The subject of death has been a focus of a large number of classical pieces of music from the earliest times to the present day. It is one of the few certain aspects of a life and understandably becomes the motivation for some of the greatest expressions of grief by many composers.
In this article, I will make a short survey of some of the well-recognised pieces whose motivation was death.
Classical Music about Death
1. Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss
Strauss composed this piece for twenty-three string players only. The exact meaning of the piece was not expressed by the composer himself but given the time of composition was towards the end of the second World War, following the devastating bombing of Munich it is very probable that Strauss composed the work to express his grief.
Strauss was not in the best of health and is one of his last works. His own death must have been a frequent thought during the composition which quotes directly from the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Eroica. The title refers to change but not the treatment of musical material that Strauss develops in a more symphonic fashion. Perhaps the title refers to death or even the transformation of the human soul.
2. Kindertotenlieder by Gustav Mahler
Mortality runs like a dark thread through much of Mahler’s later work. These songs are the setting of texts by the poet Rückert, of which there are five in the KindertotenliederHis own daughter died of scarlet fever in 1907.
It is quite possible that Mahler was recalling the death of his siblings when he was young that haunted him for most of his life; especially the death of Ernst. The songs were begun in 1901 and completed in 1904. Mahler revised each of them in the years that followed.
3. String Quartet No. 15; Op. 144 by Dimitri Shostakovich
This is one of the bleakest meditations on death and mortality that this Russian composer produced. The fifteenth quartet was the last Shostakovich would write, completed in 1974, shortly before his death. It is a lengthy work of nearly thirty-six minutes duration, divided into six movements that include an opening Elegy marked Adagio, and a fifth movement titled “Funeral March”.
It includes in is curious references back to his earlier works as well as deliberate references to Siegfried’s Funeral March from Wagner’s immense Ring Cycle. The quartet is composed in the darkest of keys, E flat minor and each movement flows into the next. Each also bears the tempo marking of Adagio giving the whole work a deep solemnity.
4. Piano Sonata No. 2; Op. 35 by Frederique Chopin
The famous Funeral March that has come to represent death in so many capacities is actually the third movement of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata in B Flat minor. It was completed before the additional movements and although has attained significant status over the decades since it was composed, at the time received some serious criticism regarding Chopin’s ability to handle sonata form.
The form of the march is really in two parts the trio section carefully distinguished by a change to the relative major of Db that offers a brief respite from the darkness of the opening. The work was published in 1840 and was played at Chopin’s own funeral.
5. Dance Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns Op.40
Based on a poem by Henri Cazalis, this work has become one of the most popular in the composer’s catalogue. If the legend is to be believed Death comes out on Halloween to play his violin and bring the dead to life, returning at first light to the depths of their graves. The opening of the work is wonderful as the note D sounds twelve times to represent the chime of midnight when the fun and devilish games begin.
The solo violin takes up the tune with its E string tuned down a semi-time to E flat that is played with the open A to sound the tri-tone or Devil’s interval. Saint-Saëns orchestration is superbly evocative and the use of the xylophone particularly chilling like the bones of the dancing skeletons. The work received its premiere in 1875.
6. Der Tod und das Mädchen; D.810 by Franz Schubert
Schubert already realized he was probably seriously ill with what was most likely syphilis as he wrote this piece. The work is one of the last Schubert wrote and is String Quartet No.14 in the dark key of D minor; one that meant similar things to Mozart. The Quartet is formed in four movements and inspired by the poem by Matthias Claudius of the same name.
Schubert had already set the poem earlier in 1817 and perhaps it now resonated with him even more at this stage of his life. There is a restlessness and deep unease throughout the quartet mirroring the struggle with death. Pain and anguish plague Schubert in the quartet with only a brief respite from the doom in the scherzo.
7. Finale from The Symphony No.6 in B minor; Op.74 by Tchaikovsky
In spite of the reputation this symphony has acquired over the years, Tchaikovsky himself was remarkably positive and pleased by it. He felt it to one of his best works and there are few who would disagree. Completed in 1893, the sixth symphony is structured in four movements.
It is the Finale that is most commonly associated with darkness and death as instead of a bright, triumphant conclusion, the composer leaves us feeling alone and in despair. Tchaikovsky never revealed the programme he alluded to regarding the symphony. He preferred others to speculate and work it out for themselves. The title Pathétique however, does not call for lamentation but introspection and passion. It stands as the last masterpiece that Tchaikovsky composed.
Much speculation about this piece being composed as a suicide note has been circulated as Tchaikovsky was battling with his sexuality and severe depression. We are unlikely to ever know but the eternal between humans, fate and ultimately death, run through the symphony from beginning to the fading conclusion.