VIENNA, Austria – For centuries, historians have portrayed Mozart as poor, but new documents suggest the composer was not nearly as hard-up for cash as many have believed.
Scholars who combed through Austrian archives for an exhibition opening Tuesday on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's later years in Vienna found evidence that he was solidly upper-crust and lived the good life.
Letters show that Mozart repeatedly borrowed money from friends to pay for his travels and his social obligations, and that his family was forced to move at least 11 times. The new documents, on display at Vienna's Musikverein, reveal that he earned about 10,000 florins a year — at least $42,000, in today's terms.
That would have placed him in the top 5 percent of wage-earners in late 18th-century Vienna, say experts, who were unable to prove lingering suspicions that gambling debts took a big bite out of Mozart's earnings.
"Mozart made a lot of money," said Otto Biba, director of Vienna's vast musical archives.
To put his earnings in perspective: Successful professionals lived comfortably on 450 florins a year, according to Biba, who said Mozart's main occupation in Vienna was teaching piano to aristocrats — a lucrative job that helped support his extravagant lifestyle.
Yet Mozart earned a reputation for money-grubbing, and evidence abounds that he squandered much of his cash. Among the items on display at the Musikverein are handwritten letters in which Mozart begged his patrons, publishers and acquaintances for huge sums to settle his debts.
One penned in June 1788 requesting a loan from arts patron Michael Puchberg reads: "If you will do me this kindness ... I shall be able to work with an easier mind and a lighter heart."
The exhibition, which runs through June 30, is part of a year of special events in Austria celebrating the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth in Salzburg on Jan. 27, 1756.
Mozart lived in Vienna from 1784-87, at the height of his brief but prolific music career. Among the works he composed in the Austrian capital was "The Marriage of Figaro."
Mozart, who died in 1791 at age 35, was buried in a pauper's grave at Vienna's St. Marx Cemetery, perpetuating the notion that he spent most of his life barely scraping by in dire financial straits.
A simple column and a sad-looking angel mark the spot where scholars believe he was laid to rest.
No one disputes that Mozart's wealth was long gone by the time he lay on his deathbed.
Researchers at Salzburg's International Mozarteum Foundation say records of Mozart's estate indicate that his widow barely had enough cash to bury him, and that he owed thousands, including debts to his tailor, cobbler and pharmacist.
American composer and music historian Allen Krantz is among those who think that Mozart may simply have been a victim of his own generosity, impulsiveness and largesse.
"Mozart grew up to be undisciplined, unworldly and a soft touch. Money went through his hands like water," Krantz wrote in a recent biography. "Even Mozart's mother, a gentle soul, complained: 'When Wolfgang makes new acquaintances, he immediately wants to give his life and property to them.'"