our literature and everyday speech. Who among us would not prefer to be “mesmerized” over being “guillotined?”


Lorenzo Da Ponte
It is now appropriate that we introduce you to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who as a survivor, reminds us of Mesmer. He was born Emmanuel Conegliano, in the ghetto of Ceneda, Italy on March 10, 1749. He was the son of a tanner and dealer in leather. His memoirs, written in America when he was already in his seventies, are silent on his Jewish origins. In 1763, his father converted his family to Christianity and Da Ponte received a Jesuit education. In 1773 he took Holy Orders. Abbe Da Ponte, the title by which he was frequently identified, first resided in Venice, where his penchant for liberal politics and suspicions of his having affairs with married women led to his being officially expelled from the city in December of 1779. He next appears in Vienna in 1781 when he was introduced to the Emperor Leopold II, who was seeking to revive Italian Opera. The Emperor appointed Da Ponte to the position of official poet of the National Theater. This is same year, 1781, that Mozart settled in Vienna, having severed his ties to the Archbishop of Salzburg, the much-reviled Cardinal Colloredo, and he also broke from the control of his father Leopold. To get a flavor of the man, Da Ponte, we should allow him to introduce himself. His memoirs begin:

“Since I am not writing the memoirs of a man illustrious by birth, by rank, wherein the slightest things are wont to be judged of greatest consequence because of the importance of the subject of which they treat, I shall speak little of my family, my neighborhood, my early years, as matters trivial enough in themselves or of scant moment to the reader. I shall speak rather of things which if not altogether great by their nature, and capable of interesting every country and every reader, are nevertheless so singular in their oddity as in some manner to instruct, or at least entertain, without wearying.”

Mozart and Da Ponte produced three great operas: Le Nozze Di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Were it not for this, one suspects the name of Da Ponte would largely have been forgotten. The career of this most interesting man saw its final years in America. Having fled creditors in Europe in 1805, he established himself in New York variously as a Honorary Professor of Italian (Columbia), grocer and vegetable merchant, bookseller, and sometime producer of Italian opera. He died peacefully in 1839 at the age of ninety. We turn again to his memoirs for an account of how he and Mozart met and worked together.

After initial success in his efforts as a librettist, he writes:

“Before long several composers turned to me for librettos. But there were only two in Vienna deserving of my esteem: Martini (Martin y Soler) and Mozart, whom I had the opportunity of meeting in just those days at the home of Baron Vetzlar, his great admirer and friend. Though gifted with superior talents of any other composer in the world, past, present or future, Mozart had, thanks to the intrigues of his rivals, never been able to exercise his divine genius in Vienna, and was living there unknown and obscure, like a priceless jewel buried in the bowels of the earth.”

He goes on to assure us that it was through his own “perseverance and firmness alone that Europe and the world in great part owe the exquisite vocal compositions of that admirable genius.” Writing to his father in May of 1783, Mozart has this to say on his early encounter with Da Ponte:

“He has . . . promised to write a new libretto for me. But who knows whether he will be able to keep his word – or will want to? For as you are aware, these Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face. Enough, we know them!”


Da Ponte tells us how he persuaded the Emperor and the notorious Count Franz Rosenberg to allow the production of an opera based upon Beaumarchais’ controversial “The Marriage of Figaro” subtitled “The Follies of a Day.” We can rightfully credit him for having skillfully crafted a very effective libretto from Beaumachais’ complicated five act play. That he was able to convince Rosenberg to allow the production of the opera based on a play that had been banned as subversive in pre-French revolutionary Vienna was indeed an achievement. The triumph of the common man at the expense of the aristocracy was not to be taken lightly. The subject of their next opera, Don Giovanni, was equally controversial. The libretto which Da Ponte tells us he chose for Mozart was a reworking of a prior libretto by Giovanni Berati, Don Giovanni Tenorio, and a play by Moliere, Don Juan. Critics have found this libretto to be of inferior quality. This might reflect that we know that Da Ponte was working at this time on three libretti simultaneously for y Soler, Salieri and Mozart. His memoirs give this charming description of his working habits:

“I sat down at my table and did not leave it for twelve continuous hours—a bottle of Tokay to my right, a box of Seville to my left, in the middle an inkwell. A beautiful girl of sixteen—I should have preferred to love her only as a daughter, but alas . . . !—I was living in the house with her mother who took care of the family, and came to my room at the sound of the bell. To tell the truth the bell rang rather frequently, especially at moments when I felt my inspiration waning. . . .”

