Exit Music: Choosing Your Final Playlist

Thursday, May 31, 2012 - 11:00 AM

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?


More in:

Comments [32]

Don Wigal from NYC

The Gregorian Chant original setting of Dies Irae is nearly a cliche and thematic to many gloomy works, such as in Rachmaninov's Symphinic poem The Isle of the Dead or of course Berlioz, Symphonie Fantantastique. I would not recommend those to any but those who wish to be melancholic mourners. Rather, I find the ending of Kachaturian's ballet Sparticus to be uplifting and full of hope in the after life, as is ultimate expression of hope i9n the final movement of Mahler's Second.

Jun. 19 2012 06:10 PM
Alonso Alegria from Lima, Peru

A beautiful, truthful piece of writing, marvellously wrought, brevely put. Congratulations. Thank you.

Jun. 05 2012 11:57 PM
Constantine from New York

Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 12 (Opus 72 No. 4) in Db Major. As I've said before, it is an achingly beautiful piece of a bittersweet character, with the sweet winning out.

Jun. 04 2012 10:55 PM
NormanJDee from Manhasset, NY

I too have thought about this for a while and it does change every so often. The current standing is: Bach's St Anne's Prelude and Fugue - it's all about the movement of the heavens and Earth to me; Rachmaninoff's 2nd Symphony, 3rd movement - all about our sensual life; and then the happy farewell with Bach's Cantata - that happy duet for soprano and alto.

The Bach Chaconne and Brahms' Requiem last movement are often on the list too.

Jun. 04 2012 03:31 PM
William Stribling from New York

Thank you Fred, for your lovely story.

For me, at the end, something exalted, selections from out of Bruckner's 4th Symphony,and near the end of his 8th, the Elegia III from Christopher Rouse's Flute Concerto (1933), some whirlwind Beethoven, perhaps the wildness and drama that is Hermann Scherchen's Westminster recording of the 7th Symphony would do. Peter's string sections theme from out of Peter and the Wolfe (Prokofief I have loved so much), some Shostakovich (you pick it, the selections available are so rich and limitless), Samuel Barber (not the Adagio tho - rather the glorious bucolic music found in the First Symphony would be my choice.
The Elegia III would sum it all up (my life, my people - when my Cat Benny left us this past November, Elegia III became so awfully important to me. I shiver, cry and exhault when, at carefully selected, guarded times,I listen
to the vision, hope and resolution I find in this particular selection.
If somebody would put all this music together in my name
when I'm gone, play it once or twice, good. Here are the keys to my
apartment, you'll find the recordings there.
Love to all music lovers regardless whether they vote or not.

PS - throw in Paillard's recording of Pachelbel's Canon in D Minor, why not?

Jun. 03 2012 01:08 AM

Beethoven's 9th, Ode to Joy in particular, to celebrate a life lived well and the hope of something greater on the other side.

Jun. 02 2012 05:45 PM
Avery from Kent, Ct

Depending on my mood while I'm on my deathbed (if I'm so lucky), Nina Simone will bring a smile to my face. But at that final moment? Maybe Purcell's "When I am Laid in Earth (Dido's Lament)."

Jun. 02 2012 10:57 AM
Cathryn D'Arcy from Chattanooga, TN

When my aunt, Scotti D'Arcy, died in 1990, she wanted the recessional song to be "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." The organist obliged.

Jun. 02 2012 09:03 AM
Zeau from Oak Beach NY

For my rapture and everyone else's - Bach's Musicalische Opfer, and all the slow movements of his Double Concerti for violins, and violin and oboe.

Jun. 02 2012 07:45 AM
Ville Matvejeff from Helsinki, Finland

Thanks for this touching post, Fred!

