The Great Composers: When Last Words Are Last Notes
The last thing anyone does or says has an inevitable fascination, poignancy, and poetry. The fascination only intensifies when that person is an artist, in the profession of doing and saying memorable things. “There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote. “There is a door I have closed until the end of the world.” The old Joseph Haydn, who invented what we think of as a string quartet, must have wondered after his dozens of quartets which would be his last. It was the one he could not find the strength to finish.
Last words are pithier than last pieces of music, and the world remembers the apropos or the funny ones. Enlightenment genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “More light!” Gen. Robert E. Lee: “Strike the tents.” Gustav Mahler: “Mozart …” Richard Wagner, in the truest and most lucid words he ever spoke: “I feel lousy.” Oscar Wilde, contemplating the garish wallpaper in his hotel room: “One of us has to go.” Eugene O’ Neill, son of an itinerant actor, who was similarly unhappy about his last residence: “Born in a hotel room, died in a goddam hotel room!” Salvador Dali: “Where is my clock?” Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
Composers often turn to religious music in old age, hoping no doubt to earn some indulgence from the Lord for a few little sins. J.S. Bach was more personal. After a life of robust health, he suffered a sudden decline that included failing eyesight. He had been working on the Contrapunctus XIV of his monumental technical work The Art of Fugue, and for the first time in his composing had put in a melodic motif made from his own name: BACH in German notation is the notes Bb-A-C-B natural. After writing millions of notes, these were among the last he penned with his own hand. He never finished the fugue.
On his deathbed in the week before he died, blind and in the aftermath of a stroke, Bach had a friend play his organ chorale on the hymn “When We Are in Greatest Distress.” Even near the end of his rope, Bach’s lifelong perfectionism endured. He dictated a number of revisions to the chorale. At the same time, he renamed the piece, giving it a title from another hymn: “Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.” Serene and worshipful rather than tragic, it was his calling card to God.