Day By Day

Friday, December 02, 2011

Last Works

Nice piece in Slate by Jan Swafford on the subject of how impending death affected some of the world's greatest composers and their work. Beethoven [my favorite] for instance:

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.

Read the whole thing here and follow the links to hear some of the greatest music ever written.

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