Artists’ end-of-life creations and performances can be moving

Posted on: September 21, 2009

In Saturday’s (9/19) Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout writes, “Erich Kunzel conducted the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra on Aug. 1, a month before he died of pancreatic cancer. The audience, which knew of Kunzel’s illness, was by all accounts profoundly moved by his determination to perform in public one last time, and cheered him to the echo. Such occasions are extremely rare, and masterpieces created by artists who are about to die are rarer still. To be sure, many great works of art have dealt with the subject of death—but surprisingly few of them turn out to have been created by artists who knew they were dying. … Dmitri Shostakovich, who spent the whole of his adult life living in the shadow of Soviet terror, had already looked long and hard into the abyss when he wrote the viola sonata on which he put the finishing touches mere days before his death in 1975. Like so many of the compositions that he produced in his later years, it blends sharp-edged anguish and slate-gray resignation to unsettling effect. But the tranquil last movement, into which Shostakovich wove enigmatic quotations from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata, speaks of something more than mere fear of death—and it ends in a major key.”

Posted September 21, 2009