Benjamin Franklin popularised an older saying that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. No one to my knowledge has written music about taxes or their effect on human life, but many pieces of music have death as a theme, or as a driver in their composition.
It just so happens that we are singing one such piece at present, Mozart’s Requiem. Death permeates the work. It sets to music the words of the Catholic Mass for the Dead; it was commissioned to by a nobleman to commemorate the very premature death of his beloved wife; and in the later stages of its composition the composer must have been aware that the chances of his recovering from a severe infection were very low. All this shows in the powerful setting of the words, where the music lights them up and colours them to reflect their deep meaning. There are angry sections, times of pleading, moments of sheer awe, and portents of eternal rest.
I was fortunate to hear two other pieces of music recently with deathly connotations. Firstly, the SSO played Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which was incomplete when he died at the age of 51, Like Mozart, he was at the peak of his compositional powers, and, like Mozart, his illness was the sort of infection which nowadays would almost certainly be treatable with antibiotics. Whereas in Mozart’s case, Sussmeyer had to complete the harmony and word setting of almost half of the work, in the case of Mahler’s 10th, the short score was complete. Deryck Cooke’s role was to orchestrate the short score, using his knowledge of Mahler’s other symphonies. It is a fascinating work, as usual with Mahler covering a whole gamut of emotions. There is, for example, a huge orchestral scream in the first movement, but this is said to represent not a view of death but Mahler’s anguish his own shortcomings leading to his wife’s infidelity. The symphony ends with the scream again, but then dissolves into a love song which, despite hints of bitterness, is compellingly beautiful.
Then there is Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden.” This was played stunningly by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with the score augmented to fit – a format which does not always succeed but which worked extraordinarily well on this occasion. Schubert composed a song based on the elegant short poem “Death and the Maiden” early in his career. In the poem, death is not a masculine entity authoritatively summoning someone to his presence but rather a feminine voice inviting someone to a happy occasion, seemingly even with the option to refuse. Then towards the end of his life – and in this case he completed the work and it is likely that he knew that he did not have much longer to live – he used the feeling of the poem to inspire this string quartet. Each movement has a theme in a major key representing life and one in the minor representing death, and right at the end of the last movement the music oscillates so rapidly between major and minor keys that you can imagine Schubert wrestling hard with contrary feelings about his own situation.
Listening to these two pieces of music highlights the intense feeling and meaning of both words and music in Mozart’s Requiem, features which no doubt Carlos will draw out in rehearsal as we make final preparations for our own performance of this amazing work.