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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Famous last words, even when they're not particularly profound, often sound poetic anyway. Oscar Wilde hated the wallpaper in the room where he died. As his body wore out, he looked at that wallpaper, and he muttered: One of us has to go.

Salvador Dali whispered: Where is my clock? Steve Jobs: Oh, wow, oh, wow, oh, wow. Writer and composer Jan Swafford was thinking about these and other last words recently, and he began to think about the last works of famous classical composers, and he wrote about it in Slate magazine. Now, like last words, he says a final composition can be desperate, manic, indulgent and reverent, sometimes all at once.

And it often reveals something new about the life of its composer. Take, perhaps, the most widely known last work...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")

RAZ: ...Mozart's "Requiem."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")

JAN SWAFFORD: One of the things that's interesting is that composers of his era, Haydn and Mozart in particular, were really more into lighthearted things than tragic things. Mozart's operas, which are basically sex comedies, are generally more popular and more highly regarded than his religious music. And tragedy wasn't really his style, except when he happened to be dying at the time, he wrote one of the great tragic pieces of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")

SWAFFORD: "Requiem," in that opening, which is the most famous part of it, I've always said, is like music of a man staring at his own grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REQUIEM")

RAZ: You also write about Beethoven.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You say that he felt death at his shoulder, which means what?

SWAFFORD: I think for years he was very, very ill a great deal of the time, and he had several near bouts with death from illness starting in middle age.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA 110")

RAZ: So what we're hearing here is the first movement of Beethoven's "Piano Sonata 110," which, Jan, it sounds almost childlike, sort of tender.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA 110")

SWAFFORD: Well, Beethoven, in his last music, got more simple and more complex, more crazy and more ethereal...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA 110")

SWAFFORD: ...more everything. He pushed every envelope in every direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA 110")

SWAFFORD: It seems so simple but nobody else ever did anything like this.

RAZ: And it sounds so completely unlike another late piece of his, which was the "Grosse Fuge." Let's hear some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

SWAFFORD: The "Grosse Fuge," it was the original finale of the opus 130 string quartet, which to me is partly intended to be a study in dissociation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

SWAFFORD: I've had a couple of students giving presentations on that piece...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

SWAFFORD: ...and both of them seem to almost be having a nervous breakdown when they were trying to talk about it...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

SWAFFORD: ...just one of the wildest, most obsessive and relentless pieces ever written.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

RAZ: Critics called it indecipherable, like listening to Chinese.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWAFFORD: And, of course, it was his favorite movement. He actually, because he was deaf, didn't go to the premier. He waited in a bar for friends to let him know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWAFFORD: So they came in and he asked, first of all, how did the Fuge go? And they said: It didn't go that well, and he exploded: asses, cattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, BEETHOVEN, "GROSSE FUGE")

SWAFFORD: The last thing Beethoven said, as far as we know, is: Applaud, friends. The comedy is over, which is an old tag from Roman comedy. The last thing he did after he'd been in a coma for a couple of days, there was a crack of thunder outside and he raised up, shaking his fist at the sky and fell back dead, which is - if it's true, perfectly Beethovenian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROSSE FUGE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA IN B-FLAT")

RAZ: Jan, you also write about Franz Schubert who was a torch bearer at Beethoven's funeral. He died just a year after Beethoven died in 1827.

SWAFFORD: Yes.

RAZ: Describe Schubert's last days.

SWAFFORD: Schubert, I think of all the composers, really saw it coming because he had syphilis. You know, his hair had fallen out and the whole second stage. It was not actually syphilis that killed him at age 32. He died of typhus, but he'd probably been weakened. He knew he was doomed to a very unpleasant death.

RAZ: And you hear that, that kind of forlorn joy in this piano sonata. This is in B-flat. When did he write this?

SWAFFORD: He wrote it in the last year of his life when he wrote some of his most remarkable pieces. And you're about to hear this little trill in the bass...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA IN B-FLAT")

SWAFFORD: ...followed by this melody resuming as if nothing had happened, this beautiful (unintelligible) melody. And I feel that for Schubert, at the end of his life, that music itself became a symbol of life, and it's as if he's looking at music from outside life, like a person who loves parties but can't go to parties anymore and can only look at them from outside the window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIANO SONATA IN B-FLAT")

RAZ: My guest is composer and writer Jan Swafford who's written about the late or final works of some of the famous classical composers. Of all the composers you write about, the one who seemed to be most at peace with his death was Bach, even though he was in great pain, right?

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE THY THRONE I STAND")

RAZ: Absolutely breathtaking.

SWAFFORD: It is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: I mean, it's as if Bach's eyes are closing right in front of us, those last chords.

SWAFFORD: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE THY THRONE I STAND")

SWAFFORD: I'm sure the Lord appreciated it.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIRD PIANO CONCERTO")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIRD PIANO CONCERTO")

RAZ: What do you think, Jan, about your own work when you hear these final pieces?

SWAFFORD: I wish it were as good as that. You know, there's the whole question of: why do this? If you're suffering and you're on deathbed, why write? And I think the answer is - and I say this as a composer - there's nothing better to do with your time while you're dying. And if it's a farewell to life, that's one thing. But it is also you go out doing what you do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIRD PIANO CONCERTO")

RAZ: That's Jan Swafford. He's a writer, composer and teacher at the Boston Conservatory. He's also a contributor for Slate magazine where he wrote about classical composers' final works. Jan Swafford, thank you so much.

SWAFFORD: Guy, thanks. It's great.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, the Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back with more news, stories, books and music next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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