Da Ponte was familiar with Moliere, but Mozart had also read his works. We know that as early as 1778 he had received a volume of plays from his future father-in-law Herr Fridolin Weber, an actor and head of a family of whom Leopold Mozart severely disapproved. Despina, the savvy maid of Così fan tutte, an archetypical Columbina, in the tradition of the Commedia dell’arte, is perhaps modeled after the carpenter Sgnarelli in Moliere’s play, The Doctor Despite Himself, who masquerades as a doctor complete with garbled and pseudo-learned Latin phrases.


Cosi fan tutti
Much scholarly work has gone into tracing the genesis and literary origins of Così fan tutte or as it is subtitled, La Scuola Degli Amanti, or the school for lovers. There are fascinating summaries of these investigations in Andrew Steptoe’s “The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas” and the Cambridge Opera Handbook series titled “W.A. Mozart Così fan tutte” by Bruce Alan Brown. The interest in this topic lies in the fact that while the sources of the libretti for Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni were quite clear, this was not immediately apparent in the plot of Così fan tutte.

We should perhaps start with the enigmatic title Così fan tutte. Understanding the title must begin by noting that it first appeared in Le Nozze de Figaro written at a time when Mozart and Da Ponte would not likely have contemplated the opera that bears its name. In the first act of Figaro, a masterful trio occurs (musical number seven) in which Count Almaviva and Don Basilio enter Susanna’s room in pursuit of the counts page Cherubino, who happens to have been hastily hidden under a dress draped over a chair. The count relates how he found his page hidden in the gardener’s cottage alone with the gardener’s daughter, Barbarina, and wants him expelled from the castle. As the Count describes how lifting a table cloth in the gardener’s cottage exposed the page, with a similar gesture he lifts the dress from the chair revealing Cherubino. As the count now with the greatest sarcasm addresses Susanna as “Onistissima Signora” (Most Honest Lady), Don Basilio, the music-maker of the household, breaks into sarcastic laughter and proclaiming “Così fan tutte, le belle, Non c’e alcuna novita,” (all beautiful women are the same! It’s nothing new to me!). These words and the musical figuration to which they are sung are repeated numerous times as the trio is brought to a close. Mozart uses this musical phrase prominently in the overture to Così fan tutte. Further, in the finale of the Opera, after the lessons of the wager have been learned by the two suitors, Ferrando and Gugielmo, Don Alfonso instructs them to repeat after him the motto, “così fan tutte” to which they dutifully comply. The mockingly solemn music to which this motto is sung had been prefigured in the closing measures of the overture, played at a time when the audience hearing the work for the first time could not appreciate its significance until they again hear it at the close of the opera. Given these striking musical gestures, it is reasonable to believe that the title of the work was Mozart’s contribution. While it seems remarkable that Mozart could expect these lines buried in Figaro to strike a familiar chord with his audience, it might be recalled that because of its popularity, Figaro had been recently revived in a production that preceded the premiere of Così fan tutte.

The subtitle “La Scuola Degli Amanti” (The School for Lovers), which is how Da Ponte generally refers to the work in his memoirs, was obviously his title. There were a flurry of “Scuola” pieces during this era. They aimed to instruct by example. Titles such as Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Moliere’s School for Husbands were all examples well known to the theater-going public.

