Culture, Music, and Death

Robert Kastenbaum. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

From Harmony, from heavenly Harmony
This universal frame began.
—John Dryden

So began John Dryden’s (1687) “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.” He was the leading English poet of his time, and she the Roman martyr who had been venerated since the 5th century and acclaimed patron saint of music about years later. It remained for Georg Frederic Handel to set Dryden’s words of praise to inspired music in 1739. By any measure, this was an audacious poetic fancy. Was nature actually set into motion by music? Does the dance of life owe its existence to a universal harmony? And how dare a good Christian suggest that it was music, not the word of God, that brought forth creation?

Dryden knew his audience well and reaped additional fame rather than condemnation. God could act through music, and even the laws minted by upstart science would have to dance to His measures:

When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head:
“Arise! Ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot, and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap,
And Music’s pow’r obey.

This imagining of music as a cosmic force would likely receive a blank stare today in nations ruled by commercial and technological interests. In the United States, for example, the most pervasive sound of music is produced and channeled through commercial media. Music is entertainment. Music is money. Music is what we “have on” to pass the time more pleasantly as we commute or jog. Compared with previous generations we are more often listeners than performers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, “the piano in the parlor” was a standard fixture even in homes of modest circumstances. By mid-20th century, the most popular “instrument” had become the phonograph (later, of course, morphing into the compact disc and MP3 downloads).

In comparison with much of world history, music today has become a relatively passive, optional, and entertainment-oriented experience. This can be said without underestimating the currents of vitality and passion that continue to flourish, and which will be discussed later. It requires an effort, however, to extricate ourselves from the prevailing scene and attempt to understand the diverse and powerful role that music has played in the way that people live with death. There is another challenge at the outset. “The music of death” is a term that verges on the oxymoronic. Would not the music of death have to be silence? And would any music devoted to death have to be a kind of denial, if not counterphobia? The nervous pedestrian who whistles while passing by the graveyard and the thunderous climaxes of the Verdi or Berlioz requiem—are these but futile ways of trying to dispel the silence of the void?

We will be in a better position to consider such questions after a necessarily selective exploration of death-related music in a variety of cultures through history. Few musicologists are satisfied with the categories in general use for classifying types of music. Each category includes a startling variety of music, and the supposed boundaries between types are frequently and “violated.” With this disclaimer out of the way, I will focus on music within the traditions known as religious, classical, folk, and popular (including counterculture). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Sadie 2001), runs to 29 hefty volumes and, even so, has been criticized for what it has left out. All I can offer here is an invitation to further exploration on the basis of a few examples and inferences, drawn largely from Western cultures and their roots in Middle Eastern culture.

Echoes of the Earliest Music

Even the most informed speculation about life and death in the earliest human societies continues to remain just that: speculation. The nature and function of early music are especially elusive because the elapsed sounds do not leave physical remains. Archeologists, historians, musicologists, and even neuroscientists, however, have picked up enough vibrations to suggest the following inferential sketch:

Music probably was created within all or nearly all early human societies. Music making is an ability that comes with our neural equipment.

The earliest music was primarily vocal. Emotions such as affection, anger, fear, and alarm were expressed with sounds and gestures. The shouts, laments, laughs, and croons were shaped into accented phrases that eventually rose to the level of what we think of as music. Imitating sounds of nature (e.g., birds and other animals) enriched the protomusical language.

Percussive sounds provided rhythmic accompaniments through foot stamping, hand clapping, and tapping on stones, wood, and other objects.

Social differentiation within the small band-and-village societies became affirmed and expressed through music. The hunters, gatherers, and nurturing women had songs of their own, as well as those common to the group. Children, initiates, and elders performed their own chants and dances.

The great events of life often had their musical preparations and accompaniments. Some but not all people practiced birthing music. Tending to the body of the deceased and encouraging the safe journey of the departing soul was a process fraught with peril and therefore required the right kind of music as part of the communal ritual.

Much of the music devised by early human societies was religious in the sense that life was seen as an interconnected whole with the gods above and below the earth, the ancestors, the creatures of land, sea, and air, and those who presently walk the earth. However, this worldview often had ample latitude for humor, pranks, and high spirits. Music could be as tense as a funeral process intended to keep the deceased from returning as a vengeful spirit, as hilarious as the men and women imitating each other, or as sensual as the nubile young strutting their stuff.

