Exit Music: Choosing Your Final Playlist

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The last opera my father attended was Andrea Chénier, on April 9, 1996. Umberto Giordano’s masterpiece is on my very short list of favorite operas and was one Dad did not know. He knew that he had the illness from which he would die less than three months later and I wanted him to hear this glorious music sung by Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo.

I was concerned that he would not feel comfortable with the lyrics (Viva la morte insiem!) of the final duet (sung here by Pavarotti and Maria Guleghina) that praised the idea of dying together. But he turned to me and said that the music and words had helped him begin to accept what he knew was coming.

Before going to the hospital for the final two weeks of his life, Dad selected music to take with him. I did not get involved in this process, which seemed to me deeply personal, but was interested to see what he would pick as what I came to call “exit music.” His list included Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Debussy, Ravel, and Delius

Ella died less than a month before my father and I decided not to tell him. Someone else did mention the news and that depressed my father almost as much as his own imminent demise. As a result, he could not listen to Ella sing anything, including his favorite Gershwin song, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” whose text meant so much to him. The song, with lyrics by his brother Ira, is the last one George Gershwin wrote, and was the composer's own exit music.

In the hospital, I played the rest of his recordings and other music for Dad throughout his stay and, when I was not playing CDs, kept WQXR on all the time, even while he slept. Through the kindness of one of the station’s hosts, I programmed an hour of music just for Dad that we listened to one night, just the two of us, while most of the patients in other rooms were asleep. The works were Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and Montsalvatge’s Cinco Canciones Negros. I knew that these pieces would have very personal messages that my father would understand. I prefer not to detail them, as they are private, but I want to make the point that music can transmit feelings and ideas between people. Where words end, music begins.

He slipped into a coma a few hours after his hour of music on WQXR. I kept the radio on, but softly, and by sheer coincidence the music playing at the moment he died was “Parto, parto” (“I am departing...”) from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, sung by Cecilia Bartoli.

My cousin Alice Playten died of the same illness that took my father so, when I chose an opera for her to see as her last, it was Wozzeck in which she had performed at the Met premiere.  By pure coincidence, Alice’s last opera was on April 9, 2011, 15 years to the day after my father’s Andrea Chénier

I learned long ago that music deeply informs, consoles and ennobles people in their last days. While more research and reporting has been done about the theraputic benefits recently, I have always been aware of this and have made sure that loved ones I have tended to have had music available to them as their lives were ending.

Sooner or later, we all must say farewell. To me the best operatic leave-taking is Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, not just for the tender words but for how the music conveys his sentiments. The most haunting is Violetta in La Traviata, who says goodbye to the past as she enters her final moments of life. Maria Callas was incomparable in “Addio del passato."

Musicians can often pick their exit music, whether from the stage — Joan Sutherland sang “There’s no place like home" — or perhaps from life, as soprano Elizabeth Connell seems to have done. But few of us can determine what will be said about us or played when we are gone, though we have a better idea when those who have departed are musicians. The memorials for Joan Sutherland in London’s Westminster Abbey and New York’s Town Hall were full of love and music. You can experience similar sensations in this video of her service in Sydney, Australia.

Music at funerals is for the living more than the dead. Requiems are beautiful but the departed don’t hear them. I was struck by the music I heard at the recent funeral for Walfredo Toscanini: Elgar’s Enigma Variations was played before and Dvorak’s New World Symphony after. Unusual picks, perhaps, especially for the grandson of an Italian conductor. Nonetheless, these selections were quite stirring.

Maybe the Dvorak was chosen because it contains the melody from the Negro spiritual "Going Home." I love that in the African-American tradition a funeral is often called a Homegoing service. The implication is that the loved one is not exiting but returning. If I could program my own exit music, gospel would be the way I would want to go

There are those who say that 2012 will bring us the end of days. This apocalyptic vision helps sell movies ("2012"), operas (Götterdämmerung) and Mayan calendars. And yet, for some people, it really is time to say goodbye.  

What would your exit music be?