Western classical music has commemorated death in ritual and pondered it in concert works. A deeper relationship to death exists in the very syntax of Western harmony.
Origins of Classical Music
Western art music has its origins in the system of tonality developed in the Medieval Church. That system, which grew out of the church modes, consists of two or more tones sounding at once in a pattern of tension and release ("dissonance" and "consonance"). This was unique among the musical forms of the globe until the twentieth century when Western tonality, through popular music, essentially preempted other local musical forms.
This dominating pattern of tension and release means that Western tonality, unlike all other known musical systems, mimics a natural cycle of birth/growth/decay/death/new birth. The simplest chord progression initiates a home key (birth), develops relationships to other keys by venturing from the home key (growth), reaches a knot of dissonance requiring relief (decay), and finally resolves to the home key again (death, with an implied rebirth). In other cultures, ritual and art music sought to transcend the natural process through hypnotic repetition or intricate, non-tonal patterning. Western classical music embraced it, and accompanied the rise of material science.
Death is built into the syntax of Western music. When portrayed as the subject of a composition, mortality has certain specific musical characteristics; the mood is somber, the tonality almost always minor, and the tempo slow. Yet the most famous recurring death motif in classical music, the Dies Irae, which dates to the Dark Ages, is more sinister than somber. Its text, "Day of wrath, day of doom," conjures the Christian last judgment in its most horrible aspect. The first eight notes are distinctive, with or without the sung text, and they fit into the format of many common chords and progressions. Composers, therefore, have employed the Dies Irae often, both in sung works (the text forms part of the Requiem Mass which has been set to music by countless composers) and in purely instrumental contexts. The Russian post-Romantic Sergei Rachmaninov employed it almost obsessively, not only in appropriate works such as his tone poem, Isle of the Dead, but in such unlikely places as the playful pages of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The Requiem Mass is probably the largest and most dramatic classical musical form borrowed from ritual. Composers who set its Latin text for use in concert rather than liturgy have included Palestrina, Vittoria, Mozart, Cherubini, Berlioz, Faure, Bruckner, Verdi, and Stravinsky. Brahms, vigilantly Protestant, composed a German Requiem to biblical rather than Catholic liturgical texts. The Passion, a liturgical text relating the death of Jesus Christ, has also been used by composers as concert works. Two extraordinary Passions by Johann Sebastian Bach (one According to St. John, another According to St. Matthew ) belong at the pinnacle of the repertoire.
Another smaller and more universal ritual that became an instrumental form was the funeral march. Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music, the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 ("Eroica"), and the penultimate movement of Chopin's B-flat minor Piano Sonata, are excellent examples. The latter has become boilerplate, often simply referred to as "The Funeral March." Mahler used funeral marches throughout his oeuvre, perhaps most spectacularly (and unexpectedly) in the opening movement of his Symphony no. 5.
Death Myths of the Great Composers
Death holds a prominent place in the mythos of great composers. Existential defiance was a favored theme for composers dying in the nineteenth century. Beethoven died at age fifty-six, reputedly shaking his fist at a clap of thunder as at God. Schumann went insane and walked into the Rhine to drown himself; the attempt failed. Recent, controversial scholarship seems to support the idea that Tchaikovsky, long thought to have died from accidentally contracted cholera, committed suicide on the discovery of his homosexuality. The truth of his death has yet to be established beyond doubt.
The number of composers who died young is greater even than that of great poets. In addition, their modes of death were diverse and often disturbingly colorful or mysterious. The most famous case is that of Mozart. The theories of Mozart's death, numerous and ever-growing, have become a part of the composer's identity. The most notorious is that Mozart was murdered by his rival Antonio Salieri, which was the subject of a play by Alexander Pushkin and an operatic setting by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov nearly a century before it became the subject of Peter Shaffer's play (later made into a popular film) Amadeus.
Mozart was thirty-five when he died in 1791. Franz Schubert was thirty-one years old when he died in 1828; syphilis was the probable cause. Chopin and Mendelssohn both died before their fortieth birthdays. The dubious prize for the youngest death of a composer with any still-active repertoire goes to the eighteenth-century Belgian Guillaume Lekeu, who succumbed at age twenty-five to an intestinal infection brought about by tainted ice. Charles-Valentin Alkan, a nineteenth-century French composer of exorbitantly difficult piano music, was also a Talmudic scholar who died when his bookshelves collapsed and the heavy volumes of his library crushed him. The Second Viennese school of Arnold Schoenberg and his students were obsessed with number. When Schoenberg's great student Alban Berg suffered an insect bite that infected him, Berg calculated his chances based on a personal numerology, and died on the day he predicted.
In 1937 the musicologist Alfred Einstein put forth the theory that great composers die with a "swan song," a final masterpiece before death. He supported this idea with numerous examples, including Bach, whose masterful Art of the Fugue was left unfinished at death, and Mozart, who left behind the trunk of a Requiem, begun shortly before he died. The theory hardly applies universally, however, and it is ironic to note that the single terminal work actually titled "Swan Song," was a compilation of Schubert songs slapped together posthumously by a publisher looking to trade on the sensation of it.
Though George Frideric Handel, Franz Josef Haydn, Franz Liszt, and Giuseppe Verdi all lived and worked past seventy, composers who enjoyed their full share of three-score-and-ten are rare before 1900. Twentieth-century composers who lived and thrived into their eighties include Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leos Janacek, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Elliott Carter.
Einstein, Alfred. "Opus Ultimum." Musical Quarterly 23 (July 1937):269–286.
Landon, H. C. Robbins. 1791, Mozart's Last Year. New York: Schirmer Books, 1988.
Levinson, Jerrold. Music in the Moment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Monson, Karen. Alban Berg. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Neumayr, Anton. Music and Medicine. 2 vols. Bloomington, IN: Medi-Ed Press, 1994–96.