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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Haydn left his last string quartet unfinished, though he lingered on, sinking into senility. Brahms, fading from liver cancer after he buried Clara Schumann, the love of his life, wrote some organ preludes based on hymns, including two settings of, "Oh World, I Must Leave Thee." Here's one of them.

Alban Berg's final completed piece, finished in a remarkable four months for that chronically slow worker, was the Violin Concerto, among the most celebrated of its genre in the 20th century. It's one of the prophetic works in the repertoire because it was inspired by death—the passing of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of the architect and Alma Mahler Gropius. Berg dedicated the concerto "To the Memory of an Angel." After some lilting Viennese music evoking the girl in her glory, we hear the catastrophe. The rest is based around an elegiac Bach chorale called Es ist genug (It Is Enough). Another four months and Berg was dead, apparently from an infected insect sting. He left his opera Lulu unfinished.

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Berg was survived by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who fled the Nazis and like so many of his Jewish creative contemporaries ended up in Los Angeles. Schoenberg flirted with writing film music but never took the plunge. (When a student came to him for advice on scoring a movie about airplanes, Schoenberg said, "Make it like music for monster bees, only louder.") Schoenberg regarded Americans as yokels on the whole, but he did get into the Hollywood scene—he became a ping-pong fanatic, played tennis with Harpo Marx, gave lessons to Oscar Levant, and befriended George Gershwin (after whose early death Schoenberg wrote a beautiful memorial in prose. Here is that memorial, read by Schoenberg, at the end of a home movie starring Gershwin and Schoenberg.)

By the mid-1940s Schoenberg's health was declining. From the ravages of diabetes he had a heart attack and was saved from death by an injection directly into his heart. With dry irony he referred to the event as "my fatality." His last major work was the searing, stream-of-consciousness String Trio, which he admitted privately was a musical transcription of his diabetic delirium and crash.

Another European refugee, Béla Bartók came to rest in Manhattan, whose traffic and radios tormented him. Beset by an intermittent illness that turned out to be leukemia, meanwhile generally impoverished and depressed, Bartók wrote nothing in his first years in the States. Then a commission from the Boston Symphony, which became the Concerto for Orchestra, revived his creativity. As the disease closed in on him Bartók set out on a series of projects. The most important to him was the Third Piano Concerto, written as a legacy for his pianist wife, Ditta. He was down to orchestrating the last 17 bars when the ambulance arrived. To his doctor in the hospital he whispered, "I'm only sorry to be going with my luggage full." The Third Concerto is one of the most beautiful and ingratiating pieces he ever wrote. Ditta could never bear to play it.

What edifying conclusions can we glean from all this? One is that when you're an artist you go out doing what you do. After all, making things is a better way to spend your time than staring at the wall contemplating what little time you've got left. Debussy kept composing through a protracted death from cancer. "I don't have any hobbies," he explained grimly. "Music is all they taught me." One of the few advantages of being an artist is that everything that happens to you, from good to bad to awful—and especially the awful—is grist for the mill. A friend of mine endured a long slide down with MS. He got two novels out of it, and his widow wrote a successful self-help book for spouse caregivers. As the mad mathematician says in A Beautiful Mind: "What's the use of being nuts if you can't have a little fun with it?" For a composer, what's the use of dying if you can't get a couple of good pieces out of it?

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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