Turning to the genesis of the opera, Da Ponte refers to a letter he received from Mozart written in Prague reporting the success of Don Giovanni and asking Da Ponte to write another libretto. An analysis of the dates in question suggest that this alleged letter was probably a fabrication. Mozart’s first biographer, Franz Xaver Nemestschek, felt that Mozart’s desperate financial straits left him no choice but to accept the commission of this opera from Da Ponte.3 This reflects the consensus of 19th century biographers that the libretto was beneath Mozart. A story which was first brought to light in 1829 by the British music publisher, Vincent Novello, visiting Mozart’s widow, then Constanze Mozart-Nissen, learned that Da Ponte had initially given the libretto to Salieri who was unable to complete it and therefore the commission was given to Mozart. Constanze attributed the enmity that Salieri had for Mozart as having arisen from Mozart’s success. A recent discovery by John Rice in the Austrian National Library in 1994 lends credence to this story. He found an autograph score by Salieri setting the first two numbers of the libretto to music. A souring of the friendship between Da Ponte and Salieri over the poets failure to include a favored singer of the composer in a contemporary musical pasticcio may have influenced the switch of composers or Salieri’s abandonment of the project.

The literary origins of the text reflect Da Ponte’s classical erudition. The tale of testing the fidelity of a wife or lover with a less than prudent wager and challenge of seduction are the primary elements on which the plot turns. The tale of Cephalus and Procris from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is regarded as the earliest source that Da Ponte would have known. It is the story of a prince, Cephalus, goaded into testing the fidelity of his wife Procris. He is changed in form by the goddess Aurora so as not to be recognized by his wife. In the end he repents this deception. The theme of a wager gone awry can be found in Boccaccio’s Decameron and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. It is in Ludivico Ariosto’s epic “Orlando Furioso” that many of the elements in the plot and in the language of the libretto of Così fan tutte have been traced. Da Ponte humbly acknowledged Virgil, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto and Tasso as his “first masters” and “the sources of his inspiration.” He professed to having committed large portions of their works to memory.

Topicality can be found in the libretti the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Examples include the musical numbers played by the onstage bands in the famous banquet scene of Don Giovanni. The war that the two suitors go off to fight resonates with the fact that the Austrian Army was fighting an unending conflict with the Ottoman Empire. The spoof of Mesmer clearly resides under the heading of topicality. Although Mesmer had left Vienna some twelve years earlier, the events recounted in Paris were well known in Viennese public. We will never know if the inspiration for this satire came from Mozart as one Mozart biographer, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, believes or from Da Ponte. Da Ponte, who ends the opera with his philosopher, Alfonso, proclaiming in the spirit of Voltaire, “Happy is he who lets himself be guided by reason” would not have been sympathetic to the followers of Mesmer. Robert Darnton, in his book Mesmerism and the End of Enlightenment in France argues that much of the popularity of Mesmer and his followers was in fact a form of anti-enlightenment.

Should we view this little moment of satire as ingratitude on Mozart’s part toward a man and family from whom he had received hospitality and patronage? Clearly the authors were exploiting the topical interest of the audience in this subject. The Countess Wilhelmine von Thun, a patron of Mozart and one of the most cultivated ladies in the city, was a known adherent of Mesmerism. Most in the audience would have been amused by this parody and well aware of the ludicrous aspects of the behavior of adherents to the cult of Mesmer in the French capital. Andrew Steptoe in an article in “Music and Letters” written in 1986 concluded that Mozart’s willingness to ridicule Mesmer’s work arose on a private basis as, “Mozart probably had little respect for the errant physician, particularly after he had renounced his family for profits to be found in Paris.”

Così fan tutte premiered in Vienna on January 26, 1790. There were five subsequent performances before the death of Emperor Joseph II on February 20, 1790 brought a halt to all theatrical performances in Vienna until after Lent. The opera was to have just five more performances in the summer of that year. The new Emperor, Leopold II, inherited a dire political situation from his brother. He fired Da Ponte and also his mistress Ferrarese, perhaps for their back stage conduct (the lady already married to one Luigi Da Bene) and appointed Da Ponte’s rival Giovanni Berati to the position of poet of the National Theater. While this might have accounted for the sparse number of productions of Così fan tutte, this supposition is refuted by the fact that two operas written to Da Ponte libretti for Martin y Soler, Una Cosa Rara and L’arbore di Dianna, enjoyed over sixty performances during that same season. A study of the box office receipts indicates that the opera’s performances were very heavily attended above those of all other productions. Mozart’s correspondence is silent on his feelings about the opera or its reception.

