"Visiting Musical Ghosts in Search of Answers"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, March 30, 1997
A cemetery is a place where memory overtakes the senses. It may be the memory of someone you loved or knew, or it may be the memory of someone in the deep past, of whom you have merely read or heard. A cemetery, in fact, compassionately blurs the boundary between those two ways of remembering. Someone you loved has taken up residence in the past: the immediate agony of loss is softened by the calm precision of the place. Conversely, someone you have never met, or someone you never could have met, becomes part of your present life: you have ''visited'' him or her, come as close as time and space will allow.
Yes, I am one of those morbid people who enjoy visiting cemeteries. I like their deep quiet, their random curious names, their freedom from the here and now. Since I write about music for a living, I am drawn especially to musical sites; on various trips abroad, I've fallen into the habit of visiting the graves of composers, both famous and obscure. Here, on the appropriately morbid occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of Johannes Brahms -- often considered the end of the great Classical succession -- is a prose tour of several of the world's greatest musical cemeteries, from Vienna to Paris to London to Prague.
The most significant of all musical cemeteries is, of course, Vienna's Zentralfriedhof, or Central Cemetery, with its ''Musicians' Grove of Honor.'' Music lovers and curiosity seekers of all nationalities circulate among monuments to Mozart, Gluck, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Hugo Wolf. In point of fact, only Brahms and Wolf have been lying here undisturbed since death: the ''grove'' came into being when the Central Cemetery opened in 1888. Mozart's physical remains are not present in any form, since the original burial site was left unmarked in 1791. Beethoven and Schubert belong together, having been buried nearly side by side in successive years, 1827 and 1828.
The sites show, for better or worse, a distinctly 19th-century Viennese taste: grandiose busts, Muses bestowing wreaths, various golden lyres, a general preponderance of pseudo-Grecian kitsch. The day I visited, an American couple crouched in puzzlement over Schubert's visually cluttered site. ''It doesn't have the year he died,'' one said. ''Maybe they don't know,'' said the other.
They know all too well. Special luster attaches to Mozart and Schubert because of their early and tragic deaths. And the fascination with musical death has outstripped reality in its urge to rhapsodize. According to popular myth, ensconced long before the movie ''Amadeus,'' Mozart's corpse was hurled into an anonymous pauper's grave, amid rain and snow. In fact, the weather was fine, and Mozart did not die penniless; he had requested a simple burial in adherence to ascetic Masonic principles. (He died, in fact, at the end of the most financially successful year of his career, according to Maynard Solomon's biography.) Schubert also died on the verge of greater success, and his funeral was quite a splendid one.
We prefer not to think that these composers were celebrated in their own times: their true audience was the future, which is to say, ourselves. And at least one writer claimed that Mozart had to die young: ''In the realm of grandeur, of turmoil -- there is his native soil! and there too he tarried with zest unmistakable, in a land whose everlasting tempests and earthquakes must needs have sealed his early doom.''
The linchpin of the Viennese circle, in a way, is Brahms. Despite his boldness of invention, Brahms felt himself to be living more in the past than in the present. He looked back with intense nostalgia to the ''golden age'' of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, and his work as a manuscript editor helped codify their work as a central canon of musical literature. He edited his own output ruthlessly with an eye toward the judgment of posterity. It was in his time that music began to turn into ''classical music.'' Before him, the idea of a repertory of past works was foreign to the public; dead composers belonged on dusty shelves.
Brahms himself found a way out of this dilemma of the past and present. Paradoxically, the more he immersed himself in the past, the more personal and direct his musical voice became. The music of his melancholy old age is eerily free of restriction and convention; it floats into a new harmonic world and erases the distinction between melody and background. While the obelisk grave of Beethoven is fitting in its boldness, the heavily decorated Brahms monument seems radically wrong: the man is elsewhere, escaped into the purity of his music.
Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna
On the question of the future of music, the young Gustav Mahler had a famous argument with the elderly Brahms. As the two stood on a bridge over a stream, Brahms said that all the great music belonged in the past. Mahler pointed to the water and said, in a gently sardonic tone, ''There goes the last wave.'' Mahler had different ideas about the relation of the present to the past. Although he worshiped Mozart's operas and Beethoven's symphonies, he also reveled in the music of his time, feeling the early currents of modernism.
Mahler is not in the Central Cemetery; he resides in a cemetery on the outskirts of Vienna, in the wealthy suburb of Grinzing. The graves around him are richly ornamented, expressions of Viennese Catholic high-bourgeois taste. The grave of Mahler, in glowering contast, is an upright, narrow slab, like a coffin standing on end. At his request, it has no dates, no titles, only the legend MAHLER. ''Those who seek me know who I was, and the others do not need to know,'' he said.
