Articles

Musical Phrenology and the Case of the Missing Composers’ Skulls

Paris catacombs, 2015

Classical music lovers celebrate the life and legacy of titans such as Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Mahler, and many others by listening to and performing their music. We study their lives and musical legacies to try and learn more about their ideas and inspirations.

Some people take other routes.

Throughout history, people have tried to study the human body to learn more about how it works. As you might imagine, the bodies of famous people were considered highly valuable in hopes of learning more about their intellect.

Which is what led to the theft and displacement of several skulls of classical musicians.

Phrenology is the pseudoscience of studying human skulls in order to learn more about one’s personality, intellect, and other information. It was particularly popular in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Although phrenologists were interested in the skulls of people from all disciplines, it seems that an inordinate number of musicians and composers were the victims of graverobbing.

Two of the most infamous phrenologists were Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, who believed that musical geniuses had an “organ of tune,” a protrusion over the brow bone which signified musical genius.

There are several articles and books examining the peculiar history of phrenology, but here are a few curious cases of composers’ missing skulls:


Joseph Haydn

The celebrated classical music composers Joseph Haydn (died 1809) and Ludwig van Beethoven (died 1827) both had their skulls (or skull fragments) stolen after their burial, assumingly in the name of phrenology. Haydn was buried in Vienna on June 15, 1809, but Prince Esterhazy ordered his body to be moved in 1820 to another burial site. This was when it was discovered that his head had been stolen by his admirer Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and a prisoner governor Johann Nepomuk Peter. After being caught, Rosenbaum sent a head to be buried at Haydn’s new burial plot…but it wasn’t Haydn’s real head. It wasn’t until 1895 that Haydn’s head was given to the Viennese Society of the Friends of Music, who kept it until 1954 when it was finally returned to its proper body, after nearly 150 years of separation. Today, there are two skulls in Haydn’s grave – his own and the mysterious skull given by Rosenbaum.


Ludwig van Beethoven

After the great Beethoven died in 1827, his skull was cut apart (at his request) so doctors might find the cause of his deafness. According to Romeo Seligmann, professor of history and medicine at the University of Vienna at the end of the 19th century, he claimed to have fragments of Beethoven’s skull from this post-mortem skull surgery. (Beethoven’s body had been exhumed at least twice since his burial, so it’s also possible that Seligmann got a skull fragment at one of these exhumations.) The fragments remained in Seligmann’s family until 1985 in northern California, where they were given to the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University for DNA testing, which cast doubtful authenticity to their origins.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Even Mozart wasn’t immune to cranioklepty! Upon Mozart’s death, he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Vienna. According to this article, a gravedigger by the name of Joseph Rothmayer knew which body was Mozart’s, and he dug up Mozart’s skull. (It’s unclear if this was in the pursuit of phrenology or just a morbid curiosity.) There have been several doubts of the skull’s authenticity, but this skull was temporarily on display at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where it was later removed after people reported it to be haunted.


Cranio-curiosities

  • Although not a phrenologist, German composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) certainly had an odd interest in composers’ skulls. During one of Beethoven’s exhumations, Bruckner was able to grab Beethoven’s skull, which he cradled in his arms before being escorted away. This didn’t deter him from doing the same thing to Schubert’s skull when his grave was opened in 1888. Making matters worse, one of the lens from his eyeglasses supposedly fell into the coffin with Schubert, where it purportedly still remains today.
  • The Polish composer André Tchaikowsky (no relation to Pyotr Ilyich) donated his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used as a prop. It was used several times as the skull of Yorick in Hamlet.

For a full account of each skull’s displacement, check out these links:

Books:

  • Beethoven’s Skull by Tim Rayborn
  • Cranioklepty by Colin Dickey
  • Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved by Russell Martin