This weekend, I heard a segment on NPR’s Sunday edition of All Things Considered about The Final Works of Famous Composers. Guy Raz interviewed composer and writer Jan Swafford who’d studied the final works of a number of famous composers and wrote his findings in a piece for Slate.
I found this segment fascinating. Two parts in particular.
The first, when they discuss Bach’s final composition, “Before Thy Throne I Stand”. From the transcript:
SWAFFORD: Yeah. He was in bed, blind. He’d been devastated with cramps in his hands. He had a bad eye operation. He was in bad shape, though he’d been healthy most of his life. So he had a friend of his play a chorale prelude for him that he’d written earlier, a very serene piece.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BEFORE THY THRONE I STAND”)
SWAFFORD: And it was called at the time “When We Are in Greatest Distress,” but he renamed it “Before Thy Throne I Stand” and made some revisions in it. Bach was a lifelong perfectionist. Even on his deathbed, blind and in pain, he couldn’t help making some changes and some improvements in the piece. And he renamed it “Before Thy Throne I Stand” because I think it was his calling card to God.
RAZ: Absolutely breathtaking.
SWAFFORD: It is.
RAZ: He really knew.
SWAFFORD: Yeah. Yeah. And he was not afraid. He was very much a believer and felt that he had done his gig well, and he was ready to go.
This reminded me of 2 Timothy 4:6-7:
…the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.
Bach’s story was followed by a discussion of Bela Bartok, whose final composition, “Third Piano Concerto”, remained unfinished. From the transcript:
RAZ: Let me ask you about Bela Bartok. He was a European refugee. He died in Manhattan in 1945 where he lived as a poor man for many years.
SWAFFORD: In the U.S., he did. He was – he had fled the Nazis from his native Hungary. He was quite sick. He had leukemia. Bartok was trying to finish the third piano concerto as a legacy for his wife who was a concert pianist. It’s one of the most beautiful, delightful, popularistic pieces he ever wrote.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “THIRD PIANO CONCERTO”)
SWAFFORD: He was almost to the end of it when the ambulance arrived, and they almost had to drag him away from his desk under protest. And he never quite finished the last – scoring the last 17 bars of the piece.
The juxtaposition of those two stories, dying content and assured versus dying discontented and incomplete, really struck me. It reminded me of that Oliver Wendell Holmes quote:
Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.
That’s a grim thought, isn’t it?
I know I’d prefer to go out like Bach, content and complete; though I also am aware I live most of my days like Bartok. In order to attain the first ending, then, I need to do two things. One, focus on getting my work done. And two, do (as Swafford put it) my gig well. All I know is, when it’s my time, I don’t want to die with my music still in me. I want to be ready to go, content and unafraid.