The Music of Death In World Religions

Archeology provides occasional hints of the role of music in ancient societies. An Etruscan tomb wall painting from the 7th century B.C. depicts musicians in a funeral procession. They are playing instruments common to the Mediterranean world of that time: double pipes and lyre. It is evident that by this time, instrumental music had become of greater importance than in the earliest known societies. It is not difficult to imagine that the musicians kept the procession moving together at a stately tempo. The Etruscan funeral procession has long passed beyond our range of hearing, but the “dead march,” as it is sometimes called, has since been performed countless times on the journey to the burial site in many subsequent societies. Every hollow thud of the drum has served to remind the participants of the mortality they share with the deceased. Societies in which sacred and secular power are combined have used the tread of the dead march as a reminder that one must conform to the regime. Even the free-spirited jazz innovators of New Orleans continued the tradition of a slow, mournful procession before swinging into “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they made the return trip from the grave.

Battle scenes have also featured musical soundtracks since ancient times. The scream of brass and the racket of percussion had practical work to perform: to excite the warriors and provide acoustic signals that could pierce “the fog of battle” with commands to advance, regroup, or retreat. Shouts and chants perked up the courage of warriors heading into combat, but whenever possible, their blood was also heated by bellicose musical statements. In later centuries, the rhetorical potential of music would be invoked even more impressively by frenzied shrieks from the bagpipes and the massed thunder of approaching drums.

Music also was cued up for victory celebrations. For example, after the conquest of the Philistines there was a rapturous response from the women who

Came out to meet King Saul from all the towns of Israel,
Singing and dancing to the sound of tambourine and lyre
And cries of joy; and as they danced the women sang
“Saul has killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” (I Samuel, 18:6-7)

A more solemn music was heard in the temples, if traditional history is to be believed. The praise of Yahweh would be sung as part of the elaborate ceremonies, accompanied by available instrumentation. The limited information available suggests that a division had already developed between a controlled and formal style of music in the temple and the more individualistic and spontaneous music making of people left to their own moods and inventions.

The comforting as well as the prayerful function of music was also known in ancient times. For example, a psalm discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes tells of a personal experience:

I raised a bitter lament and made doleful moan and groan and plied my harp in mournful dirge … but suddenly I perceived there was no more affliction to rack me with pain. Then did I ply my harp with music of salvation, and my lyre to the tune of joy; yea, I plied the pipe in ceaseless praise. (Sendrey 1969:193)

Music, then, was recruited to serve a variety of purposes that were considered within the domain of religion: escorting the living as they escorted the dead to their next step in the journey, preparing for battle and celebrating the death of enemies, comforting the grieving, and praising and invoking the assistance of God. These functions of music have endured through the centuries. There is another dimension, however, that has had difficulty keeping its place in mainstream Western religion. Andrew Wilson-Dickson (1992) speaks of the ecstatic dimension. Music can be more than a function; it can be a uniquely engrossing modality of experience, an epiphany, a trance, a transformation. In passionate religious episodes, the worshippers may feel themselves in a visionary state, participating somehow in the pure light of divinity. Hallucinogenic agents have sometimes been used as an enhancement of the hypnotic sounds and dance movements, although often music itself is quite enough.

Organized religion has often been distrustful of the ecstatic and sensual dimension in which rampant individual expression seems to threaten orthodoxy. Islam, founded half a millennium after Christianity, has long had strictures against music that is not devoted to worship and contained within the approved style. The worship music of Hebrews, Christians, and Muslims in the ancient world had much in common, particularly the priority of prayer text over musical invention and elaboration. There seem always to have been factions within each tradition, however, whose religious feeling thrived on ecstatic and sensual music. The Sufi order is notable in this regard. Their deviation from orthodoxy started early in the history of the faith with ecstatic music and dance becoming a core feature of their rituals (Neubauer 1980). Perhaps not coincidentally, Sufi music was also exceptionally inventive and appealing. Best known to Westerners is the dervish dance, still performed today although restricted and forbidden in some areas.

The dervish dance has flourished because participants feel themselves in ecstatic communion with the divine; it has been condemned because this ineffable experience does not depend on the priestly hierarchy. Deviations often rankle those attempting to preserve and strengthen a religious tradition, but the full weight of authority has its ever-reliable occasion for exercise: death. The case of “the Christianizing of death” (in Frederick S. Paxton’s [1990, 2002] term) well illustrates the role of music in guiding and regulating a sanctioned orientation toward death. It also provides some lessons about the price of success.

