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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Famous Last Notes

By Norman Lebrecht / May 21, 2003

It is not the dead composers that we love, but the dying. Music, more than any other art, has cultivated a fascination with the point of departure. Where no account exists of Shakespeare's last words, no deathbed sketch of Leonardo, a report has been furnished or faked of the final moments of every noteworthy composer, a morbid enthusiasm verging on the necrophilic.

The intrusion begins with iconic images of Mozart, tinkering to the last with a Requiem that (in his wife's words) "he was writing for himself ". It continues with Mahler, whose last audible word was, supposedly, Mozart - according to his ever-lying wife, Alma, who had left the room by then.

A dozen books and a hundred doctoral theses probe the death of Tchaikovsky, originally ascribed to cholera but latterly revised to suicide, committed to avoid a homosexual scandal. None of these investigations shed new light on the mood or meaning of the Symphonie Pathetique, their principal scholarly justification.

Voyeurism has invaded the violent deaths of the ascetic Anton von Webern, shot by an American soldier in September 1945 in the home of his smuggler son-in-law; and of Claude Vivier, a desperate young Canadian, murdered in Paris 20 years ago by a casual pick-up.

Webern's death is being made into a film by Peter Greenaway and Vivier's has been turned into a TV dramadocumentary. Souvenirs abound. You can buy a death mask of Beethoven, even an alleged lock of his hair, most days of the week on ebay. The spectacles and cigarette cases of defunct composers come up from time to time at Sotheby's.

Composers themselves indulge in mutual necrology. Arnold Schoenberg, returning from Mahler's funeral in May 1911, composed a short piano piece, then sat down and painted the graveside scene. Maurice Ravel rendered homage at Le Tombeau de Couperin. "Holy minimalism", the political rebellion of late-Soviet composers, began in 1977 with Arvo Paert's tolling Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

The vigour of the deathbed cult is confirmed by two books that landed recently on my desk. The first is titled Chopin's Funeral (Little, Brown), the title being its unique selling point. Benita Eisler's biography depicts the Pole as a sickly specimen who anticipated his end in his art.

It reproduces a singularly glum death mask and a vivid account of two paparazzi who burst into the room the instant Chopin stopped breathing and started rearranging the furniture to shoot the body in better light. They, one feels, did no worse than the rest of the carrion crows who prey on Chopin's posterity.

There is no evidence that Chopin had anything more than a natural interest in his own mortality; yet Eisler, among others, exploits him as a paradigm of romantic morbidity, entombed in a Bflat minor sonata march that trudges along at most state funerals.

The other book, The Death of Franz Liszt (Cornell University Press), is grippingly macabre, with moments of graveyard farce. Alan Walker, whose three-volume biography of Liszt may be designated definitive, found, and published, a diary kept by Lina Schmalhausen, describing the composer's final days. Lina was part of a circle of besotted young women who kissed Liszt's cassock-tails.

She had been accused of petty pilfering, but the enfeebled old Abb&Mac218;, barely able to stand on swollen legs, let her accompany him on his late travels. They were seen, here and there, holding hands.

In July 1886, Liszt summoned Lina to join him at Bayreuth where his daughter, Cosima, was organising the first festival since the death of her husband-Wagner, three years earlier. The diary that Lina wrote there for the next fortnight was so graphic that Cosima and her dynasty kept it under lock and key for a century or so. Professor Walker, whose authority is unimpeachable, declares it wholly trustworthy.

Lina excoriates the bumbling doctors of Bayreuth who treated pneumonia as if it were a common cold and the Wagner children who seldom visited their dying grandfather. "Don't let me die here," begged Liszt.

Cosima, whose relations with her father were formal to the point of frigidity, banished Lina from the house as his condition worsened, promising to keep vigil. Lina watched from the shrubbery.

Cosima took to locking the front door as she left, keeping her father a prisoner. While she was at the opera, Lina sneaked in through the servants' entrance. "Don't leave me," implored Liszt, "she won't be back for a long time." Later, through the window, she saw Cosima depart for the night without so much as a kiss to her father's forehead. At 2am, Liszt leaped out of bed in a seizure. Cosima was sent for.

She called the doctor, who took 90 minutes to arrive. Liszt was, by then, in a coma. A specialist was called the next morning. This, notes Lina acidly, was the only day that Cosima stayed constantly by her father's bedside.

Lina, perched on a bush, kept watch at the window until dawn. Awoken later that day with news of Liszt's death, she picked a posy of forget-menots and obtained Cosima's permission to press it between the Master's hands; her flowers were immortalised in the deathbed photo.

None of the Wagner children, notes Lina, wept at prayers. The body was besieged by flies and an attempt to embalm it was bungled. Cosima had to lift the corpse into the coffin and, with a servant, bundle it across the street to her own house, where dogs were let loose in the grounds to keep away unwanted visitors.

Liszt's piano pupils went on the booze; the funeral was undignified. As far as Bayreuth was concerned, it was Wagner's father-in-law who had died. "A wretched end," declares Lina.

Hers is an absorbing, unvarnished human drama, a deathbed scene that will echo for eternity in musical consciousness, along with all the rest. Why we should need to know so much about such final moments is a mystery that the shallow science of musicology has yet to penetrate.

The root, I suspect, is social rather than art-critical. It has something to do with the function that classical music fulfils for many listeners in a secular age, its surrogacy for a forsaken Christian faith.

The mortal agonies of a great composer have come to represent the sufferings of a saviour figure, a ritual of veneration. We observe in awe, anticipating redemption.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001