Famous Last Notes – Music from the Deathbed

This week Mahlerman introduces some final compositions…

If death comes out of the blue as it did to George Gershwin at the age of 39 there is, of course, no sign of it in his last composition ‘Our Love Is Here To Stay’, a perky masterpiece that has become a jazz standard. But if you spot the bone-orchard on the horizon and you decide to linger, as many of the greatest composers have done, the music they produce as the mist begins to swirl often inhabits a mystical, transcendental world. Bruckner and Mahler come to mind in their ninth symphonies, Wagner in Parsifal, and of course Schubert in the last piano sonatas, the String Quintet, and the grim Winterreise cycle.

The music of Ludwig van Beethoven falls naturally into three periods, the last of them beginning when his deafness became total, and his domestic arrangements completely chaotic, threatening to overwhelm him. Out of this misery emerged music that even the most knowledgable musicians have struggled to explain or even understand. Timeless? Philosophical? These words seem to fall well short of the mark. How do you begin to fathom the seldom heard Missa Solemnis, the last few piano sonatas, and the mind-boggling late string quartets? I think we have to concede that the mystery of these late words can never be explained in terms of bar-lines, crotchets and quavers. Here, his very last completed work, the F major String Quartet, opus 135 from 1826. The original music of the spheres, the third movement Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo, played almost 50 years ago by the peerless Quartetto Italiano.

A more resolute and single-minded musician than the Hungarian Bela Bartok is scarcely imaginable. This tiny, frail man with explosive psychic force, cared not a jot for fame or indeed fashion. What he did represent was a unique fusion of east European nationalism with the discipline of nineteenth-century musical forms. His body of work, starting in 1906, melds and transmutes folk elements into something ruggedly universal and unique; a couple of measures is enough to identify almost any of his music. Ill health, so common it seems in all great composers, dogged this intensely serious man for most of his life, and he was working on his Viola Concerto and the Third Piano Concerto in New York exile when he died of leukemia in 1945. The piano concerto was almost finished, save some scoring in the finale, completed by his pupil Tibor Serly. It is dedicated to his wife Ditta, and was to be a surprise birthday gift to her. Here, the French virtuoso Helene Grimaud plays the magical night-music-infused Adagio Religioso second movement, with imitative bird song and insect sounds.

The Russian Sergei Rachmaninov was also exiled in America when he died of melanoma in California in 1943. A particularly Russian, brooding quality is evident in much of his output, but it by no means dominates. What does, and what infuriates the nay-sayers (and there are plenty of them), is the sheer beauty of his thematic material, and in this we can trace a link to his musical father, Tchaikovsky. The beautiful, sinuous, chain-like melodies can seduce the hardest heart, and always seem to have one more link than we expected. Yes, the music has its limitations; but within those limitations it moves with perfect security and yes, individuality. The op. 45 Symphonic Dances were his last published works and here, in the pungent first movement (of three) are displayed both the dynamic and melancholic qualities that distinguish this slavic master.

A supercharged, seemingly inexhaustible fountain of melody. That is what Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky possessed, and brought to everything he composed. But this nervous, neurotic, hypochondriacal homosexual could find no happiness in his relatively short life, and his neuroses persisted through a disastrous marriage, and the spooky relationship with his benefactress Nadejda von Meck, who funded him for 14 years on the condition that they should never meet. The last three of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies break all the rules but, as always, when the seams start to show, they are quickly immersed, as we are, in a warm bath of melody. The greatest of the three is the last, No 6 in B minor (‘Pathetique’) and the extraordinary last movement Adagio Lamentoso begins with a shriek and ends with a sigh. A week after the first performance the composer was dead, contracting cholera from unboiled water.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

7 thoughts on “Famous Last Notes – Music from the Deathbed

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    September 16, 2012 at 11:39

    My favourite last gasper is Gustav von Aschenbach, sitting there in his deckchair, staring out over the lagoon, dreaming of young Tadeusz as he slowly slips away, a victim of the plague or a surfeit of angst or possibly after some unfriendly Itie whispered in his ear ‘you ain’t-a really Mahler mate, just an English actor’, a scenario not, I will readily admit, in Mann’s novella.

    Gershwin may have moved on after discovering that horrible truth, having written Rhapsody in Blue for the piano-roll the devilish device rapidly became obsolete.