Christian Music, Christian Death

The death and resurrection of Jesus and the promised salvation for the faithful were tremendous inducements to embrace the Judaic spin-off that would soon be known as Christianity. It was a while before the new faith established a canon of sacred writings, a central authority, and the beginnings of an effective management system. Hope for the triumph over death was still in the air and a variety of doctrines and speculations were open for discussion during the interval between the lifetime of Jesus and the creation of a strong papal authority.

The Music of the Spheres

Music fared well in some of these conceptions as a heritage of preexisting Greek thought. Clement of Alexandria (2nd century) was among the first to voice the theme later expressed by Dryden: God has tuned creation with His divine music, transforming discord into consonance (McKinnon 1987). The universe was now the Christian song of God. Previously, the celestial bodies had been moved through their stations by the Muses, and it was their song that produced the harmonious music of the spheres (Meyer-Baer 1970).

Clement and some other early Christian thinkers retained well-entrenched pagan elements. The soul after death proceeds on a purifying journey accompanied by the appropriate traveling music. There was also a distinctive difference from pre-Christian conceptions: The heavenly harmony is not experienced until the afterlife. By implication, life on earth is discord that is not resolved until the soul has been purified during its passage through death.

Early conceptions of the music of the spheres receive little attention today, yet their influence is audible in countless musical works that conclude with a shimmering consonance. Whether chant, song, or symphony, a musical piece can end just by ending, or it can die away softly or stamp its way to a thumping climax. How a piece of music ends can be regarded as a symbolic or mystic parallel to the end of a life (e.g., Hopkins’s [1990] dry but informative Closure and Mahler’s Music). Completing a piece of music with an “inspiring” moment of consonance has long been a cliché, but it has an even longer history as an echo of the ancient’s music of the spheres.

From the Profane to the Sacred: Chanting to Heaven

The anticipated blessings of eternal life gradually became overshadowed by fear of damnation and a generalized anxiety as the centuries passed and people continued to suffer and die with only the occasional false messiah on the scene. The darkest recess of the dark ages was the dread of an afterlife more horrifying than death. Life was always perilous, often an ordeal, and all were sinners awaiting damnation unless God chose to bestow His mercy. Furthermore, many believers lived in apprehension that the end of days would soon be at hand. Visions of horrendous punishment were described in the scriptures known as Revelation. (The fact that few could read the Bible for themselves left the many vulnerable to the most unnerving reports.) It was not merely one’s own soul that would face its jeopardy at the moment of death, but the entire race of sinners who, in Adam’s fall, fell all.

Unfortunately, music had been added to the list of temptations, one more trap for the weak or unwary sinner. As usual, women were specialists in leading men to the fires of hell. A stern bishop of the fourth century condemned those who would teach “a miserable woman” to stretch her hands licentiously on the lyre instead of obediently on the spindle (McKinnon 1987). Beware of music and its seductive charms—or so cautioned the authorities.

Nevertheless, music was too powerful and effective a force to restrain entirely. The Church soon learned to distinguish the sacred from the profane in music. Bawdy songs and lively rhythms put the wrong sort of thoughts into Christian minds. An impressive alternative developed within the Church itself. Massed voices were raised in prayer as monasteries and convents became established throughout the ever-expanding Christian realm. These offerings of praise and vows of rectitude were more impressive and satisfying when regulated by a steady rhythm and shaped by phrasing and accentuation. Ancient Greek and Hebrew temples had resounded to the chant singing of prayer, and other societies had also discovered that communication to the gods was more effective when enhanced by music. Sacred chant became the foundation for Christian worship music as well.

The function and significance of religious chant becomes clearer if we can imagine ourselves in 6th-century Rome. The formidable Roman Empire had come undone. Naked aggression and brutality devastated Europe as numerous factions seized their opportunities. The Church was still a long way from establishing hegemony but in a favorable position to restore order if it could muster a winning combination of managerial skill, force, and appeal to faith. At this point, a leader of rare skill emerged. The son of a wealthy patrician became Pope Gregory in 1590 after outstanding service in other official capacities. With unflagging energy and skill, he strengthened and solidified the papacy and reformed the Roman liturgy, a cornerstone of Catholic worship. Within this context, Gregorian chant became the standard form of musical worship. Several versions of the liturgy had been current, each with its own forms and rituals. Gregory wanted uniformity in worship and saw to it that Ambrosian, Celtic, Gallican, and Mozarabic elements were absorbed into the revised liturgy and its musical expression. The fact that all voices now recited the same texts to the same musical forms was a demonstration that the Church was based on a solid rock of faith.

