The Importance of Death in Music

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Today’s subject seems somber. Yet, it can transcend into something much greater. You may be wondering what death has to do with music – a lot! Just look at some of the most magnificent pieces of music ever created, from Mozart’s Requiem, to Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata. In fact:

You can trace death in music back to Gregorian chant.

The Dies Irae dates back to at least the 13the century, and it may be much older than that perhaps going back to St. Gregory the Great in the year 604. This Medieval Latin poem, “The Day of Wrath”, describes the Last Judgement summoning souls before the throne of God. You may know this theme from Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

You may want to read this quote from Carlos Castaneda:

“Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.”

You may wonder what Castaneda meant by this.

Ideally, there would be a word that means both life and death since it’s all two sides of a coin.

You may wonder why composers have been so entranced with projecting death in their music, from Schubert to Schostokovich. I want you to be the judge of how expressing incredibly dark emotions can make great music.

I have chosen to play for you a movement from a relatively early sonata of Beethoven, his opus 10 no. 3 which was his 7th piano sonata out of 32 sonatas Beethoven composed between 1795 and 1822. In the second movement of his Opus 10 no. 3 sonata, Beethoven explored dark emotions in a profound way, although he didn’t specifically reference death in the title of the piece. But I believe this is a great way to demonstrate for you the power of expression of tragedy in music which certainly evokes death. You may notice that even in this dark movement, Beethoven couldn’t help but have glimmers of beauty and even hope.

We must all tackle these weighty subjects with some perspective. Death is universal. It’s something that we can share in a personal way with our music.

I hope this presentation has provided something meaningful for you today. Thank you for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin at Your Online Piano Store.

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