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Deathbed Music: The Final Works Of Famous Composers

A 1791 painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his deathbed, surrounded by his wife and friends.
A 1791 painting of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his deathbed, surrounded by his wife and friends.

When it comes to last words, there's a kind of poetry in even the oddest ones. Oscar Wilde hated the wallpaper in the room where he died: "One of us has to go," he muttered. Salvador Dali: "Where is my clock?" Steve Jobs: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow," according to his sister, who was in the room.

Writer and composer Jan Swafford was thinking about these and other last words recently. In a piece for Slate, he takes a look at another kind of swan song: the late or final works of famous classical composers.

Swafford says that final compositions, like last words, are often desperate, manic, indulgent and reverent. Some are all of those at the same time. Take, for example, the most widely known last work: Mozart's Requiem.

"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," Swafford says. "Mozart's operas, which are basically sex comedies, are generally more popular and more highly regarded than his religious music. Tragedy wasn't really his style — except, when he happened to be dying, he wrote one of the great tragic pieces of all time."

For the full version of this story, including Jan Swafford's thoughts on last works by Beethoven, Schubert and others, click the audio link at the top of the page.

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