Composers' dying breaths became famous finales

March 25, 2001|By Tim Smith

Any time a composer is taken from this world prematurely, there is an automatic tendency to attach great significance to his last notes. Mozart's case is particularly touching, since he died so young (only 35). The question, then, is not only how would he have completed the "Requiem" he was working on, but also how much more incomparable music died with him.

Here are a few other notable examples of musica interruptus.

Anton Bruckner knew he was dying when he feverishly tried to complete his Symphony No. 9, which the BSO will turn to later this season. In the third movement, the last he was able to finish, he went so far as to describe a downward theme in the horns as his "farewell to life."

According to his maid, Bruckner was trying desperately to put the crowning touches on a finale the very day he died in 1896. A rough draft, missing too many details to be satisfactorily completed by anyone else, is all that remains. But posterity has not felt cheated.

That third movement of the Ninth has such an intense aura of spirituality that it sounds as if Bruckner could glimpse the heaven he firmly expected to reach. No other music is really necessary after that. No wonder Bruckner's Ninth - dedicated, according to a note written on the score, "to Almighty God" - achieved mythic status and is considered by many to be his most profound creation.

Gustav Mahler essentially wrote his own aural epitaph with a farewell trilogy - "Das Lied von der Erde," Symphony No. 9 and Symphony No. 10. Each work suggests a withdrawal from life, an acceptance, however reluctant, of mortality.

Only two of five planned movements for the Tenth were fully fleshed out; the rest were in draft form when Mahler died in 1911. (Several scholars have prepared performance editions of the whole score based on those drafts, helping the Tenth to gain a foothold in the repertoire in recent years.)

The first movement, which Mahler did complete and which is often performed in concert on its own, makes a startling effect. When the music builds up to an intense, dissonant climactic point, it is possible to imagine the composer peering over the edge of a vast, frightening precipice.

There is a lot of autobiographical angst going on throughout this symphony - and in the margin of the manuscript pages, where Mahler wrote all sorts of revealing notes relating primarily to his troubled marriage (he was one of Freud's first patients).

At the start of the finale, Mahler wrote one of his most chilling funeral marches, apparently inspired by a cortege he witnessed for a fallen fireman in New York. Also in the sketches for this last movement is a sad, final reference to his wife: "To live for you/To die for you."

The combination of that intensely personal expression and the mystique of a work in progress stopped by death has understandably given the Tenth eminent status among Mahler fans.

At the time Giacomo Puccini entered the hospital in 1924 for a throat operation aimed at stopping his cancer, he was still trying to write the final scene of "Turandot," currently being staged by Washington Opera and due back in June from Baltimore Opera.

It was to be a scene of love triumphant and unbounded, with a new, glorious melody that would cap his most adventuresome work.

But instead of a soaring, ecstatic duet for Turandot and Prince Calaf, the last music Puccini finished turned out to be the death scene of the slave girl Liu, felled by her own hand out of love and loyalty to a man who didn't necessarily deserve either.

A colleague of Puccini's, Franco Alfano, was asked to provide an ending for the opera.

At the first performance of "Turandot," conductor Arturo Toscanini stopped the action after the death of Liu, turned to the audience and said, "At this point, the composer died." The curtain came down. The next night, the opera was given with Alfano's conclusion. Subsequently, Toscanini hacked up that ending, creating a shorter finale that became the norm. (Too bad; Alfano's original, very colorful version has a lot going for it.)

Puccini, ever the businessman as well as the artist, would have loved the fact that "Turandot" eventually became a box-office champion, even without his final thoughts on the score.

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