TO DIE FOR: THE MUSIC ONE CHOOSES AS THE LIGHT GOES OUT

by Albert Innaurato

I visited my doctor yesterday. He looks like Santa Claus. He eyed me and said, “Yo!” (he’s from South Philly), “No trick or treats. You’re a fatty.” I thought of Luke 4:23, where The Nazarene is mocked, “Physician, heal thyself” (Cura te ipsum as the nuns used to scream at us after they had thrashed us without mercy.) Doctor Santa then gave me a flu shot, and I had visions of dying from it. I thought, “what music would one chose for one’s last moments alive?”

A number of people have mentioned the second movement of the Schubert Quintet. It is one of the most celestially beautiful pieces of music ever written in the West. It was written two months before he died, and shrugged off.

Schubert Quintet in C, Stern, Casals

But there is a lot of music one loves in a lifetime. Bela Bartok for example. He saved me from Johann Sebastian Bach. I was a hapless six year old fighting the Inventions, too stupid to count them. A new teacher suggested Bartok. And though rhythm was never my strong suit, in life or music, I fell in love. As the flu shot worked its way toward my throat to close it, I thought of this memorial to Bartok by Gyorgy Ligeti. This is early Ligeti, but throughout his career he composed beautiful and moving music. It is played here by the great pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Musica Ricercata number 9. Bela Bartok In memorium

But of course, if one wasn’t too out of it, one would want real Bartok. I’d ask to hear at least a movement from one of the six quartets. As I felt flu vaccine flood my lungs, I thought of Number Five. It uses elaborate Bulgarian rhythmic patterns (one might want a taste of the authentic as, with one’s dying eyes, one made out the white light — either The Eternal or the impatient orderly who wants to dispose of one’s body). The Adagio is strictly structured to have three subjects, one following another, ABC, then those subjects return. Not only does Bela invert the order in which they return but the subjects themselves. It’s sublime music to hear but also to count off as these small miracles of invention occur up to one’s final shut eye.

Bartok: Fifth Quartet, Adagio; Julliard Quartet

However, I was torn. The flu shot had entered my abdomen and pumpkin pie looked good. The Third Piano Concerto was written by a dying Bartok. Not Jewish, he’d fled to America to escape Fascism (funny that, today). The Piano Concerto was a birthday present for his wife; it’s a work of great beauty and the second movement is the last Bartok finished. (Tibor Serly completed the concerto). Dying, Bartok evokes the night sounds of his native Hungry, the universal spirit of late Beethoven, the famous Tristan chord. a homage to love in death perhaps as he thought of his wife, but unlike Wagner, Bartok resolves the chord on an affirmative C.

Bartok: 3rd Piano Concerto, Schiff, Rattle

I am not religious but Olivier Messiaen was devout. Perhaps, dying, one might want to bargain a bit just in case…? My belly was shaking – flu shot or pie? One piece in memory of Messiaen by Tristan Murail, one of his students (born 1947), might do. And, after all, Murail is part of a movement, which has an element of ghostliness in it, the “spectral” style. This is his beautiful homage to his master: Cloches d’adieu et un sourire (Bells of Farewell and a Smile), played by Marilyn Nonken

Murail: Cloches d’adieu et un sourire 

But I would try to hear all of Visions de l’amen. In college, my only friend and I would play this two piano piece at parties, and then wonder why no one liked us.  Wretched playing, maybe. It’s a wonderful piece, all about The Nazarene’s misfortunes and promises but wildly theatrical. That’s especially evident in this sweaty performance by Messiaen and another devout Catholic, the great Yvonne Loriod, with whom he was having an adulterous affair.  This is No. 5, The Amen of the Angels, the Saints and the Songs of the birds — hey, there are worse things to think about when dying!

Messiaen – Visions de l’Amen no. V (Messiaen/Loriod)

If my dying moments stretched a bit, I would want to hear something by John Adams. Several composer pals agreed we were less fond of Nixon in China than the works he composed around the same time. My favorite is Harmonielehre. Arnold Schoenberg used the title for his book on music theory (lots of fun to read). I’d choose the second movement, The Amfortas Wound, a reference to Wagner’s Parsifal but a summation of music that Adams had loved. Especially striking is the way he works in the amazing 12 note chord Gustav Mahler uses in the Adagio of the Tenth Symphony he died writing. There is a combination of sorrow and mind-energy, which just perhaps survives cessation in this deficient dimension.

John Adams, Harmonielehre, Part 2, Barnett Newman

But the shoulder wound made by Dr. Santa’s needle had healed, and seeing if there were a Family Guy episode on, I realized that I might want to laugh at death. Maybe the dread secret is that it’s funny at the final second. This is something chirped by Nellie Melba in 1910 from a useless work by Massenet that always makes me laugh. Trick or Treat!

nellie melba massenet-Don cesra de Bazan “Sevillana”

 

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