Music At The End

Dec 31, 2013

When I was a student at university, I earned extra money by singing in a church choir and at a temple. As part of my duties, I often took part in services to mark the passing of a member of the congregation. Sometimes family members had specific music they wanted to hear; when they didn’t know what to choose, the rabbi or minister would select something he deemed appropriate, like Handel’s “The Trumpet Shall Sound” or Copland’s arrangement of “At the River.” The music was beautiful, but mostly I sang to make a little extra money. I didn’t think too much about the deeper meaning of the piece. I was paid to help people honor a life, but it wasn’t personal.

That all began to change in the late 1980s as fellow musicians and colleagues at the San Francisco Opera began to die, victims of HIV/AIDS. What I heard and sang at their services became more than just great music. It expressed the shock and sadness of the passing of so many young men at a time when language wasn’t enough. The music connected me to those who were gone; it would often bring me to tears.

When my father-in-law, Bill, died some years ago, his wife, Barbara, asked me to help choose the music for his memorial service, which was to be held in Connecticut where they had spent the greater part of their lives together. The service would consist of readings of poetry and prose, as well as personal stories and reminiscences. Barbara was looking for music that would connect the parts together and celebrate the life of this humane man.

We chose several works: the “Larghetto” from Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 12 in B minor, the Brahms “Intermezzo in A major” from his Piano Pieces, Op. 118, and Dvorak’s setting of the 23rd Psalm, which I was to sing. These pieces all convey a sense of rest and peace, but hint at a reluctance to let go. They underscore the mixed feelings of people gathering to try and say goodbye to a husband, father, teacher and friend.

Years later, when I talked with my wife as we filled out my Oregon Advanced Health Directive, we talked about what I would want to have played at my own service. I considered not only pieces that were favorites of mine, but also music that I hoped would comfort those listening and remind them of me. Here are just two of my choices.

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet holds a particular place in my heart, especially the slow movement. Its long, sinuous melody is both hopeful and nostalgic; it just seems to keep going past where it feels like the phrase should end – [maybe echoing my own searching hope that something continues when this life is done]. I would also want to include the final movement, which is so playful and full of wit; I love the passing back and forth between the clarinet and strings and the wide range the clarinet uses in this joyful melody. In this movement I would hope to convey a sense of my life as a performer interacting with actors and musicians as well as fellow workers with a sense of fun and collaboration.

From the many pieces by Bach, I chose the aria, “Schlummert ein,” from the Cantata BWV 82. The text contains the contradiction I mentioned above, one we feel as we remember someone who’s died. The text says in part, “Slumber now, you weary eyes,” which alternates with “World, I own no part of you.” I have been privileged to sing this aria many times, but I think the version by Lorraine Hunt Leiberson is the ideal one. In this performance this great singer, who died too young, fully conveys the timelessness of Bach with her rich, golden voice and impeccable musicianship.

Music has great power to speak to people that we love. It can help convey something of who we were, of what moved us and of how we lived. I think of it as a gift to those who remain and are left to remember.

Don Matthews is JPR Classical Music Director and host of First Concert.