Gregorian chant also affirmed the priority of text over music. The holy words of praise and invocation were the essential worship elements; music had the responsibility of conveying these words with simple clarity. The ecstatic, the individual, and the virtuosic possibilities of music were excluded—but would eventually pose an unsettling challenge. The Office of the Dead was among the texts to be intoned when appropriate. The resonances between chant and death were also broader and more subtle. Death was a conspicuous physical and spiritual presence in medieval society. As children later joined hands in a circle dance to sing “Ring around the rosie, all fall down,” so those in the service of the Church joined their voices to close ranks against death. Dressed identically and living essentially the same lives through the same routines, they were to that extent spared being isolated targets of mortal peril and divine wrath.

“Go, It Is the Dismissal”: Music for the Dead

Gregorian chants were still being fervently performed 500 years after their introduction. More complex forms of Church music, however, had also started to break through to create their own traditions, assisted to some extent by the invention of written notation that made it easier to disseminate music and introduce more elaborate and subtle techniques. Furthermore, increasing Church prosperity and grandeur were producing the astonishing performance spaces of the vaulted cathedral as well as an appetite for music and art to glorify God.

The mass for the dead was a response to this opportunity. The term itself derives from the last words of the Lord’s Supper, also known as the Eucharist Feast. “Ite, missa est, became missa, which eventually became Anglicized as mass. Of particular importance here is the missa pro defunctis, or Mass for the Dead. Both new texts and new musical expressions were introduced as the formerly ascetic ritual found a powerful rival in the blaze of musical and theatrical splendor suited for the impressive new cathedrals. The ear was now astounded by the interplay of voices (polyphony), sometimes topped by a soaring melismatic line. Churches could now compete with each other for the most proficient and spectacular musical offerings.

The text remained at the core of the mass (or requiem) service, although there were increasing complaints that the words were obscured by the newfangled music. Over the years, a more or less standard collection of texts became established for the complete presentation of the mass or requiem for the dead (missa breve, truncated versions, also were performed). The continuity of text provides a link with the past while the musical treatment has varied markedly. We take our example from Giuseppi Verdi’s Messa da Requeim, premiered (1874) in Milan’s Chiesa di San Marco and immediately acknowledged as a crowning glory of the tradition despite or because of its extremely dramatic and quasi-operatic style.

The attitude toward death in Catholic worship is apparent throughout. Requiem, the first of the seven major sections, beseeches the Lord to grant the dead eternal rest in His perpetual light: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. The mood shifts dramatically for the Dies irae: “This Day of Wrath shall consume the world in ashes” (Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla). The Dies irae continues with a terrifying vision of the Day of Judgment,Tuba mirum: “The trumpet, blasting its aweful sound across the graves of all lands, summons all before the throne. Death and nature shall be stunned when mankind arises to give account before the judge.” Liber scriptus warns that all the hidden sins will be revealed when the judge takes his seat: nothing will remain unavenged (nil inultum remanebit). The lengthy Dies irae section continues by ratcheting up the damnation anxiety for even the just man (Quid sum miser); a ferocious outburst at Rex tremendae (“King of awful majesty…save me”); Recordare’s subtle but abject plea for salvation (“Remember, gentle Jesus, that I am the reason for Thy time on earth”); and a despairing admission of unworthiness atIngemisco (“I groan, like the sinner I am”).

The Confutatis section of the Dies irae deserves to be given in full because it so well encapsulates the anxious state of the Christian in apprehension of death, as this stressful condition carries forward from the dark medieval spirit: “When the dead damned are cast away and consigned to the searing flames, call me to be with the blessed. Bowed down in supplication I beg Thee, my heart as though ground to ashes: help me in my last hour.” The Dies irae concludes with Lacrimosa’s plea that “Gentle Lord Jesus” will grant mercy on “this day full of tears.” The Messa da Requiem continues well beyond this section, but themes of fear and hope continue to appear, often in recycled text. The final words, Libera me, Domine, implore the Lord to give safe conduct through death to salvation.

