Today was the day when I lugged an extra-large trash bag full of miscellaneous books, papers, clothing, and other items home from school. Normally, this event might seem a little strange, but not at this time of year. This ritual signifies the approaching date of summer vacation—or the ending of my first year of high school. Soon, 3:30 pm won’t feel like the end of the day, and 11 am will feel more like the beginning. My mind is in the conclusion realm, and that got me thinking—since there are no government-official summer breaks in the lives of composers, when does this emotion enter music? Seasons are an extremely common inspiration for scores, but these mostly signify the beginnings of periods or simply illustrate the pinnacle of the sentiments of those times. So what about the ultimate conclusion, death? The approaching of death or the feeling of winding down is most certainly a dense and enveloping emotion—how could it not seep through the minds of composers’ into their scores? Surely a writer of music could not predict the closing of their life, but, after looking at the last compositions of prolific composers, it seems almost inevitable that feelings parallel to the environment of composers’ last years are present in their final works. From the difficult, deaf last years of Beethoven to the seemingly calm and recent years that capped off the influential life of Milton Babbitt, the last pieces of composers can be seen as mirrors into the atmospheres of their conclusions.
|sketches of the Grosse Fuge, arranged for four hands on the piano|
Perhaps one of the most well known specific traits of a composer, Beethoven’s deafness and illnesses consumed his later life and composing. Through his late period of composition, Beethoven suffered from many illnesses—some reports claimed he had syphilis, infectious hepatitis, cirrhosis, and even lead poisoning that damaged his liver (although this could have been from alcohol). Alongside these diseases, Beethoven, as we all know, suffered from deafness. This condition, while one that he was able to cope with somewhat, depressed Beethoven and severely affected his mental state and method of composition. While not much of Beethoven’s life was top-notch, these last few years were certainly no conclusion anyone would want (although reports of his actual death sound like a 40s horror film—clap of thunder, fist in the air…). Beethoven’s final composition, finished in 1827, was the revised final movement of his String Quartet No. 13 (Op. 130/133). Originally, the quartet finished with the somewhat legendary Große Fuge (Grosse Fuge, Grand Fugue), but after terrible, confused reception of the original movement, Beethoven’s publisher urged him to change it. The movement that Beethoven replaced the Große with is in B flat major and is beautiful, with its theme of the ascending key scale, but is quite standard (until the climbing and slightly dissonant hacking away at the strings about half way through). It’s cheerful and ends in a triumphant, resolved B flat chord (orthographically appropriate), and at first listen seems opposite to the emotions Beethoven’s death were filled with. However, the situation the movement was born out of certainly parallel’s his last years. The Große Fuge is most likely Beethoven’s most technically difficult and complex pieces of music and is highly commended now—Stravinsky said that it is “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” However, its reception when it premiered was the opposite. Critics during the 19th century called it “a confusion of Babel,” “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” and “repellent.” At the premiere, after the other movements of the string quartet were encored and the Große was not, Beethoven was reported to have said, “And why didn’t they encore the Fuge? That alone should have been repeated!” Therefore, the replacement was most likely written out of resentment; though it’s aural emotions in and of themselves are cheerful, the emotions encircling them were most likely not.
|Kamila and Otto|
But not all deaths by sickness are surrounded by years of suffering. Leoš Janáček, the Czechoslovakian modern composer, also has an interesting last work, his String Quartet No. 2, alternatively titled “Intimate Letters” composed in early 1928 and premiered in September of that year, one month after his death. Janáček lived a work-filled but successful life, being critically acclaimed during and after his years. Like Antonín Dvořák, another Czech composer, Janáček was very influenced by folk music, and it is evident in his interesting, unique music. Throughout his later life, Janáček developed a relationship with Kamila Stösslová, a woman whom he met in 1917. She was married, 38 years younger than him, and already had a son (Otto). Kamila was the main love interest of Janáček for the rest of his life. He became slightly obsessed with Kamila, exchanging over 700 letters with her and placing her in many of his operas. However, he never fathered a child with her and never married her. Just from knowing those facts, one can see that the relationship would have been straining for ol’ Leoš—he had her in his reach, but never quite could call her his. In August of 1928, he went on a trip with Kamila but caught pneumonia and died. His last piece was the string quartet. The piece is meant to illustrate the hundreds of letters sent between the two and is divided into four movements. The piece is passionate and fervent in many parts, but also has tinges of melancholy and subtle hints of anger. The viola, meant to personify Kamila, is the protruding instrument of the quartet and cries out sometimes in deep, resonating, lament-like solos. It is the ultimate mix of emotions—the third movement ends in murky strokes while the fourth picks up with upbeat rhythms that suggest happiness but have slightly dissonant and odd tones. The years around his death were the years approaching Janáček’s and Kamila’s 10th “anniversary…” they must have been love-filled, confusing, heart-wrenching times, like the piece suggests.
|Milton doin' his thing|
And then there are the composers who die seemingly in peace. Milton Babbitt, the influential 20th/21st century composer, died in January of this year at the age of 94. Babbitt’s life was also successful, with him winning many awards, studying and teaching at Princeton, and influencing a generation. I love lots of Babbitt’s titles, such as “The Joy of More Sextet,” “Who Cares If You Listen?” and “My Ends Are My Beginnings.” Living to such a great age and accomplishing so much, one can make assumptions that the last years of Milton Babbitt’s life were peaceful (though I can never be sure). His last piece is titled “An Encore” for violin and piano. I cannot find a recording anywhere, but I don’t think I necessarily need one to make my point. Though the piece is most likely, well, Babbittish, the title itself alludes to a perfect ending to a large body of work. It caps off his massive repertoire like snow on a mountain and makes one smile just looking at the title.
Almost all classical pieces are influenced by some kind of emotion. In fact, I think it’s physically impossible not to feel emotion when composing. This equation is also true for the last years and last compositions of composers. Beethoven, whose last years were difficult and ill-filled, most likely had an angering experience with his revision of his String Quartet No. 13. Janáček’s last years were still filled with Kamila, the woman he never truly had, and his last composition, “Intimate Letters” for string quartet, is filled with mixed, passionate, moody emotions. And Milton Babbitt, the legend who passed just this year, composed a perfect last piece, “An Encore.” These may be coincidences, but I also think that’s physically impossible. You can't look into a pool of water and not see your reflection.