Sadly, Mozart had less than two years to live after that January 26th evening and yet his compositional output would include two more operas, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote, a piano concerto and clarinet concerto; his three “Prussian” string quartets; two string quintets; and the beginning ofhis Requiem Mass. Through much of the 19th century, Così fan tutte was to suffer from a moral censorship. There is a famous, but as it turns out faulty, quotation of Beethoven dating from 1825, that he could not have written an opera like Don Juan and Così fan tutte. A re-examination of the memoirs of Ludwig Rellstab, the source of the quotation, reveals that Beethoven was in fact referring to Figaro and Don Giovanni. While the highly moralistic Beethoven would also have disapproved of the libretto, Bruce Allen Brown in his study of Così fan tutte, cites several musical numbers in Beethoven opera Fidelio that clearly show the influence of Così fan tutte. The opera would have to wait until the 20th century to begin to claim its affection among lovers of Mozart’s operas.

Whatever thoughts Mozart had on what he had achieved as a composer when he died on December 5th 1791 we will never know. He probably could not have had the sense of history of a Gustav Mahler who correctly predicted that his time would come or an Arnold Schoenberg who, yet to be vindicated, ventured that in one hundred years people would be humming his tunes. Mozart could not remotely envision that some two hundred years after his death, his music would be heard in concert halls and opera theaters throughout the world, that amateur musicians would devote themselves to his scores, and that a recording industry would make his music available to the delight of all. Few friends attended his third-class funeral at St. Stephan’s Cathedral. His wife, too ill with grief, remained at home. No mourners followed his coffin to an unmarked and quickly forgotten grave in the suburb of St. Marx an hour’s walk from the center of Vienna.



  1. We have three primary sources of information on the treatment of this patient: the accounts of Mesmer himself in his Memoirs, a testament written by her father supporting the initial success that Mesmer was making in her treatment, and an account entitled “Denkwurdigkeiten” written or published in Vienna in 1843, by a friend of her youth, Karoline Pichler. This later source may only be available in the original German. It is also the subject of a historical novel by a British author Brian O’ Doherty, and provocatively titled, “The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P,” published by Arcadia Books in 1992.
  2. Gerhard von Sweiten’s son, Baron Gottfeid von Sweiten, a career diplomat, civil servant and devoted amateur musician, surfaces in Mozart’s biography. He was an important patron of the composer and it was in his house that Mozart was exposed to the glories of the music of Bach and Handel. Gottfried von Sweiten possessed a valuable collection of original manuscripts of George Friedrich Handel and commissioned Mozart to re-write the orchestration notably for the oratorio Messiah, the opera, Acis and Galatea and the cantata for Alexander’s feast. His name should also be recognized by musicians for his having written the libretti for Joseph Haydn’s oratorios, The Seasons and The Creation.
  3. To get a feeling for the desperate financial situation Mozart found himself in at this time, a reading of the letters he wrote to his friend and Masonic brother, Michael Pucberg, shamelessly requesting advances on anticipated earnings from the production of Così fan tutte is instructive and heart-wrenching. In the end, Mozart received but half the earnings he had expected for this opera and half of what his contemporaries Salieri and y Soler would be paid.



  1. Anderson, E. (1938). The Letters of Mozart and His Family (Vol. 1, 2, & 3). London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
  2. Brown, B.A. (1995). “W.A. Mozart Così fan tutte.” Cambridge Opera Handbooks.
  3. Brunelli, V. (1975). The Wizard from Vienna. New York: Coward, McCann & Georhegan, Inc.
  4. Da Ponte, L. (1967). Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte. New York: The Orion Press.
  5. Darnton, R. (1968). Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Steptoe, A. (1988). The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas. Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, Cleardon Press.
  7. Steptoe, A. (1967). “Mozart, Mesmer and Così fan tutte.” Music and Letters, 248-255.
  8. Ullrich, H., Paradis, M.T., & Mozart. (1946). Music and Letters, 224-233.



JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and Associate Professor Emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He is also a member of Hektoen International Editorial Board and serves as the President of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.


Winter 2012   |  Sections  |  Music Box

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.