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.

111027_MUSIC_Mozart_EX
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The last thing anyone does or says has an inevitable fascination, poignancy, and poetry. The fascination only intensifies when that person is an artist, in the profession of doing and saying memorable things. "There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time," Jorge Luis Borges wrote. "There is a door I have closed until the end of the world." The old Joseph Haydn, who invented what we think of as a string quartet, must have wondered after his dozens of quartets which would be his last. It was the one he could not find the strength to finish.

Last words are pithier than last pieces of music, and the world remembers the apropos or the funny ones. Enlightenment genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "More light!" Gen. Robert E. Lee: "Strike the tents." Gustav Mahler: "Mozart …" Richard Wagner, in the truest and most lucid words he ever spoke: "I feel lousy." Oscar Wilde, contemplating the garish wallpaper in his hotel room: "One of us has to go." Eugene O' Neill, son of an itinerant actor, who was similarly unhappy about his last residence: "Born in a hotel room, died in a goddam hotel room!" Salvador Dali: "Where is my clock?" Steve Jobs: "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

Composers often turn to religious music in old age, hoping no doubt to earn some indulgence from the Lord for a few little sins. J.S. Bach was more personal. After a life of robust health, he suffered a sudden decline that included failing eyesight. He had been working on the Contrapunctus XIV of his monumental technical work The Art of Fugue, and for the first time in his composing had put in a melodic motif made from his own name: BACH in German notation is the notes Bb-A-C-B natural. After writing millions of notes, these were among the last he penned with his own hand. He never finished the fugue.

On his deathbed in the week before he died, blind and in the aftermath of a stroke, Bach had a friend play his organ chorale on the hymn "When We Are in Greatest Distress." Even near the end of his rope, Bach's lifelong perfectionism endured. He dictated a number of revisions to the chorale. At the same time, he renamed the piece, giving it a title from another hymn: "Before Thy Throne I Now Appear." Serene and worshipful rather than tragic, it was his calling card to God.

When his time came, Mozart had no illusions. On his penultimate day, he greeted his sister-in-law with, "You must stay here and watch me die. I already have the taste of death on my tongue." He had been expecting the end for a while, perhaps even when he was writing the sublime fairytale The Magic Flute. Anybody who goes to the movies knows that when Mozart exited he was working on the Requiem. Yes, as in Amadeus he may have considered it his own requiem. No, it was not commissioned by his rival Antonio Salieri or by some mysterious figure, but by a Count von Walsegg, who had the quirk of secretly commissioning pieces and putting his name on them. An assistant of Mozart—who in fact had studied with Salieri (as did Beethoven)—finished the Requiem after he died.

Like most composers of the Enlightenment, Mozart was not much into tragic sentiments in his work, and though both he and his friend Haydn were eager to write religious music, what they produced generally did not reach the level of their greatest work. None of Mozart's masses and such are as powerful and beloved as his comic operas. The exception is the Requiem. Its first movement, the only one he more or less finished on his own, is the most tragic movement written since Bach. It is music from a man staring into his own grave.

There is usually something revealing about the music of a composer who feels death at his shoulder. Beethoven's late music has a distinctive voice. Little of it is tragic and there is no trace of self-pity, even though in his last decade he was deaf and suffering from an endless train of illnesses that included chronic colitis and possibly lead poisoning. In his spiritual life, Beethoven was no churchgoer and not particularly interested in Christ; he preferred to deal with God man to man. His music he could only hear in his head now. Some of it has an ethereal quality, some an almost childlike directness, like the first movement of his Op. 110 Piano Sonata—played here by Andrew Rangell. (His set "Beethoven's Final Masterworks for Piano"—the last five sonatas, Diabelli Variations, and late Bagatelles—will be out in January on Steinway & Sons.)

The scope of the late style can be seen in the middle movements of the Ninth Symphony. The Scherzo is an intricate and essentially comic fugue, with explosions of timpani. It is ingratiating enough to have served as a theme for TV shows and, recently, for a commercial. Next in the Ninth comes one of his time-stopping slow movements, a transcendent reverie.

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.

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?"

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.

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?

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