Last Notes: The Wild, Sublime Music That Composers Write on Their Deathbeds

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Nov. 29 2011 10:11 AM

Last Notes

The wild, sublime music that composers write on their deathbeds.

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In his late works Beethoven pushed every envelope in every direction. As his body failed, his music became more complex and more simple, grander and more intimate, more spiritual and more comic, more exalted and more nutty. Representing the latter quality is his bizarre, notorious Grosse fuge, Great Fugue, the original finale of the Op. 130 String Quartet. Here is music that will be eternally avant-garde and in some dimensions nearly beyond comprehension.

When Op. 130 premiered Beethoven was quite deaf, so he didn't attend the concert and waited at a tavern for a report. When friends arrived and told him that the fugue had not gone over well, he exploded, "Cattle! Asses!" Only in the later 20th century were players and audiences really ready to contend with it. Beethoven's last completed piece, though, was something of an anticlimax. After his anxious publisher persuaded him to spin off the Grosse fuge as a separate piece, Beethoven, in terrible shape and close to entering his deathbed, finished a new finale for the Op. 130 quartet. The replacement finale is a jaunty little piece, more or less the opposite of the manic fugue.

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When his time came, after weeks of suffering—probably from advanced cirrhosis of the liver on top of who knows what other miseries— Beethoven went out with a little joke. To friends surrounding his deathbed he quoted in Latin the conclusion of classical Roman theatricals: "Applaud, friends, the comedy is over." Witnesses said that a couple of days later he emerged from a coma during a storm and died after a thunderclap, shaking his fist at the sky.

Franz Schubert had a quite clear idea of what was going to get him, and how soon. By his mid-20s he was enjoying the second stage of syphilis. His hair fell out; his bones ached; his mouth and throat erupted in lesions. "I find myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world," he wrote a friend. "Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair continually makes things worse and worse."

Schubert lasted nearly four years more, with some good periods but on a downward spiral, composing as furiously as if every day were his last. In quantity and quality the music of his final year is astounding. There is a new intensity and a new mastery, and a valedictory quality quite different from Beethoven's late music but equally distinctive and moving. You hear it in the first movement of his last Piano Sonata, in Bb Major. It begins straight out on a beautiful melody that is stopped by a deathly trill from the basement of the keyboard. Then the tune simply continues.

I suggest that in the Bb Sonata and other of the late works, music itself became for Schubert a symbol of life, and that sense of life is permeated with death. There is a particular poignancy in these works even at their most beautiful and joyous. It's music as if heard from the other side of life. In his last months Schubert was like a man who loves parties but can't go to the party anymore, can only look at it from outside the window. Yet the joy sometimes was overwhelming, as in the scherzo from the C Major String Quintet.

No more than in Beethoven was there any self-pity in Schubert's late music. But in some of his last songs one finds a shivery and uncanny weirdness. On his deathbed he was correcting the proofs of his song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey). Its protagonist flees life and love to wander in a winter landscape, a raven his only companion. Finally he stumbles on a shabby organ grinder standing barefoot on the frozen ground with dogs snarling at him. The old man grinds away with a fixed smile. The music of that last song paints a scene of deathly bleakness punctuated by the keening of the hurdy-gurdy. The poet ends the piece on an ominous, unanswered question: "Shall I join you on your journey? Will you lend music to my songs?"

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