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

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:

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

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.


  1. […] Classical music: Are dying composers and last works more profound and better? Consider Haydn and Moz… […]

    Pingback by fabulous musical moments: Schubert / A. Brendel, 1961: Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Op. 15) – The Wanderer – | euzicasa — July 4, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  2. I can’t think of a better example than Mahler’s 9th. Recently, I revisited a video of Bernstein rehearsing the work, explaining each movement and the unique way each one revisits life and deals with the inevitability of death – leading to the conclusion which reconciles and finally accepts fate.

    With regard to the cell phone incident, I look at it as a positive. Hopefully more people who otherwise would not have explored the work took a look at it, thanks to the media attention.

    Comment by Jeff Turk — January 29, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

    • Hi Jeff,
      You are completely right about the Mahler Ninth.
      I think it was Bernstein (maybe in his Norton Lectures at Harvard) who compared the last movement of that symphony to Mahler’s own diminishing and dying heart beat. (Mahler did suffer from cardiovascular problems and died at 50 of them.)
      As for the notorious cell phone incident during the Mahler Ninth: Your view is a way of seeing the silver lining in that cloud.
      Thanks for reading and replying so thoughtfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 29, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

  3. Verdi, at the age of 80, gave the world a supreme comic masterpiece, after a lifetime of tragedies: “Falstaff,” his final opera. And the final ensemble is an extraordinary fugue, begun by the fat knight, and joined by the entire company: Everything in the world is a joke; man is born a jester … every mortal laughs at the others, but he laughs best who has the last laugh. “Falstaff” is a marvelous farewell, and a work unlike any other in its gossamer lightness, lyric concentration, and, of course humor! Much as I love all of Verdi’s other works, “Falstaff” has a special place in my heart, and it is one of the miracles of music that Verdi’s lived long enough to write it. Who could have predicted it?

    It should be noted that Verdi’s very last composition was a beautiful choral setting of the medieval Latin hymn “Stabat mater.”

    To your list and Mr. Swafford’s I would add Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and the 9th Symphony (the latter to be heard preferably without cell phone obligato!).

    And Handel’s final oratorios “Theodora” and “Jephtha” rank also deserve mention among great composer’s great “final” works.

    Comment by Bill Lutes — January 29, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    • Hi Bill,
      These are all outstanding suggestions for inclusion among the Great Final Works of Great Composers, especially because not all of them are morose.
      I am especially grateful for your idea of including Verdi’s “Falstaff,” which is clearly the culmination of a lifetime of composing operas.
      Same goes for Handel’s oratorios.
      The Mahler song cycle and Ninth Symphonies should be self-explanatory as choices.
      I wonder: Would you also add Schubert’s sing cycle “Winterreise” to the Cello Quintet, the least String Quartet and the last three piano sonatas?
      Thanks again for bringing your wide expertise and sound judgment to this question.
      Your replies always bring new thoughts to mind.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 29, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  4. The transcendent String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 (1924) of Gabriel Fauré unquestionably belongs among the late great works under discussion.

    The performance of Fauré’s final work recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet (Alphonse Onnou, vln; Laurent Halleux, vln; Germain Prevost, vla; Robert Maas, vnc) in 1935 and released on CD by the Biddulph label in the mid-1990s offers proof.

    Comment by James William Sobaskie — January 29, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    • Hi James,
      Thank you for reading and replying in such detail and with such thoughtfulness.
      Your mention of the Faure string quartet is a terrific and original choice for inclusion along great final works.
      I love Faure’s music and still think he is one of the most underplayed, underrated and under appreciated composers..
      Plus, your localizing the performance of the great work to a recording by the UW’s Pro Arte Quartet, which is celebrating its centennial this season, is added value.
      A much more recent but nonetheless acclaimed recording is by the young Ebene Quartet on the Virgin label. (Also included are the other great French strong quartets by Ravel and Debussy.)

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 29, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  5. A very interesting article, I do believe that when artists are confronted with death; as much of a harrowing experience that must be, it still gives them momentum to produce something that exceeds their very best work, simply because that will be their last attempt to do so, a last attempt to establish their legacy. My personal favorite has always been Tchaikovsky’s sixth, it is very difficult to listen to at times, for the sheer load and melancholy it carries, but there is something of an incomprehensible beauty that it transmits, ‘music from the other side’ as Swafford eloquently puts it.

    Comment by Rola — January 29, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    • Hi Rola,
      Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony “Pathetique” is a perfect choice for great and unforgettable final works.
      It does not lack for popularity, ut that doesn’t detract from the stirring greatness of the music, which can seem so personal.
      Thank you for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 29, 2012 @ 9:31 am

  6. i love music and musicians. nice.

    Comment by تور دبی — January 29, 2012 @ 1:46 am

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