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Deathly November

Beginning with All Hallows Day followed by the Day of the Dead, November is a curious month of celebrations of endings and beginnings, as we start to say goodbye to autumn. This month at primephonic we are exploring the idea of death in classical music and its striking ability in appealing to composers, many of whom were in turn inspired by writings on the subject of death.

November is marked by All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day) on 1 November in the Christian and Orthodox faiths which replaced earlier pagan festivities. This is followed by All Souls' Day the next day, celebrating the souls of those who have departed this earth, celebrated in Christianity, Judaism and Orthodox, commemorating all of the faithful departed. Many countries of the world celebrate in slightly different ways by visiting graves, lighting candles, offering gifts to the dead, from flowers to food. In Mexico The Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos involves similar festivities, and it is even a public holiday. To mark this special time of year, we have decided to drawn on death for inspiration.

Let’s face it: in classical music, we are predominantly dealing with dead composers. In popular music, we use the term “the late” before the names of artists who have passed away. If we did the same when discussing classical music the way we tend to do in popular music (just imagine how daft it would be: “the late Jean Sibelius” or “the late Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”), it would become the most overused term in musical musings.    

With death comes legacy: Whether or not a composer was lucky enough to rise to prominence during their lives, the works they left behind after their death tended to be regarded as somewhat of a gift to bestow on the next generation of composers, performers, critics, musicologists, scholars. The same can be said of compositional techniques, forms, manners of expression: each one strives for recognition, blossoms, reaches its apex and eventually falls into obscurity, to be replaced by another. 

Deaths of composers saw ends of eras. 1750 for instance, stands out as significant, both as the year of the death of Bach, as well as the end of the Baroque era, seeing a move towards the classical period. Bach metaphorically passed the baton on to his younger counterparts.

Let’s not forget to mention the towering monumental masterpieces concerning death: to name a few, the Requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Britten, Berlioz, Verdi and countless others, as well as the many settings of the Totentanz, the Danse Macabre and the Dies Irae; the list goes on and on....

Rachel Deloughry