I would include in the list of the most calming farewell pieces:
- "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" by Gustav Mahler, especially the arrangement by Clytus Gottwald for 16 voices a cappella
- "Nine otpushchayeshi", 5th movement from Vespers op.37 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
- "Die Allerseelen" by Richard Strauss

All good wishes,

Jun. 02 2012 06:48 AM
Howard from New York

I'm surprised nobody has mentioned several pieces that I think are ideal for a funeral. Strauss' "Beim Schlafengehen" and Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" convey, with ravishing beauty, a calm, peaceful acceptance of death. And what about ""Glück das mir verblieb" from Korngold's "Die tote stadt," in which the pain of death's inevitable separation of lovers is leavened by the hope of an afterlife? Now, that's funeral music!

Jun. 02 2012 02:50 AM
Kathryn Jenkins from NYC

Call me morbid: I've thought about this. I'd want the second movement of Schubert's String quartet no. 14 ("Der Tod und das Madchen") and the Op. 90 Impromptus; and some songs: Schubert's "Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen", Schumann's "Der Einsiedler", others to be determined.

Jun. 01 2012 11:28 PM
Dottie Gutenkauf from Plainfield, NJ

What a wonderful story...and what a wonderful piece! Thanks for sharing it.

A while ago I decided on my deathbed playlist--and the last piece on it is the "Agnus Dei" from the Faure Requiem. The list is in my poem, "In My Dying," which can be found on my blog (http://dottieg.wordpress.com). Its last few lines sum it up for me.

Jun. 01 2012 10:29 PM
Michael from New York City

And I thought I was the only one to think of developing an exit list to be played at my funeral! I'm working on selecting one song per decade of life, but I'm going out to "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd ("classical music" has some many different meanings, so I include classic rock among them).

Jun. 01 2012 06:22 PM
Ruth Shoenthal

My exit music would be Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekcommen."

Jun. 01 2012 04:58 PM
Laura from New York

I'd like to go out with "The Lark Ascending" from Vaughn Williams...floating up to heaven

Jun. 01 2012 04:40 PM
Barbara P. from Manhattan

I thought you'd never ask; I've been compiling my list for several years:(1) Ombre mai fou, Handel's Xerxes (either single voice or Eric Leinsdorf's 60's recording with chorus); (2)baritone solo from Gluck's Orpheo et Euridice; (3) Shubert's Entre'acte #3 from Rosamunda; (4)Lucianio Berio's 4 originals of Ritirata notturna di Madrid of Boccherini; (5) Intermezzo, Suor angelica, Puccini; (6) Beethoven, Romance #2, Isaac Stern;include some old country & western and great old blues songs;

Jun. 01 2012 04:34 PM
Marianna from Manhattan

Siegfried's funeral music from Gotterdammerung so my sons will remember me as their hero and be inspired to continue living heroic lives of their own.

(holding back tears at the moment)


Jun. 01 2012 03:23 PM
Renate Perls from NYC

You and I knew each other briefly at the Met before going our separate ways, and now I want to say a Thank You for all your interesting comments on opera then and now more recently

I think of my mother's favorite pieces of music..... her last time at the Met when we attended, not her favorite opera (Rosenkavelier) but a performance of Strauss' "Frau Ohne Schatten". How does one choose a particular piece of music for someone who knew classical music backwards and forwards and was also a fabulous pianist? There is great beauty from so many composers... Wagner, Brahms, Mozart, and so forth, but what seemed most appropriate was "Die Vier Letzte Lieder von Strauss", which was the last music she heard before consciousness left her, and the piece I had one of my clients sing at her memorial service. Exquisite.

Jun. 01 2012 03:10 PM
+concetta nardone from Nassau county

Very nice article. Since I am to be cremated, would like Siegfried's Funeral Music.
My very best wishes.

Jun. 01 2012 03:00 PM
Kenneth Barr from New York City

It would have to be one of the following, the Funeral March from Goetterdaemmerung or the Overture to my favorite opera Flying Dutchman. Somewhere in the middle of the service would be the Steuermann chorus from Act 3 (third part if done without break) of Dutchman. After all, we should all be entitled to bierstube music when we go.

