Not all composers benefit from having their last works be masterworks. But a number have been able to create profound and lasting artistic statements in the final pieces they wrote before they died, a correlation that music historian Jan Swafford has explored. These five works all show their composers at the height of their powers, even though they all would pass on shortly thereafter.
1. Mozart: Requiem
Mozart’s Requiem is perhaps the most renowned work—not solely in classical music—but among all artist endeavors that was partially written in a deathbed. The circumstances surrounding the work are almost as famous at the music itself: A cloaked, mysterious stranger offered Mozart the commission on the behalf of an anonymous patron. However, while Mozart was composing the piece, the work seems to have become more and more about its author facing his last days. Upon its premiere, the Requiem appeared under the name of the man who commissioned it, Count Franz von Walsegg, but several years later, Constanze Mozart convinced him to give credit to the true composer. Walsegg called it Mozart’s swan song.
2. Bela Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 3
News of Bela Bartok’s failing health had spread through music circles when Serge Koussevitzky commissioned him to write what would become his great Concerto for Orchestra. However, the final piece Bartok’s wrote was the Third Piano Concerto, which he composed during the summer of 1945, while he was hospitalized with the final stages of leukemia. He was able to finish all but the last 17 bars before he died on September 27 of that year. The work was intended as a present to his wife Ditta, who was, like her husband, an esteemed pianist.
3. Richard Strauss: Last Four Songs
Richard Strauss may not have intended his Last Four Songs to be the final four works that he would write, even though three of the four deal explicitly with death and he was in his mid-80s at the time. He composed them individually. The first three, Frühling, September, Beim Schlafengehen, are based on poems by Herman Hesse. The fourth Im Abendrot uses a Joseph von Eichendorff text. Written one year before he died in 1949, they were titled, published and premiered with Kristen Flagstad and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, all posthumously.
4. Pergolesi: Stabat Mater
Giovani Battista Pergolesi was already in poor health when he was commissioned to write his Stabat Mater. However, his condition worsened in as he worked on the score. In 1736, suffering from what appears to have been tuberculosis, Pergolesi moved into a Fransican monastery outside of Naples. He successfully completed the score, but died only weeks later at the age of 26. In death, the composer achieved greater fame, says Baroque music specialist Simon Heighes: "Just when everyone realised what a good thing he was... it was too late.”
5. Schubert: Winterreise
Franz Schubert was confined to his bed, dying of what probably was syphilis when he began correcting the proofs of the second book of his song cycle Winterreise. He began composing the piece, a set of 24 songs that narrate a man’s journey outside on a cold wintry night, toward his eventual death, just over a year earlier and the first book of 12 songs had been published. But the second dozen songs, which contain the most chilling moments, such as the final “Der Leiermann” were published posthumously.