Music in the twilight of life
Works written at the end of a composer’s life tend to attract a great deal of interest. Contemplating pieces such as Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor, KV. 626, or Schubert’s Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”), D. 957, invites—indeed demands—that we consider the circumstances under which these works were composed.
Such compositions hold particular fascination because of the ways in which they might reflect upon or foreshadow death, and they encourage us to examine and question the boundaries between a composer’s daily life and his or her musical art. Perhaps most importantly, composers’ last works serve as reminders of our own mortality and the fleeting nature of our existence.
When we consider the music of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) in this light, it is important to remember that the famous composer-pianist’s brief life of 39 years was plagued by nearly constant ill health. As early as age 28, Chopin was suffering from symptoms caused by tuberculosis, complaining with macabre humor to a friend that “Three doctors have visited me ... The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying, and the third said I was about to die.”
In the last years of his life, he composed fewer and fewer works as his health further declined. In the spring of 1849, the year of his death, the singer Pauline Viardot described Chopin’s condition: “His health is gradually deteriorating; he has some bearable days, when he is able to travel by carriage, and others when he is spitting blood and has attacks of coughing that choke him. He does not go out in the evenings. However, he is still able to give a few lessons, and on good days can even be cheerful.”
It was in this sad condition that Chopin composed his last two works, both of them coincidentally mazurkas. He had cultivated this genre of stylized Polish folk dance throughout his life, result- ing in some 50 miniature masterpieces that show great range and diversity of expression. The final two mazurkas, in G minor (Op. 67 No. 2) and F minor (Op. 68 No. 4), demonstrate this.
The G minor mazurka represents Chopin at his simplest and most straightforward. The mood is melancholy, but the sadness is mitigated by the typical, lively mazurka rhythms and frequent shifts to major harmonies. It would be difficult to pinpoint this work as one of Chopin’s last based on the music alone, as it seems to harken back nostalgically to the style of his earliest mazurkas, which seems to have been the composer’s intention with this work.
The F minor mazurka, however, is altogether different. The single-page manuscript was found after Chopin’s death and was so difficult to read that the first publication of the work omitted the entire middle section. Since that time various reconstructions have been attempted—famed Chopin interpreter Arthur Rubinstein plays a reconstruction in his RCA recording of the complete mazurkas—so there is no one definitive version of this work.
When listening to this haunting piece, one immediately notices that it hardly sounds like a mazurka at all, but rather like the ghost of one. The opening sounds weak and exhausted, with none of the typical mazurka vigor. One reason is there are no downbeats in the first 14 measures, causing the music to sound as if limping, while the melody and ac companying chords are replete with descending chromatic lines, a well-established metaphor for death in musical works since the Renaissance.
Just as the music unexpectedly turns from F minor to A major in a tortured modulation, the downbeat is finally established and the piece begins to dance. However, this poignant moment lasts only a few seconds before the music returns to the gloom of the original key. A more energetic contrasting section
It is difficult to listen to this mazurka knowing the dire condition of Chopin’s health at the time it was composed and not ascertain a direct connection between the two.
ensues, but the specter of death proves unescapable as the opening music soon returns to close the work.
It is difficult to listen to this mazurka knowing the dire condition of Chopin’s health at the time it was composed and not ascertain a direct connection between the two. One cannot help but feel a deep sympathy for Chopin, and by extension the suffering of humanity, which can seem random and cruel. Toward the end of his life, the composer wrote, “The world has somehow passed me by. Meanwhile, what has become of my art? And where did I squander my heart?” Yet, despite Chopin’s regrets, his music continues to speak to us and to the human condition, and for that we can be grateful. Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel Island.