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Mozart Minute: Mozart Is Desperately Broke. Really.

image of a portrait of Mozart in which he wears a bright red coat
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"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," said Polonius to his young adult son, Laertes, in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Personalities being what they are, Mozart was evidently a borrower.

In 1788, not long after coming into a small inheritance from his father, and even as The Marriage of FigaroThe Abduction from the Seraglio and Don Giovanni were enjoying great success around Europe, Mozart's finances were floundering.

Not for the first time, Mozart turned to his friend Michael Puchberg, a wealthy textile merchant and fellow Mason, asking again and again for cash, each request more outrageous than the ones before. 

In June 1788 Mozart wrote Puchberg, "I still owe you eight ducats. Apart from the fact that at the moment I am not in a position to pay you back this sum, my confidence in you is so boundless that I dare to implore you to help me out with a hundred gulden until next week, when my concerts in the Casino are to begin." (The Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson.)

Puchberg apparently sent the money. Then Mozart asked for an even bigger favor: "If you have sufficient regard and friendship for me to assist me for a year or two with one or two thousand gulden, at a suitable rate of interest, you will help me enormously!" He made the feeble argument that this loan would enable him to "work with a mind more free from care and with a lighter heart and thus earn more."

Puchberg sent Mozart 200 gulden in response. Ten days later, Mozart wrote him, "I am very much distressed that your circumstances at the moment prevent you from assisting me as much as I could wish ..."  

His letter continues with jaw-dropping self-interest: "If you would only be so kind as to get the money for me through some other channel!"

As if Mozart's earlier requests for cash weren't sufficiently brazen, his letter to Puchberg a week later reeked of selfishness: "Ah if only you had done what I asked you! Do it even now - then everything will be as I desire."

On and on it went. By the time Mozart died in December 1791, his finances had all but fallen off the cliff.

A firm final tally of Mozart's monetary borrowing is difficult to reckon. But here's a rough calculation of the value of keeping Mozart in business:

Maintaining a flamboyant genius composer's standard of living for three years: countless gulden and florins.

Preserving stories about said composer's disastrous finances: innumerable sheets of stationery.

Marveling in Mozart's musical masterpieces: priceless.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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