The side of Mozart most people would prefer to forget

I’ve been a fan of Mozart for some time, and in particular his Requiem in D minor, a piece that gets used quite frequently in soundtracks, with the best and worst uses of the “Dies Irae” section of the “Sequentia”, for example, being respectively during Nightcrawler’s attempted assassination of the POTUS in X2, and a Macy’s One Day Sale television ad. I laughed out loud every time I saw the early ’90s commercial—I’ve always wondered if the ad guys were pranking the suits or didn’t understand the ominous overtones this commercial would hold for the cognoscenti—actually, it’s pretty ominous even if you don’t understand the words. If the irony is deliberate, it might actually be the best use. As soon as films had music, Mozart was in them, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

Opera snobs disdain the Austrian composer as overly facile with his music’s repeated film appearances providing additional damning proofs, but it’s difficult to express the depths of my uncaring. I find him thoroughly masterful: “Lacrymosa” sounds like lamentation, “Dies Irae” sounds apocalyptic, and “Confutatis” sounds like damnation. My associations with the work run so deep, I have only to hear a word like salvage to set me off singing “Rex Tremendae Majestatis”. The line “qui salvandos salvas gratis” being the tie in. You can imagine how it went when I worked with a guy named Rex; it was never “hey Rex” it was “Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeex!” The music is soaring, majestic, transcendent.

Furthermore, I’m in good company—Soren Kierkegaard said of the composer:

Immortal Mozart, I owe you everything; I owe to you that I lost my sanity, that my soul was amazed, that I was terrified in the core of my being; I owe to you that I did not live without anything that could shake me; I owe to you that I did not die without having loved […].

And more succinct, but not lesser praise was given by Albert Einstein:

Mozart’s [music] was so pure that it seems to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.

Given all this, imagine my surprise when I recently learned of Mozart’s work “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber”, K. 233. The title translates to “Lick my Ass Nice and Clean”.

While it seems quite rude to our ears, leck mich im arsch is a standard vulgarism in German; a closer English equivalent of would be “kiss my ass”. Nonetheless it seems in glaring contrast to his masses and operas.

Still, the work was far from singular, as his catalogue also includes:

  • “Leck mich im Arsch”, K. 231: the same idea as the one above.
  • “Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich”, K. 234: contains references to farting.
  • “Gehn wir im Prater, gehn wir in d’ Hetz”, K. 558: wherein the Prater, a public park in Vienna, is “full of shit”.
  • “Difficile lectu”, K. 559: nonsense Latin disguising another ass-licking lyric.
  • “O du eselhafter Peierl”, K. 560a: “Oh you asinine Peyerl” is the translated title.
  • “Bona nox!”, K. 561: The extended title translates as “Good Night, You Are a Real Ox” and it only gets worse from there.

As its chronological Köchelverzeichnis number indicates, “Leck mich im Arsch” actually predates the first-mentioned one. Also note that a pair of these, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” and “Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich”, have been reclassified as not being Mozart’s original compositions but merely his words set to works by Wenzel Trnka. Also “O du eselhafter Peierl” refers to Johann Nepomuk Peyerl, a tenor-baritone with whom Mozart worked frequently, and whose strong Bavarian accent made the puns in “Difficile lectu” work. The two pieces were intended to be sung together with this second one making fun of Peyerl who would have just sung the other one.

And then there are his letters. Benjamin Simkins compiled the following list of 40 items of scatological correspondence:¹

  • Leopold Mozart (father): 20 letters
  • Constanze Mozart (wife): 6 letters
  • Maria Anna Thekla Mozart (cousin): 6 letters
  • Nannerl Mozart (sister): 4 letters
  • Maria Anna Mozart (mother): 1 letter
  • Mother and sister jointly: 1 letter
  • Abbé Bullinger (friend): 1 letter
  • Kapellmeister Stoll (friend): 1 letter

The central falsification of the film Amadeus is well known, that of Salieri destroying his fellow composer, which was taken from a vague rumor, and then made definitive in Alexander Pushkin’s play, Mozart and Salieri («Моцарт и Сальери»); The two were generally on good terms; Salieri was a fan and had Mozart give his son music lessons. Still based on his letters it’s easy to picture the composer as Tom Hulce portrays him, of whom F. Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri says:

That was Mozart. That! That giggling, dirty-minded creature I had just seen[…]!

I’ll note here that I intend neither to bowdlerize Mozart’s words nor to catalogue his every off-color remark (there are those who have done both already). The point here is to understand the context of such materials.

I have not seen the play Amadeus but Peter Shaffer penned both versions, so I imagine it bears a strong similarity to the film. When Margaret Thatcher went to see it, dining afterwards with director Peter Hall, the following is recorded of her reaction:²

She did not look happy.

