Voices from the 18th Century: W.A. Mozart on Myslivecek’s ‘cancer of the bone’



Of the many composers mentioned in the Mozart family letters, Josef Mysliveček (pictured) stands out in my mind for having been admired and emulated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mysliveček was not only an intimate friend of the Mozart family but a successful and noted composer in his own right who wrote many symphonies, operas, and instrumental works. Wolfgang was naturally drawn in by his masterful compositions and, on more than one occasion, borrowed ideas from them.

Yet few people today have ever heard of Mysliveček and far too few recordings of his music are available (slowly but surely this is changing). He is nearly as obscure as Wolfgang is famous.

My favorite appearance by Mysliveček in Wolfgang’s correspondence with his father occurs during a stay in Munich (1777). Wolfgang and his mother visit their friend in the hospital with some trepidation.

Apparently, Mysliveček had been suffering from a venereal disease that no doctor had been able to successfully treat. However, this was only part of the reason they were hesitant to visit. It was what they expected to see (and saw) that was the source of their fear:

“If it were not for his face, he would be the same old Mysliwecek, full of fire, spirit and life, a little thin, of course, but otherwise the same excellent, cheerful fellow. All Munich is talking about his oratorio ‘Abramo ed Isacco,’ which he produced here. He has now finished, except for a few arias, a cantata or serenata for Lent. When his illness was at his worst he composed an opera for Padua. But nothing can help him. Even here they all say that the Munich doctors and surgeons have done for him. He has a fearful cancer of the bone. The surgeon Caco, that ass, burnt away his nose. Imagine what agony he must have suffered.” (Translation: Emily Anderson)

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