It may seem to some that concert halls actually resemble cemeteries. In older halls like Boston's Symphony Hall, the names or faces of the dead are carved on the proscenium arch: Beethoven at the center, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner and others nearby. There are no empty spaces, as in a cemetery that has reached capacity. But Mahler has broken that viciously perfect circle; since the 1960's, he has moved triumphantly to the center of the repertory. Other 20th-century composers are following, in a slow and stealthy transformation of a seemingly motionless art.
Dvořák, Sibelius, Purcell
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the consumption of music was at its height, a famous composer could be an extraordinary resource for the smaller, newer European countries trying to make their name on the world stage. Jean Sibelius in Finland and Antonin Dvořák in Bohemia were, during their lifetimes, their countries' most famous citizens in any field.
Their graves are sites of considerable pomp. Dvořák, a mild-mannered man in life, is, in death, a gold-flecked fin-de-siecle apparition, a darksome visage on rough-hewn rock with boughs of a Symbolist forest hanging behind him. Sibelius is buried on the grounds of his home in the Helsinki suburb of Järvenpää: an austere square metal slab has his name etched across it in raised letters. It looks something like the nameplate of a big multinational corporation.
London's Westminster Abbey devotes an area under the organ loft to the celebration of national musical heroes. But Benjamin Britten, the most important English composer of modern times, is notably absent; he lies next to his companion, Peter Pears, in a church cemetery in Aldeburgh, the East Anglian fishing village he made his home and musical base.
The chief musical figure in the abbey remains Henry Purcell, who died just over 300 years ago. His inscription has a simple grace that long antedates nationalist pomp and circumstance, and is perhaps the loveliest ever given to a composer: ''Here lyes Henry Purcell Esq., who left this Life and is gone to that blessed Place where only his Harmony can be exceeded.''
Père Lachaise, Paris
Many composers and one rock-and-roller are buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It is interesting how few of them are French. The Polish-born Chopin is here, along with Rossini, Bellini, Cherubini, Enescu, and other expatriates. One true Parisian is Francis Poulenc, who has been here for only 30 years. His grave is a melancholy narrow hut with stained-glass windows, looking rather like a guard booth for a missing cathedral. The name Poulenc is a little hard to spot; most people scurry past it without noticing that one of music's wittiest voices resides beneath it.
They are usually following the arrows and markers scrawled on various graves -- Poulenc's, fortunately, was spared -- to the alleged resting place of Jim Morrison of the Doors. Like everyone else, I ended up at the small, graffiti-marred Morrison memorial, with its permanent nimbus of pot smoke.
I had to laugh a little at the sight of young fans venerating a musician who had been dead for 25 years. Classical music is, of course, mocked in popular culture for its attachment to the dead. ''Decomposing composers,'' Monty Python sang on one of its comedy records. Occasionally in music videos, composers are caricatured as cadaverous old men in wigs, sonically blown away by guitars.
Classical music is fundamentally different from most other arts because of its intricate interplay between creator and performer. A painting, give or take a few centuries of wear and tear, is the same object the painter created in his studio. A novel, give or take what theorists call the death of the author, is the same object the writer set down in her study. A rock song is usually identified chiefly with the recorded voice of its composer. A play is a little different, and closer in nature to a musical composition: the playwright surrenders a text to an often independent-minded group of actors.
The peculiarly volatile relationship between composer and performer goes a long way toward explaining the art's peculiar connection to the dead. Even when alive, the composer is strangely absent from the scene, already half-dead; he or she speaks through the arcane, ambiguous data accumulated in a musical score. Performers have great freedom, and they effectively usurp the composer's place by the vibrancy of their performance. Conductors gesture magnificently as if they had composed the music themselves.
And yet a composer's score dictates musical gestures with phenomenal precision: it indicates not only notes but also rhythm, emphasis, tone and volume. (Imagine a play that indicated volume level for individual words, changing speeds of delivery and the stresses to be used on particular syllables.) The considerable gap -- of time, distance and language -- between composer and audience may seem a weakness of the art. It is actually its greatest strength. It is the source of our sense of awe: the dead or distant composer summons sound in the here and now.
Composers are eccentric gods hovering behind the scene. They converse among themselves in their peculiar language: Beethoven quotes Handel; Wagner quotes Beethoven; Shostakovich quotes Wagner. The graves themselves are superfluous, a sentimental luxury. Every performance is an act of memory for an art that has been dying and awakening for a thousand years.