Jun. 01 2012 12:50 PM
David from Flushing

In my life, there has been several strange occurrences of a music piece being played when I was notified of a death or on the radio after a funeral. This piece was the menuet from "Le tombeau de Couperin" by Ravel. I now associate this movement with the passage of a lifetime with its gentle opening, troubled mid section, and final fading away.

Jun. 01 2012 12:22 PM

Mozart's requiem, if time allowed. Otherwise, "How lovely are thy dwelling places" from the Brahms German requiem. It is both hopeful and hauntingly beautiful, and I've sung it for other family members who have departed this life before me.

I'm definitely hoping to make it to Heaven by the grace of God!

Jun. 01 2012 09:20 AM
Paul Hensby from London, UK

This is a touching piece on the power of music in people's lives and why so many are now creating playlists of music they want to be remembered by. My Last Song is a website that encourages people to select their farewell favourite five tracks. There's a shortage of opera lovers contributing so please put this right. All contributions welcome.

Jun. 01 2012 07:50 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Dear Mr. Plotkin,
Thank you for this beautiful reflection on a subject which is truly private and most personal. Your parents certainly raised a wonderful son! Two pieces come to mind and they are polar opposites - the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony (the Bernstein "Final Concert" recording from Tanglewood) and John Philip Sousa's "The Stars & Stripes Forever!" (the old Goldman Band recording on Decca which featured several former Sousa bandsmen). On hearing these, I am content.

May. 31 2012 10:40 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

If I could make a musical "last request", the piece I would most want to hear at my life's end would be Bruckner's 8th Symphony (but if I were only allowed 25 minutes or so, then just the third movement!)

May. 31 2012 08:55 PM
Matt E


Most beautiful and touching article. The power of music is astounding and goes deeper than what we know or imagine. Thank you for eloquently sharing such personal stories. While none of us knows what lay in the great beyond with certainty, the image of going home or continuing in a different form in a celebratory fashion sounds nice to me.

All the best to you Fred!!

May. 31 2012 04:07 PM

My 'homegoing' music would be quite loud and bombastic as I would certainly want everyone around me here or in the next life to know "there I go/here I come, so watch out!" I'd choose R. Strauss' 'An Alpine Symphony', Saint-Saens Third Symphony (with organ) or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. No daintly Mozart, Ravel or Delius for me! I want to be loudly announced when I go. Maybe Varese's 'Ameriques' would suffice. A performance of the Varese work by the NY Philharmonic during Loren Maazel's tenure gave me one of the more truly comedic moments of my NY concertgoing tenure but only because I was amused by the number of patrons streaming up the aisle to escape during the performance. One can never have too many sirens.

May. 31 2012 03:47 PM
Grover from Strong Island, NY

For me: Frank Sinatra "My Way" -- or AC/DC's "Highway to Hell!"

May. 31 2012 02:53 PM

Oh Fred, A loving and poignant memory of your Dad and beautiful reminder of how music touches our lives.

ANDREA CHENIER is also at the very top of my opera short list, but I've always thought that the sentiment in the words "Vincino a te" (with expectations of a happier ending) would be a perfect toast at a wedding instead of a wake.

For the everafter, though-I love the very last lines of Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Clouds" and now will have to think about music that might go with those words... still plan to do alot of living though and also do hope that you will have many long years before you will be needing that quote from ATTILA as well.

May. 31 2012 02:42 PM
Carolyn from NYC

I think I want to be cremated.....therefore, I think the "Immolation Scene" from Die Gotterdemerung would be appropriate...

May. 31 2012 02:38 PM
James Libby from New York

You may send me on way, Fred, with Handel's 'La Resurrezione - "Disserratevi oh porte d'Averno." with Hana Blažíková and Collegium 1704


Warmest regards, Jim

May. 31 2012 02:21 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Follow WQXR 







About Operavore

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore