Mozart, as painted by Johann Georg Edlinger in 1790.
The search for Mozart’s skull came to a crescendo on Sunday, as scientists announced whether a skull, currently possessed by the International Mozart Foundation in Salzburg, once rested on the shoulders of the musical giant. After a week-long drum roll of anticipation, the researchers announced their results with whimper: They were unable to tell whether the skull was Mozart’s.
“In reference to the DNA analysis, it has been impossible to completely prove the authenticity of the alleged Mozart cranium; thus, the origin question of the skull remains unsettled,” said the Foundation’s press statement.
ORF, an Austrian public television station, hired scientists from Austria’s University of Innsbruck and the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory to run analysis on the skull. The station’s documentary about the search, which aired on Sunday, January 8th, is part of the year-long celebration of Mozart’s birth in 1756, 250 years ago.
Mozart’s gravedigger unearthed the skull 10 years after the composer’s burial. Scientists compared DNA from the cranium with that of two bones, taken from a grave where Mozart’s maternal grandmother and niece were believed to be buried. They hoped to verify a relationship between the three supposed relatives, but came up empty-handed: The skull wasn’t genetically related to either of the bones, nor were the bones related to each other.
While the skull’s identity remains in question, the researchers are sure that these three bones are not linked by maternal relatives.
“I’m one-hundred percent confident of the correctness of the DNA results,” said University of Innsbruck forensic pathologist Walther Parson, the lead researcher in the skull analysis.
In the 214 years since the skull’s owner ceased to be, Parson said, all nuclear material disappeared from the bone. In order to perform genetic analysis, his team used DNA from mitochondria, organelles that generate cellular energy, instead of DNA from a cell’s nucleus.
“Mitochondrial DNA is a molecule which is passed down the maternal line, which means that a mother and her children have the same mitochondrial DNA,” Parson said, “so if this is the case and we compare an unknown body, or parts of an unknown body, to maternal relatives, we can use mitochondrial DNA in order to find out if this is the person in question.”
Parson noted that this isn’t the first time mitochondrial DNA has been used to identify celebrity corpses: In 1998, scientists using the same technique concluded that nine bodies exhumed from a Siberian grave belonged to the Romanovs, the last Russian royal family.
Austria is not about to let these inconclusive results spoil their year of Mozart-filled fun and celebration.
“I’m very proud of this guy and I think he is the best musician that has ever lived on earth,” Parson said. “If this skull is his or not doesn’t change anything about his music and the kind of artist he was.”
Originally published January 9, 2006