If you're like me, one of the biggest questions on your mind when you read an obituary is the age of the deceased.
Subconsciously, perhaps, I wonder: Did he live a full life? Was her life complete, or did death rob her of precious time? And always: Was this person older than me, or younger?
We know that no one guarantees us anything on this Earth except, of course, that our time is temporary. Even so, we cling to the notion that there is an allotment of time, a specific number of years that makes a full life.
Usually, it seems, our idea of a proper allotment has a lot to do with our own age, or the ages of people close to us. I find that my own notion of a full life gets longer every year -- especially as I see people living productive, happy lives well into their 80s and 90s.
In that context, it's worth looking back 199 years, to Dec. 5, 1791, when a man of 35 died in Vienna much too young.
That young man, Wolfgang Mozart, died in poverty, and so the next day, Dec. 6, his body was consigned to a common grave with 15 to 20 other corpses. No stone marks the site.
Mozart's anonymous grave is an ironic contrast to his pervasive influence on Western culture. A new book, "Mozartiana: Two Centuries of Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes About Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," compiled and edited by Joseph Solman, contains the kind of comments and stories that help put such a blazing talent in perspective. In some cases, these help illumine our own lives.
A random sample:
Johann Adolph Hasse, a composer and contemporary of Mozart, after hearing the opera "Ascanio in Alba": "This boy will consign us all to oblivion."
Arthur Miller, the playwright: "Mozart is happiness before it has gotten defined."
Pianist Artur Schnabel: "The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists."
Isaac Asimov's favorite Mozart story goes as follows:
"I have been told that a young would-be composer wrote to Mozart, asking advice as to how to compose a symphony. Mozart responded that a symphony was a complex and demanding musical form and that it would be better to start with something simpler. The young man protested, 'But Herr Mozart, you wrote symphonies when you were younger than I am now.' And Mozart replied, 'I never asked how.'"
If those accolades make the man seem superhuman, consider these telling remarks from Donal Henahan, a music critic for The New York Times:
"From childhood on, Mozart suffered from a series of ailments that should have sucked all creative energy from him. Letters and other documents describe upper respiratory tract infections, body lesions, tonsillitis, severe toxemia, delirium, skin rash, pneumonia, typhoid fever, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, smallpox (his face was permanently disfigured by the disease), dental abscess, bronchitis, yellow jaundice, catarrh, pains in the eyes and ears, viral infection and much else ....
"What could such a sick man accomplish? All Mozart did in his last four months, with body and mind disintegrating, was to compose 'The Magic Flute,' 'La Clemenza di Tito,' the Clarinet Concerto, most of the Requiem, a Masonic cantata and some miscellaneous pieces. Think of him next time you have to stay in LTC bed with a cold."
Think of Mozart also when you worry about the random injustice of death. In the end, what matters is not the number of years we live. It's what we do with them that counts.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.
Universal Press Syndicate