A full-length requiem mass packs an emotional wallop, especially if we consider the physicality of the performance itself—a large force of vocalists and musicians within an imposing and acoustically magnificent setting, and all in company with many other mortals who are consumed with hopes, doubts, and fears. The individual listener might respond most intensely to the horrors of punishment and damnation or the prospect of forgiveness and salvation. Whatever the individual reaction, however, it is clear that death was no longer the natural ending depicted in the Old Testament—”For all flesh is as grass”—but a cosmic crucible in which the just are harvested to heaven and the unjust despised as chaff.

Some of the most towering masterpieces of Western music were created in the form of the mass service. Composers have risen to the challenge with inspiration and virtuoso technique. A short list would include the J. S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor; Mozart’s Mass in C Minor as well as his more famous Requiem (both works left unfinished); Beethoven’s still-daunting Missa Solemnis; Berlioz’s sensational contribution to the genre, and Dvorak’s more conventional but deeply moving requiem (as well as his even more affecting Stabat Mater). Brahms broke new ground with his German Requiem, not only for using the language of the people rather than Latin, but also for hearkening back to a more naturalistic view of death (including an “all flesh is as grass” passage) and for focusing on the human condition rather than divine judgment and intervention. The 20th century yielded perhaps the most gentle and comforting of all requiems, that composed by Gabriel Faure. Benjamin Britten’s searing War Requiem contrasted traditional texts with poetry written by young men who were killed in battle. The premiere was especially poignant, taking place in Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt after a devastating air raid, with performers from the nations that had been at each other’s throats during World War II. The 20th century’s ordeal through violence and horror has been represented by numerous works that call on jagged and discordant music, including the powerful Dies irae in which Krzysztof Pendericki commemorates the victims of Nazi brutality at Auschwitz. The Missa Luba, based on Congolese music, demonstrated the potential for significant mass settings beyond the mainstream Western tradition (one of its movements, “Gloria,” even become a worldwide popular hit).

There may be two reasons why the Dies irae text has received so many musical settings through the centuries. First, obviously, is its distillation of the mortal soul’s fear of the wrath of God. Perhaps just as influential, however, is the fact that these words were set to melody of haunting simplicity when the canon of texts and the form of sacred chanting were becoming firmly established. Thomas of Celano, a 13th-century monk, wrote a poem of 18 stanzas that was intended to amplify the already existent Libera me text. He composed or adapted a melody that, once heard, was difficult to forget. We hear it not only in vocal settings of the mass from the distant past but also in purely instrumental music where it has become a favorite, if not an obsession of prominent composers. Camille Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre demonstrated how creepy this theme can be, providing a model for much subsequent Halloween-type music. Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of not a few death-haunted composers, slid this theme into many of his works, including the otherwise upbeat Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The prize for most audacious use of the Dies irae theme continues to rest with Hector Berlioz’s thundering orchestration in his Symphonie Fantastique. One of the most subtle and often unrecognized employments of this theme occurs in the orchestral work most often considered to be the first statement of modernism. In The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky insinuates the Dies irae theme into the music that precedes the sacrifice of the virgin and puts the ancient tune through a variety of permutations that listeners tend to sense rather than actually hear. Dimitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, perhaps his most accomplished, offers a powerful brass fantasy on the Dies irae and then skitters away with manic and mocking variations. There was also a more informal and ubiquitous infestation of the melody for many generations as children grew up gleefully singing “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out”—a tune derived from Thomas of Celano.

There is an odd little lesson to learn from this poetic and musical monk: A good tune can carry along a variety of texts. Thomas of Celano is generally regarded as the father of the Christmas carol. (“Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is one of the enduring compositions attributed to him.) He did what many another quick-thinking (or time-pressured) creative person has done through the centuries: put new words to an old tune or vice versa. Bach, for example, appropriated the melody of a then-famous love song whose English translation would be “Innsbruck [lady] I must leave you” for his St. Matthew’s Passions where it became “O world, I must leave you.” Perpetrators of musical commercials have made their fortunes in usurping a melody once used for “higher purposes” in merchandising fast food or beer.

