Tuning Up - Spring 2023

Mortal Music

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Franz Schubert, silence, and the final reckoning

By Ian Bostridge | March 1, 2023
Close-up of cover of Schubert. Schubert? sheet music composed by Gernot Gruber (Wikimedia Commons)
Close-up of cover of Schubert. Schubert? sheet music composed by Gernot Gruber (Wikimedia Commons)

Death is not only the ultimate dissolution of identity, as all the physical, psychological, and social ligatures that tether it in place are severed; death is also that in the face of which we make our identity. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as T. S. Eliot put it in The Waste Land. Habits, interests, love, the hourly, the daily, and all the busyness of life. Above all, art.

It was the philosopher Bernard Williams who argued, in an essay on Leoš Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Case—about a woman gifted, or rather cursed, with immortality—that life makes sense only in the face of its finitude. We are “lucky in having the chance to die,” Williams concluded. This does not require that death itself be desirable: death can destroy meaning while, at the same time, the prospect of mortality creates the very meaning that death destroys. That, at least, is one reading of Williams’s long and complex argument.

It is somehow appropriate that Williams’s discussion centers on an opera. This is not just because Janáček’s Makropulos Case is about a 16th-century court physician’s daughter who, having taken an elixir of life, is now 342 years old and, consequently, in “a state of boredom, indifference and coldness.” Music is expressive without being denotative. It is material and precise but at the same time metaphysically suggestive, the closest thing this side of revelation to a glimpse of the divine. It is in music that this paradox of Williams’s can be contained and engaged with; that which creates meaning also destroys it. Music helps us to deal with death, with its inevitability, its incomprehensibility, its necessity. In certain pieces of music, we face death within a sound world that is resolutely alive even as it is transitory, fleeting, and always decaying. Music has, in Shakespeare’s words, a dying fall.

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