top of page

Famous Last Works [5&1 Classical Playlist #13]

There is no guarantee that one’s last words on planet earth will be weighty, profound or even memorable. None of us know the exact hour of our passing from these shadowlands, so the aspiration to leave a representative grand statement is futile. [Please note my resistance here to that preacher’s rent-a-giggle cliché of googling clickbait sites for some famous last words.]

Still less can artists ensure that their final work is either representative or weighty. As one might expect, sustaining creativity throughout one’s life is difficult. Many of those who have poured their life’s energies into making new things find that retirement, when it comes, is very welcome! Sibelius, for example, famously composed no major works in the last three decades of his long life. Others have continued to write, but rarely topped the triumphs of their younger selves.

This is why this list is remarkable. These pieces are genuine masterpieces in their own right; the fact that each is a last major work only adds to their poignancy.

Contrapunctus VIII à 3, The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080)

  • Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German)

  • Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque

Bach never completed ‘The Art of Fugue’ but tinkered and contributed elements to it throughout the last decade of his life. It features a sequence of ‘fugues,’ a form that we have encountered before whereby a theme (or ‘subject’) is repeated in sequence different voices, demonstrating the art of counterpoint. This is the technique of making distinct musical lines work in harmony with each other when played simultaneously. Part of the genius of this work is Bach’s decision to use the same subject for all the movements; each time he adds another layer of complexity. Even just trying to understand this makes the brain hurt; creating music that inspires and satisfies while doing this is little less than miraculous.

Bach never specified the instrument(s) the Art of Fugue should be played on, so it has become a proving ground for pianists, organists, string quartets, and even electric guitarists. We will hear an arrangement for a chamber group or small orchestra; one way to listen is to fix your ear to one of the lines and try to follow it as long as you can. The momentum of the music’s logic pulls one along. I find it quite mesmerising!

Lacrimosa from Requiem (K626, completed by Sussmayr)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austrian)

  • Barbara Bonney (soprano), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (cond.)

If Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play Amadeus is to be believed, his great rival Antonio Salieri exacts his revenge by covertly commissioning a requiem mass, supposedly with the purpose of driving him to an early grave in some perverted psych-ops strategy. Total nonsense, of course! Yet, what is undoubtedly true is that Mozart died in the course of writing the Requiem, leaving behind only one completed movement and fragments for the rest. So, for the Lacrimosa, we have only the first nine bars (‘measures’ in American!) in his hand. The rest was originally completed on the basis of his jottings and fragments by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr (and it’s his version that is most commonly performed today).

Yet, even with those nine bars, the pathos is overwhelming. The text is from the Catholic funeral mass and so don’t expect it to conform to sound protestant theology!

Full of tears will be that day when from the ashes shall arise the guilty man to be judged; Therefore spare him, O God, Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them eternal rest. Amen.

The music’s poignancy is only deepened by the knowledge that Mozart in all likelihood knew he was dying. Is this his way of mourning for his own imminent passing? He was only 35. Who knows what might have resulted had he lived even five more years?

I. Molto Moderato from Piano Sonata in Bb (D. 960, 1828)

  • Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austrian)

  • Alfred Brendel

How bright some flames shine before they are cruelly extinguished. Schubert was another lost far too young. He was only 31, but his final years brought him bouts of terrible illness and pain (most likely the result of syphilis). He knew he was dying, a fact which seemed to spur him all the more feverishly. In the spring of 1828, Schubert started jotting down ideas for what would become his last three piano sonatas. He was always spinning several compositional plates simultaneously, but there are grounds for thinking that these three (numbered D 958, D 959, and D 960) were the final completed compositions of his short life. And it is this, the third in the trio, to which I find myself constantly returning. 

It is worth listening to the whole sonata (made up of four movements) in one go. But for now, just focus on the first movement. The initial melody is worthy of a gorgeous song (I’ve mentioned before that Schubert was one of the greatest song-writers in history) and it is filled with yearning beauty. There are few musical moments that give me more teary joy than when that melody resolutely returns. If you want to know how the eighteenth century articulated sehnsucht, you can do a lot worse than immersing yourself in this sonata.

Schubert first performed the three sonatas to friends at the end of September. Seven weeks later, he was dead.

II. September from Four Last Songs

  • Richard Strauss (1864-1949, German)

  • Jessye Norman (soprano), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur (cond.)

Strauss lived a long life, experiencing German history at its most turbulent and horrendous. How compromised he became under the Nazis is hotly debated, but one thing is certain. He could justify his reluctant membership of the Nazi Party as a means of protecting his Jewish daughter-in-law and (through her) his grandchildren. This no doubt contributed to his being acquitted in the Allies’ denazification process after the war. 

He composed several songs in 1948, but they were published posthumously under a title given by the publisher: Four Last Songs. He was 84 and already had many masterpieces to his name. How astonishing, then, that he was able to add another to that list in his final months. The other three titles were Spring, When Falling Asleep, and At Sunset. All four meditate on our mortality, as Strauss knew his life was drawing to a close. But what beauty as he does so. September is a Herman Hesse poem, with him standing in a garden at the end of summer, as petals and leaves fall to the ground and the tiredness that comes of facing inevitable winter.

This is so alien for modern generations, isn’t it? We perversely live with what the American anthropologist Ernest Becker succinctly described as The Denial of Death. Yet, our ancestors were so much better equipped to contemplate our mortal existence with a healthy realism. As the ancients taught and artists down the centuries have confronted us, we all need memento mori (‘remember that we must die’). This recording by the astonishing African American soprano, Jessye Norman, was iconic, and the Four Last Songs are now forever identified with her.

II. Adagio religioso from Piano Concerto No. 3 (BB 127, Sz 119)

  • Béla Bartók (1881-1945, Hungarian)

  • Andreas Haefliger (piano), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (cond.)

Bartók died in American exile from his native Hungary. He fled in 1940 because his strong anti-fascist views put him at odds with the government after it entered Axis Powers’ Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, and Japan). But he never fully settled, even though his son from his second marriage had joined the US navy in 1942 and he took citizenship in 1945. He composed little in the States, until he was jolted into creativity by a leukaemia diagnosis in 1944. This brought an astonishing outpouring. His final completed (more or less) work was his 3rd Piano Concerto, written as a birthday present for his second wife and former student, Ditta.

Surprisingly, the piece communicates a light contentedness, a reflection perhaps of his happy marriage and also the sense of coming to terms with his own circumstances. The middle movement, in common with most concertos, is meditative and slow, marked ‘religioso’ because it sounds at times like a Chorale by Bach or Beethoven. But listen out for the sounds of the natural world in both piano and orchestra.

String Quartet No. 16 in F (Op. 135)

  • Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, German)

  • Takács Quartet

The last two years of Beethoven’s life were marked by debilitating illness. In addition, he was by then deaf (a process that may have begun in around 1798 when he was only 28). So the last decade and a half were spent in general silence (although he could still detect low or sudden noises). And yet still torrents of music poured out from him.

His last completed works were the Six Last Quartets, so-called. So picture him, deaf, sick and most often bed-bound. These quartets are not the most immediately accessible pieces of music, truth be told. But I urge you to work at this one, the last. By which I mean, give it your undistracted attention, try to identify the emotional resonances you might have with it. It is no accident that Schubert loved these pieces, despite the near universal scorn they received at the time. Schubert revered Beethoven and was a torchbearer at the latter’s funeral. Only a year later, he too was dying—and he requested friends play one of these late Quartets by his master. I don’t know of a more profound, simultaneously comforting and challenging, musical memento mori, than this, crafted as it was by a genius facing his own mortality.


bottom of page