The Candle Flickers: Decline of Establishment Church Music

For a long day in the history of Western civilization, worship was at the center of communal life, and sacred music shaped expressions of hope and fear regarding death. Even a long day comes to an end, though. One major cause was the continuing development and expansion of the art of the music within a religious establishment that increasingly dug in its heels and resisted change. In the later Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the Church made a place for the most creative composers and a training ground for the most accomplished performers. As time went by, though, decisions were made by officials with little understanding or affection for music who were intimidated and provoked by innovation. The Puritans and some other sects made a point of opposing all but the most simplistic pietisms, and the more general level of performance (and listening) faded into submediocrity (Wilson-Dickson 1992). Composers with outstanding talent were forced to make their way elsewhere—a situation that accelerated the development of public concert music. Similarly, believers who longed for a more passionate and engaging kind of music started to find pathways of expression beyond conventional church attendance.

There were also significant extramusical reasons for the decline. Church authorities had become relentless in their efforts to raise additional funds. Pope Gregory had encouraged performing the mass as a boon for souls suffering in the afterlife. Half a millennium later, the Church started to mine the financial potential by accepting the long-spurned doctrine of Purgatory. Many mortals lead imperfect lives and are cast into Purgatory where they suffer terribly but still have some hope of redemption. The living can shorten the tenure in Purgatory of their kind by sponsoring mass performances, the more the better. The Crusades provided a windfall as noblemen set aside large sums to pay in advance before they set off on their mission. In fact, part of the appeal of the Crusades was the Church’s assurance that sins could be forgiven through this service.

The Reformation was sparked by indignation at the Church’s continuing practice of imposing what amounted to sin taxes on the populace. The requiem mass was only one of the methods, but a conspicuous one. Protestantism would also find a place for music in worship, but in general, services were simplified, and whatever smacked of ostentation was rejected as a distraction from true faith. Martin Luther himself did much to develop a new tradition of music in the language of the people. Expressions of faith and hope became more personal in hymns and songs that people could understand and sing for themselves.

“The tide of faith” (in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach phrase) would gradually ebb as commerce, technology, and science made this earthly life seem more promising and the ultimate fate of the soul more distant. Religion remained important in the lives of many people, but control over the masses through threat of postdeath punishment became less effective. Music had to make its own way in the marketplace, and even the most learned and elaborate settings of sacred text were more likely to be performed in concert than any but the most favored church venues.

Opera: “A Song of Love and Death”

Opera eventually became the big ticket in classical Western music. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (Orpheus), premiered in Venice in 1607 for an elite invited audience, was the first work of genius in this genre. The story centered on an authentically snake-bitten romance. The beautiful and virtuous Eurydice falls victim to a deadly serpent. Her distraught fiancé resolves to brave the demons of Hades to rescue her. The effort is valiant and exciting but… alas! The fiancé/hero was none other than Orpheus, son of Calliope, the Muse of poetry. According to Greek mythology, Orpheus invented the string instrument and represented the spirit of music in its most exalted form. His descent into the Underworld is one of several enduring myths in which a living hero dares to enter the Land of the Dead.Monteverdi’s Orfeo has a special place in the history of the performing arts as an imaginative reconstruction of Greek theater in which speech, music, dance, and action were integrated into a compelling whole (Boyden 1999; Meller 1981). It is of far more than historical significance, though, with its brimming vitality and passion—and even welcome touches of humor. Orfeo also provides an excellent piece of evidence for Peter Conrad’s (1987) assertion that opera is essentially “a song of love and death.” In fact, the Orfeo story itself has been set over and again by other composers. Of these, the most often performed are Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice and Offenbach’s delicious spoof, Orpheus in the Underworld (complete with a Parisian can-can dance).

Once the first effective love-and-death opera was out of the bottle, there was no way to stem the tide (Weiss 2002). It might be easier to identify operas that do not draw their juices from love-and-death tensions. The term soap opera is a well-chosen tribute to this genre. The celebrated tenor Luciano Pavarotti has often suggested that newcomers first treat themselves to an opera in which nobody dies. That would be a comedy, such as Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. One would next invest in an opera in which only one person dies, and that in the third act (Verdi’s La Traviata or Puccini’s La Bohème would do nicely). Finally, one might be ready for an opera in which stage blood runs freely (actually there are very few of these in the performance rotation, perhaps because it would require too many “die-arias”).

