Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born 250 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1756, and lavish celebrations are being planned around the world to celebrate his anniversary. This year will be filled with his music, but it will also be a time to re-examine the contradictions and conflicting interpretations of his brief 35-year life. He has been cast in many roles: the infant prodigy paraded around European courts by his father, Leopold; the foulmouthed brat whose letters attest to a fondness for off-color practical jokes. One widespread misconception has him buried in a pauper's grave in Vienna's St. Marx Cemetery. Another unproven legend, given widespread credence thanks to the hit movie Amadeus, depicts him as the victim of his jealous court rival Antonio Salieri. Fervent admirers have argued that he was divinely inspired, but some modern psychologists detect an infantile-regressive personality. And if he were alive today, says Herbert Brugger of the Salzburg tourism office, he would be "a pop star — somewhere between Prince, Michael Jackson and Robbie Williams."
There's little new about such typecasting. But over the past decade, Mozart has increasingly been placed in a role that is perhaps the most controversial of all: as healer of mind and body. In this New Age interpretation, Mozart is the ultimate composer-therapist whose music can help treat ailments ranging from acne to Alzheimer's disease and even, it is claimed, make you and your kids smarter. Some of these claims are based on science. One neurosurgeon in Chicago has conducted studies that show certain Mozart pieces can reduce the severity and frequency of epileptic seizures in some patients, while researchers in Irvine, California, have found that some people with Alzheimer's are better able to perform mental tests after listening to Mozart for 10 minutes.
But much of the supporting material is anecdotal. French actor Gérard Depardieu says Mozart helped to cure his childhood stutter. Eliad, the painter, received her treatment at an institute founded by a Paris physician named Alfred Tomatis, who pioneered the use of Mozart's music to treat all sorts of childhood disorders as well as adult ailments including depression. Few national authorities officially recognize the treatment, and traditional music therapists are deeply skeptical. Still, Poland is currently introducing Tomatis' methods nationwide in centers that help children with learning difficulties. And in the London suburb of Richmond, Jackie Hindley credits it with helping her 6-year-old son Lawrence. He was a slow developer and hyperactive, Hindley says, with a particular language difficulty: whenever people spoke to him, he would stay quiet for half an hour before coming back with an answer, she says. After several sessions of listening to Mozart, "he's now a very active speaker who responds immediately to whatever is said to him," Hindley says. "He's taken very profound steps forward."
By far the most widespread — and most disputed — recent claim is that Mozart can enhance your brain power. That notion was first given scientific support in a 1993 article in Nature, which found that college students who listened to the first movement of Mozart's Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos performed better on a spatial reasoning test that involved mentally unfolding a piece of paper. The study's main author, Frances Rauscher, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin who is also a cellist, went on to do a similar test using laboratory rats. They were exposed to the same piano sonata in utero and for two months after birth, and then let loose in a maze. There they navigated their way out far quicker than three other groups of rats, which had been exposed to white noise, silence or a highly repetitive piece by American composer Philip Glass.
In the decade since, these studies have sparked an academic storm, with many of Rauscher's peers either refining or debunking her findings. Other researchers have had mixed success in replicating her results. But her work received widespread media attention and gave rise to a pop-psychology trend known as the "Mozart effect." Dozens of Mozart compilation CDs that promise to enhance intelligence are now on the market, with titles such as Mozart for Mommies and Daddies — Jumpstart Your Newborn's IQ. The claims have had social-policy repercussions: in 1998, the U.S. state of Georgia began handing out classical-music CDs to the parents of all infants, and there are similar but less official programs in Colorado, Florida and elsewhere.