April 18th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

EDITORIAL Australia needs an economic reset after covid19 crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED The very young can still be 'taken care of' during the covid19 outbreak

RURAL AFFAIRS A national disgrace: Our great land sale

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19

GENDER POLITICS Do we really need to ask, what is a woman?

REFLECTION A chance for a change of heart: Covid19 as Memento mori

FAMILY Who let the kids out? The stay-at-home parent and covid19

ECONOMICS The oil cartel: The lesson for other industries from OEC

HEALTH Lessons from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic

CULTURE AND SOCIETY There is a war: The battle in and for hearts

ASIAN AFFAIRS What makes China different is not the Chinese but the CCP

HUMOUR Locked down in Covi Town

MUSIC Great, er, swan songs

CINEMA+TV Staying in; staying sane

BOOK REVIEW Not our Robin Hood

BOOK REVIEW At home among others




CARDINAL GEORGE PELL FREE: The commentary file

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Great, er, swan songs

by David James

News Weekly, April 18, 2020

In these dire and dark times, as we fearfully huddle in our houses as the Grim Reaper stalks the streets in the guise of covid19, one’s mind inevitably turns the subject of Death.

It has been observed, by those in the know, that many classical composers have died in the past, and, as an absolute certainty, many will die in the future. So, to calm our nerves – all right, probably not for that reason – let us consider some of their last works.

The best-known candidate for a composition that killed its maker is Mozart’s Requiem, a Mass for the souls of the departed. OK, it did not kill him; he probably died from some disease or other. But it is almost certainly true that, in early July 1791, an unknown, grey stranger turned up at the composer’s door saying he represented a patron who wanted a requiem on the proviso that his identity was to remain unknown (the “grey” bit is probably poetic licence, given the absence of witnesses, but I will play along).

The Requiem is one of Mozart’s most distinct works; especially as it does not feature melody, his greatest strength. Instead, it relies heavily on haunting, rich vocal textures and supreme counterpoint, lending it a slightly Baroque flavour. It is among the most otherworldly pieces in the Western canon, rivalling in its impersonal depth the best of Bach.

Four years before he penned it, Mozart wrote to his father that, having recognised death as the true goal of our existence, he had formed “during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind”, that “death’s image” was no longer terrifying to him but “soothing and consoling”. That spirit of repose pervades the composition.

No such serene acceptance was evident with Gustav Mahler. A superstitious man, he was worried that great composers, most notably Beethoven, had written only nine symphonies. So, to avoid the curse, he renamed what should have been his ninth symphony, The Song of the Earth.

He did eventually write a ninth symphony, but never heard it performed. The curse got him in the end.

Beethoven’s last works suggest a soul scattering to the winds, a kind of aesthetic dissolution that was far ahead of its time and imbued with the timeless. It is especially prominent in the finale of the Opus 130 string quartet, the Grosse Fugue, which is one of the great contradictions in all classical music: a kind of ordered mania made by a disintegrating mind seeing beyond itself.

It is said that Beethoven died after a thunderclap, shaking his fist at the sky. If that isn’t true, it should be.

Franz Schubert was in second stage syphilis by his mid-20s, so his departure from this world began tragically young. It meant he started producing music pointing to death early. But, perhaps because of his youth, he emphasised the transient joy of life rather than its end. His melodic Bâ™­ piano sonata, for example, has an element of the unearthly, as if peering beyond the grave. Yet there is at the same time an intense self-possession; it is the composer at the height of his powers.

What was probably Schubert’s last work, Die leiermann, in his song cycle, The Winter Journey, sounds like a conversation between Death (the ordered piano) and a man drawing his least breath (the singer).

There are many other examples of famous compositions at the end of life. Brahms wrote two settings of, Oh World, I Must Leave Thee. Alban Berg’s last completed piece was his Violin Concerto, which exhibits a kind of deranged lyricism that is an advance on his earlier dissonance-for-dissonance’s sake.

Bela Bartok was orchestrating the last 17 bars of his jaggedly tranquil Third Piano Concerto when the ambulance arrived. The ever-perfect Bach died writing a motif that consisted of the letters of his name (In German notation, H is B natural, B being Bâ™­).

And then there is Tiny Tim. In his last performance, after most of the audience had left, he suffered a heart attack on stage in the middle of a rendition of his hit, Tiptoe Through the Tulips. I could say: “Always leave people wanting more”. But perhaps I shouldn’t.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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