Mozart and Scatological Humour: Diagnosing a Genius

Erm… what? Mozart and scatological humour… better known as toilet humour?! What is this, some sort of moronic joke? We’re afraid not, darlings, as it turns out Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, genius extraordinaire and iconic music man, had a puerile streak about 10 miles wide. What was going on there?

Opening with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, K 183; 1st Movement here is important as this was composed by the great man when he was but 17 years of age (to put this into perspective, when our esteemed editor Mr. Wapojif was 17 the greatest thing he ever achieved was dyeing his hair black). Mozart could create something like that, yet also took joy in writing depraved jokes about excrement? Indeed, and the scholarly world isn’t happy about it.

Mozart and Scatological Humour

Don’t underestimate how thoroughly researched and argued about the subject has been – entire books and psychological studies have been conducted in the attempt to understand what was up with Mozart. To understand what everyone’s so worked up about, have a look at our A Life in Letters review from yesterday and some of Mozart’s rambling.

Benjamin Simkin, in a 1992 article for the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), headlines his piece as Mozart’s scatological disorder. He begins: “The surprising scatology found in Mozart’s letters has not yet been satisfactorily explained.” Simkins highlights the 1938 publication of Mozart’s letters (even this removed the more crass remarks), in which an introduction from Emily Anderson states:

“It was not only when writing to his ‘Basle’ (little cousin) that Mozart indulged in this particular kind of coarseness, but … certainly his mother and very probably the whole family and indeed many of their Salzburg friends were given to these indelicate jests.”

Simkin compiled Mozart’s letters to determine how many times he used toilet humour to his nearest and dearest. This goes as follows:

  • 20 to his father Leopold
  • 6 to his wife Constanze
  • 6 to his cousin
  • 4 to his sister
  • 1 to his mother
  • A number of times to a selection of various acquaintances
  • He also wrote several compositions (for recreational purposes) featuring his sense of humour, with verses including “lick me in the arse”

Signs and Symptoms

Thusly, the hypothesising for what may have been up with Mozart has been in operation for decades. Simkins was convinced it was Tourette’s syndrome (a claim influenced directly by Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which was developed based on Mozart’s letters). You can read his thesis on this for NCBI higher up this page.

There have been a myriad of other claims, of course. Others believe the composer had a hypomanic manifestation of a cyclothymic personality disorder (bipolar disorder). Some suggest psychopathological tendencies. Obsessive compulsive disorder has also been considered.

Regardless, it’s clear those researching Mozart’s condition consider his antics as “coarse, immature characteristic[s] which Mozart retained in his adult life.” The bickering in the medical field has raged for decades, with such great minds as Oliver Sacks stepping in to offer a considered opinion – he dismissed Simkin’s diagnosis.

Enter Freud!

Psychoanalysis experts have also waded into the Mozart mix, including its founding father. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (whose work influenced the fantastic film The Grand Budapest Hotel, if you’re interested to know) studied Mozart’s letters and got in touch with Sigmund Freud. He suggested the letters pinpointed infantilism and coprophilia, although Freud didn’t agree (allegedly).

Has anyone agreed on anything? No. David Schroeder, however, took a lenient look at Mozart’s writings and has provided what’s possibly the most sensible analysis of the situation yet.  He suggested the passage of time has:

“[forced] us to misread his scatological letters even more drastically than his other letters. Very simply, these letters embarrass us, and we have tried to suppress them, trivialise them, or explain them out of the epistolary canon with pathological excuses.”

Margaret Thatcher’s Disdain

Unfortunately, not many people have time for Schroeder’s appeal for calm, and Mozart’s behaviour has upset a number of high profile figures. Perhaps most famously of all, the Iron Lady (a great admirer of Mozart’s work) was greatly displeased at the idea the composer had an immature streak.

The former Prime Minister of that island somewhere saw Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus in London. Its director, Peter Hall, later recalled in a preface to the published screenplay:

“She was not pleased. In her best headmistress style, she gave me a severe wigging for putting on a play that depicted Mozart as a scatological imp with a love of four-letter words. It was inconceivable, she said, that a man who wrote such exquisite and elegant music could be so foul-mouthed. I said that Mozart's letters proved he was just that: he had an extraordinarily infantile sense of humour ... "I don't think you heard what I said", replied the Prime Minister. "He couldn't have been like that". I offered (and sent) a copy of Mozart's letters to Number Ten the next day; I was even thanked by the appropriate Private Secretary. But it was useless: the Prime Minister said I was wrong, so wrong I was.”

Our Learned Verdict

We’re not sure what some scholars expect from Mozart. Considering he’s deified, perhaps they believe he awoke at 5am each morning, headed to his bedroom window, and stared forlornly into the middle-distance in deep contemplation about the nature of being. Dropping to his knees, he’d let rip with an existential roar of anguish before heading off to make profound music.

Or, perhaps, give the guy a break. Whilst his letters are puerile (to quite an unusual streak, not in the silly Monty Python sense – just flat out childish) he did have two children and perhaps this brought out his silly side. In addition, the vast gulf of time between our era and Mozart’s makes it difficult to determine what social attitudes were at the time to this sort of thing.

Unfortunately, all anyone has to go on are a batch of letters and descriptions of his behaviour. In this respect it’s a tad difficult to judge the man considering this may very well have been a minor part of his personality; he composed over 600 works in his lifetime, and this suggests he spent most of his time hard at work creating music. We can all be thankful for this, at least.

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