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.
Silence is the ultimate symbol of death in terms of sound, but “until we die,” as John Cage (composer of the notoriously silent 4’33” ) supposedly had it, “there will be sounds.” Utter soundlessness, true silence, is not available to the living subject.
Gestures toward silence, however, are part of our cultural encounter, while we remain alive, with the nothingness of death—with our own horror vacui (the fear of that sense of emptiness and loss that we feel in the face of others’ deaths) or the peace and calm that silence seems to offer.
This relative silence, this imagined silence, can be an evocation of things that are inexpressible. There is that organized and audible silence with which many societies mourn their dead: the silence at a funeral, the two-minute silence in memory of the war dead that has been observed in the United Kingdom since the end of the First World War. These silences encourage us to think of the departed, to memorialize them, but they also necessarily and inevitably ask us to think about our own mortality. They bind together the living and the dead in a contemplation of a common end.
Silence is essential to music, the rests as important as the notes. But beyond that, in classical music’s engagement with finality, with death, there are especially significant silences that gesture toward nothingness. I think especially of Winterreise, Schubert’s great cycle of 24 songs for voice and piano written in 1827 and 1828. This work was composed in the face of impending death. Schubert had likely contracted syphilis in 1822, and although his death in 1828 came unexpectedly, possibly from typhoid fever, he spent the last six years of his life under the shadow of an early demise, producing works in his last 18 months that speak to a sense of mortality. Winterreise is a journey into the snow, white blankness, a journey away from a failed love affair in which the journeyer looks deeply into himself and, plumbing the depths of loneliness and isolation, finds metaphysical despair. He learns a lesson that Samuel Beckett (who loved the cycle) took up in the 20th century. “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—this is how Beckett’s novel The Unnamable ends.
In the 14th song in Winterreise, “Der greise Kopf,” the wanderer discovers that the frost has turned his hair white. The music in the piano expresses a sort of horror at this transformation, with a leap of an augmented fourth, that unholy interval that late medieval musicians christened the diabolus in musica. The wanderer reacts with an expression of grim satisfaction: he is one step closer to the end of his journey, the journey that we all take toward death. Then the frost melts, and our hero is a young man again—“How far it is still to the grave!” (Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! ) Schubert’s repetition of this statement at a lower pitch, barely harmonized, is followed by a pause that, when I perform the cycle, always seems to demand a longer than usual duration, an extended, unnatural, almost unmusical silence in which Schubert, the musicians, and the audience look into the abyss. And if we want to understand this biographically—which is to say, to understand it as the expression of a suffering human being, Franz Schubert, rather than a creator-genius—it is as if Schubert is repeating the phrase not to underline our distance from dissolution but so that we may grasp its inevitability and contemplate our own mortality. Silence points deathward here.
Schubert had a particular gift for what we might call deathly music even before his illness. One unfinished early song is called “Leichenfantasie” (“Corpse Fantasy”); another song, a miraculous setting of a poem by Goethe, “Wandrers Nachtlied II,” is a paradoxical evocation of stillness through a particular sort of quiet music:
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Ruhest du auch.
Over every mountaintop is quiet,
In each and every treetop you can
hardly feel a breath.
The birds are silent in the woods …
Soon you too will be quiet
The instrumental music that Schubert wrote in the last years of his life is not all drenched in contemplation of mortality—there’s a lot of dance music for piano, for example, an excellent distraction, surely, from morbid thoughts. But many of the late works, though anything but morbid, seem to speak to the listener as intimations and explorations of the evanescence of human life and the ever-present defining limit that is death. Here is the critic and philosopher George Steiner, in his book Real Presences, struggling to express these ideas, which are so hard to get a handle on:
What we can say, a saying both exceeding and falling short of responsible knowledge, is that there is music which conveys both the grave constancy, the finality of death and a certain refusal of that very finality. This dual motion, instinctual to humanity but scandalous to reason, is evident, it is made transparent to spiritual, intellectual and physical notice, in Schubert’s C-major Quintet. Listen to the slow movement.
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