“I think it is disgraceful that the National Theater shows Mozart uttering such obscenities, […] a composer of such elegant and wonderful music.”

“But Prime Minister,” he protested, “it is actual fact that he did talk like that. He used four-letter words.”

“It is not possible,” she responded, “not from someone who could create works of such beauty.”

“But Prime Minister, I can assure you that this was the case. Mozart’s own letters confirm it.”

Well, what did Maggie know? In the same article, she also is quoted as talking of “van Gogh’s Chrysanthemums”. It does tell us that the group involved with the play was quite well informed by thorough research, and the play and film reflect this knowledge.

While I was surprised to find this out about Mozart, unlike Thatcher, I didn’t find it incompatible with his other works; rather it serves to humanize him and make me like and appreciate him still more. And in fact, if you listen to them—many are available through the wonders of the internet—these are lovely songs. Mainly, they are choral canons (regarded in Mozart’s day as a highly refined technique, which seems to be why he enjoyed putting base lyrics into the form) and build to impressively layered crescendi.

Of course I am far from the first to become aware of this side of the composer and there have been a variety of theories advanced as to what’s behind it. These begin, as far as I can determine, with Austrian author Stefan Zweig, who raised an idea that Mozart suffered from mental illness. Zweig was a huge collector of memorabilia relating to his fellow Viennese, as well as being buddies with Sigmund Freud, whom he presented with the materials he had amassed and asked for a diagnosis:³

These nine letters […] throw a psychologically very remarkable light on his erotic nature, which, more so than any other important man, has elements of infantilism and coprophilia.

However, Freud apparently had no interest in pursuing the case.

This, of course, did nothing to slow the flood of theories: Simkins, an endocrinologist, compiled his list of letters attempting to make a case for Tourette’s Syndrome. Others suggested OCD. None of these diagnoses make the remotest bit of sense, as apart from his use of “dirty” language no other symptoms of these disorders are present. Mozart’s “sudden” death is often also brought in to support diagnoses as well. Very little was known in the 18th century about the prevention and treatment of disease; things like this happened all the time.

The problem with both Thatcher and Zweig (among others) is that they are applying their own cultural norms to the composer. The repressive prudery of the Victorian Era is to blame in the former case, and judging by the portrayal of Vienna in The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European (Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers) the trend was hardly confined to Great Britain. Zweig and his wife committed suicide immediately following the completion of this autobiographical work, making him either an excellent judge of mental illness or a terrible one, I’m not sure which. And the problem with Simkins and his ilk is a more modern one of wanting to apply a label to a phenomenon they see as “abnormal”.

However, as I’ve already noted, they’re peering through an inappropriate cultural lens. Many of the correspondents in the letters cited earlier respond in kind, and use similar language in conversing with Wolfgang, as well as amongst each other. Mozart’s mother, Anna Maria, in particular seems to have had very similar sensibilities to her son’s, signing off in a 1777 letter to Leopold once:

Adio ben mio, leb gesund
Reck’ den arsch zum mund.
Ich winsch ein guete nacht
Scheiss ins beth das Kracht.

Farewell love, on you God’s grace,
Reach your ass up to your face.
I wish you a lovely night,
Shit your bed with all your might.

Indeed, it shares some of the lyrics of “Bona nox!” (1788), though It’s unclear where it originated, as Wolfgang also used another similar rhyme in a 1770 letter to his sister.

And it also seems this wasn’t just a familial phenomenon as scatological texts have also been found for other “important men” from this time and place, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Thomas Mann once said Goethe’s Faust might well have been a musician instead of a magician since “music is calculated order and chaos breeding irrationality at once”), Heinrich Heine, and even Martin Luther, key figure of the Protestant Reformation. And finally Michael Haydn, a fellow Salzburger and close colleague of Mozart’s wrote his own rude canon, “Scheiß nieder, armer Sünder”, which in English is “Shit Quick, Poor Sinner”. This is particularly telling as, per the suggestion in Amadeus, Salzburg was a more provincial and proper town, compared to the giddy carnival atmosphere of Vienna, the wealthy seat of the Imperial court.

Contemporary accounts found nothing rude, off-putting or “dirty-minded” about Mozart at all, with celebrated composer and court Kapellmeister, Johann Adolph Hasse, saying of him:⁴

[T]he boy is moreover, handsome, vivacious, gracious, and full of good manners; and knowing him it is difficult to avoid loving him.

Still, the letters seem to have been seen as at least somewhat inappropriate. His widow, Constanze sent some to a biographer, saying they were “in bad taste” but she still thought they contained some of his personality and cleverness. And Leopold too seems to have wanted to use Wolfgang’s letters to write his own biography, admonishing him not only to carefully preserve and inventory them, but to keep them clean and proper for the purpose as well.

