The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are dying composers and last works more profound and better? Consider Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Chopin and Brahms among others.

January 29, 2012
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

In their later years two of the 20th century’s most famous piano virtuosos – Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz – turned increasingly to the works of Mozart.

Both of these men – whose personalities and performance styles were so very different – agreed on one thing: Age brought them a desire for the beautiful elegance and profound simplicity of Mozart.

Composers facing death — some old and many young — often seem to share certain traits: I think of two piano sonatas: Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111 in C minor, and Schubert’s last piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 (below, played by Alfred Brendel). I think one could also add the late short piano pieces by Brahms and the last piano works of Chopin (below, supposedly photographed posthumously on his deathbed ), including the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, the last mazurkas and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major.

A few years ago, the famous pianist Paul Badura-Skoda (below) – once an artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — came through Madison and played an acclaimed recital of famous last piano sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. It is a great idea to add unity or a theme to a recital.

And several string quartets, I believe, have played programs consisting of last quartets by famous composers including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Why not consider symphonies, operas, requiems, songs and chamber music in general?

The composer, biographer and critic Jan Swafford (below) recently took a close and thoughtful look at what several of classical music’s most famous composers share in their last or close-to-last works, and what we should listen for in them and know about them.

The story in Slate led to a fine interview piece on National Public Radio (NPR), where there were some great sound samples.

So first I offer the NPR piece and urge you not only to read the transcript but also to stream and listen to the complete radio broadcast:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPWXZnYbunw&feature=related

And here is the full text of his article on Slate. It covers a lot more and is well worth reading:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/music_box/2011/11/famous_classical_composers_the_last_piece_they_wrote_before_they_died_.single.html

Of course, not all composers fit the mold. Robert Schumann‘s last works seems decidedly inferior to his earlier ones. But then Schumann was severely mentally disturbed and institutionalized toward the end of his life.

Are there composers whose last works — like, say, Schubert’s fabulously beautiful Cello Quintet — seem especially profound to you?

Do you have favorite last works and what are they?

The Ear wants to hear.

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