  2. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    September 16, 2012 at 14:06

    Wonderful stuff. In a similar vein but entirely different musical style I am reminded of Johnny Cash, who spent several years gasping at death’s door and probably recorded multiple tracks that he thought were his last but actually weren’t. He didn’t write much at the end and drew heavily on the Bible when he did … “The Man Comes Around” seethed with apocalyptic imagery and threats of judgement drawn from Revelation, an epic death song. But the very song he ever wrote- “1st Corinthians 15:55” was much more hopeful, peaceful and really quite beautiful- a happy acceptance of his impending death elevated and affirmed by his faith:


  3. danielkalder@yahoo.com'
    September 16, 2012 at 14:10

    Sorry- I meant to write “the very last song…”

  4. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    September 16, 2012 at 17:25

    I suppose that, in a perverse sort of way, we should celebrate Bartock’s persistent ill-health as it spared him service in The Great War. Far better for us that he died of leukemia in New York in 1945 than of shell-fire on the Eastern front in 1915. What a wonderful composer he was, but here it is the final work of Tchaikovsky that appeals most to me. When I first heard the Sixth Symphony it was the first rather than fourth movement that overwhelmed me. Those opening few minutes Adagio can lull the unknowing listener into a state of unsuspecting calm as the bassoon leads out the orchestra; then the violins at first slightly agitated before settling into something approaching bliss. Then: Bang! All hell let loose; eardrums shredded, as the orchestra blasts-off into the development section. Glorious: a truly great symphony; one of very few where I have more than one recording of a single work – four to be precise, seeking after the definitive performance – Karajan/BPO; Giulini/Philharmonia; Rozhdestvensky/LSO and finally and my favourite: Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra – spellbinding.

    I find your reference to Tchaikovsky’s death very interesting, MM. I had unquestioningly believed he had committed suicide; Rimsky-Korsakov apparently remarked in his autobiography that it was strange that mourners should be allowed to troop through Tchaikovsky’s apartment after his death : the regulations stipulated that cholera cases should immediately be isolated in view of the possibility of contagion. Soviet scholar Alexandra Orlova believed that the composer had committed suicide by poison, possibly arsenic, at the behest of a court of honour which had met to assess the implications of Tchaikovsky’s alleged relationship with a male member of the imperial family. But what do I know, MM, you are the train driver in all things classical; I am merely an interested passenger at the back of the train.

  5. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    September 16, 2012 at 18:48

    Your modesty does you credit JH but it is surely misplaced. I completely agree that the opening of the Pathetique is a greater dramatic statement than IV but at pushing 20 minutes it falls outside the time limits I have set for myself in these fortnightly outings – and, strictly speaking it is not Tchaikovsky’s last gasp or death rattle. We are both on thin ice with favourite performances – and, for me Karajan and Giulini are too silky and Rozhdestvensky a bit ragged. Pletnev’s is probably the best modern recording, but for sheer wild abandon held on a tight leash, the great Mravinsky and the Leningrad PO still make my hair stand on end, and that goes for 4 and 5 as well. What do you know? The train driver thinks you know more than you ever let on.
    Accident, murder or suicide? There are plenty of theories around, and the truth will never be known. What’s certain from this masterpiece is that he was by no means ‘written out’. And how many times have we wondered ‘if only’ over the last few hundred years?

  6. info@shopcurious.com'
    September 16, 2012 at 23:59

    “Begins with a shriek and ends with a sigh” – love it! And the Tchaikovsky too… music to die for.

  7. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    September 17, 2012 at 07:01

    One thing I do know, MM, is that I love Russian music; not quite as much as the English variety – I would prefer to put my foot in a cowpat in a Cotswold field than leap out of the path of fifty charging cossacks. But it’s a close-run thing. You’ve included in your post Rachmaninov’s wonderful Symphonic Dances. I have a recording of the piece coupled with Isle of the Dead. What a marvellous piece the latter is. That opening is almost hypnotic; Christopher Palmer in the liner notes to the Askkenazy/Concertgebouw recording captures Rachmaninov’s intentions:

    ‘The argument is easily followed: the silent shadowy approach of the boat, the journey through thick night and fog, the impassioned leave-taking of earthly bliss, the sweet release of death; then, having deposited his burden, the ferryman re-crossing the water and disappearing in a long-drawn diminuendo al niente.’ After that sobering start to the week, I think I’ll put on my wellies and go for a trudge over Farmer Bates’ field.

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