A disappointed Leopold wrote to chastise his seemingly wayward son, thus:

[I]t now depends on you alone to raise yourself by degrees to a position of consequence, the greatest ever yet obtained by a musician. You owe that to the extraordinary talents bestowed upon you by Providence; and it now depends solely on your judgement and way of life whether you die a common musician utterly forgotten by the world, or a famous Kapellmeister, of whom posterity will read.

Wolfgang was wounded by his father’s seeming willingness to believe the worst of him, despite his pal Haydn defending him to Leopold, saying:

I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute.

Amadeus puts a quite similar speech into Salieri’s mouth, but in any case, it was to no avail. The arguments between Leopold and Wolfgang were not a singular event, but continued on and off for years. Wolfgang responded himself:

[N]ow that you attribute my course of action to negligence, thoughtlessness and idleness, I have only myself to thank for your good opinion of me, though I must deplore from my heart that you know me—your son—so little.

But apart from the scatology, Emily Anderson, author of 1937’s The Letters of Mozart and His Family, says he revealed himself in this second medium as no other composer has done:

Mozart’s letters bear comparison with those of the great letter writers of the world.

Here’s an example that showcases his quick mind and sense of play:

Ich habe dero mir so werthes schreiben richtig erhalten falten, und daraus ersehen drehen, daß der H: vetter retter, die fr: baaß has, und sie wie, recht wohl auf sind hind; wir sind auch gott lob und danck recht gesund hund. […] sie schreiben noch ferners, ja, sie lassen sich heraus, sie geben sich blos, sie lassen sich verlauten, sie machen mir zu wissen, sie erklären sich, sie deüten mir an, sie benachrichtigen mir, sie machen mir kund, sie geben deütlich am tage, sie verlangen, sie begehren, sie wünschen, sie wollen, sie mögen, sie befehlen, daß ich ihnen auch mein Portrait schicken soll schroll. Eh bien, ich werde es ihnen gewis schicken schlicken.

I now rightly hold fold your most worthy writing, and from it have learned turned that uncle gruntle, aunt flaunt, and you view, are far quite well; we too, praise and thank God, are in most sound hound health. […] You write further, yes, you let it out, you send forth, you let it be announced, you make me understand, you explain yourself, you imply to me, you notify me, you make it known to me, you make it clear as day, you demand, you desire, you wish, you want, you would like, you command that I, too, will mill send you my Portrait. Eh bien, I shall certainly mail scale it.

I’ve presented the original as well as my translation here so the German (and partly French) wordplay can be seen. This exuberant rhyming, punning, and burst of synonymy is far from irrelevant to Mozart’s work as a composer: his works would often establish a basic key whence a series of chromatic fireworks would then spring, besieging and seizing the ear with a rising tumult of harmonies, variations, and clashing tonalities.

In the the 18th century, musicians needed to have the ability to engage in complex musical games; reversed themes, mirrored fugues, and musical palindromes among them. The sense of play, scatology, and musical composition are all present when Mozart describes a fugue he improvised and then played “arschling” (“ass-wise”—we might say “bass-ackwards”). In order for this type of rarely attempted composition to work, the harmonies have to be entirely perfect.

Even (or perhaps especially) in his non-choral works, his abilities shine through. Musical scholar Jeremy Siepmann says of him:⁵

His great concertos are in many ways like operas without words, alive with sparkling dialogues, dramatic confrontations, psychological insights and unforgettable characterizations.

In the end, the stark contrast of the flights of intellect and scatology in Mozart’s letters represents an act of rebellion against his father and “posterity”. He knows his letters are being carefully monitored and collected as material for his biography, yet gleefully includes material he knows is viewed as inappropriate, with his father being far and away the largest recipient of such letters—as many as all the others combined—when he knows Leopold does not approve.

He’s not forgetting himself, it’s a deliberate strategy to avoid the creation of a falsely stately public persona. Mozart thinks his excellence in his “day job” should be enough, even though his letters at times display his mastery in this other form. To borrow again from Amadeus, he does not want to present himself among a group of inaccessible luminaries, who are:

[P]eople so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!


  1. In “Mozart’s scatological disorder”, published in the British Medical Journal.
  2. Lister, “She may not have known it, but even Thatcher was not immune to art’s capacity to challenge”, The Independent, 2013.
  3. In Schroeder, Mozart in Revolt: Strategies of Resistance, Mischief, and Deception, 1999.
  4. From Deutsch, Mozart: A Documentary Biography, 1966.
  5. Apologies, reader: I have lost this citation.

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