Doomed love and murderous vengeance are dominant themes in many of the most popular operas. Ask “Who dies, how, and why?” and we can glimpse something of society’s frequently conflicted attitudes toward life and death in general. Perhaps the most obvious theme is that of the fallen woman who must pay with her life for her sexuality—or perhaps just for her unseemly display of independence. It was nearly a sure bet that the lead soprano in a 19th-century opera would perish in the third act. This was true of the heroines in two operas already mentioned, La Traviata and La Bohème. But other Verdi and Puccini heroines also made fatal dramatic exits. Two of the more spectacular are Gilda in Rigoletto (slung in a sack and slain in a stunning mistake by her father, the title character), and Tosca (title character) who hurls herself over the parapet after satisfyingly knifing her lecherous captor. Typically, the woman dies in virtue even if her life has been stained with the sin of free choice and sensual pleasure. Carmen, one of the most brazen rebels against authority (she even smokes a cigarette!) was not allowed to die the (supposedly) poetic death of tuberculosis. Gambling with her own life, she taunts the impulsive Don Jose to reach for his knife. The death of the soprano was played out in a variety of circumstances; the composer could relish his opportunity to write a heart-wringing final scene, and the audience could enjoy the “neurotic compromise” sensation of admiring the passion of the heroine (forbidden to themselves) while preserving their own moral standards because the wages of sin had been paid in full.

Men die in many of the popular operas, too. Often it is the price they must pay for the most basic of the seven deadly sins: pride. A prime example occurs in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which the obsessive womanizer not only puts his pleasure above anything else but also scoffs at the idea of divine retribution. The statue of a man he has slain and the trombones of Mozart do him in to everybody else’s immense satisfaction. Men killed as well as died in 18th- and 19th-century opera because their “honor” had been questioned or their “glory” imperiled. Women were often involved, but more as a prize than as autonomous individuals. (The fatal duel between Alfio and Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana provides a dramatic counterpoint for contemporary mob violence in the final installment of The Godfather film series).

There are memorable exceptions to the general picture sketched above. Tsar Boris Godounov (eponymous character in Mussorgsky’s opera) had attained the throne by secretly murdering the rightful heir, then a child. Feelings of guilt overwhelm him in a dramatic hallucination scene, and he dies, emotionally exhausted, on the throne after making his peace with God. Boris’s affection and concern for his own child and the fate of all the Russian people play a more significant role than any conventional romance in this rather astute and harrowing psychological portrait. Self-destined death by obsessive madness is another variation that was effectively presented by Tchaikovsky in The Queen of Spades, in which his driven and drinking protagonist represented a type of forceful and destructive personality that was all too well-known in society.

The neomythic approach to music drama (a term Wagner preferred to opera) populated the stage with characters whose lives and deaths were part of a cosmic-religious theater. For example, the problem vexing the Flying Dutchman was that he could not die, but had to roam the seas until redeemed by a true love. Being an operatic woman in the 19th century was no simple matter: She was at risk for death by daring to follow her heart in matters of love but was also a menace to men who might slaughter each other to possess her. And now and then, she would be called on to redeem sinners with the simple purity of her love. In The Valkyrie (second in the four-part Ring of the Nibelungen cycle), Sieglinde has conceived a child with her brother (an honest mistake, though try telling that to Freud). Her life is spared, but she is ringed by a magic circle of fire that only the purest and most noble heroes can penetrate—and we are pretty much back to Orfeo again). Sex is perhaps as dangerous as death, and love is complete only in death—such are the superheated ideas that have found their way into opera, there to further inflame susceptible minds in the society from whence they came.

Operatic death has changed with the times. Intolerance, pride, and a continuing hostility toward women who have minds of their own are exposed in Francis Poulenc’s The Dialogues of the Carmelites, based on actual events during the French Revolution. The sisters of a convent choose the guillotine rather than betray their faith. There is little of the conventional opera in this work, but it uses the resources of the genre to protest against inhumanity cloaked in symbols of authority. Human depravity and its lethal consequences are also on display in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, in which a simple soldier is abused repeatedly by a commanding officer until an outburst of violence drenches the stage in blood. This work is especially powerful because the characters are not highborn nobles, but everyday people. I don’t know a more devastating moment in opera than the final scene when the young boy is told—but does not yet understand—that both his mother and his father have died. “Hop-hop!” he sings as he jaunts off on his stick-horse.

Love and death in contemporary opera range far beyond the simple if effective doomed romances of the past. Repeated experiences with war, terrorism, and genocide have made their mark. Glorious death in battle has lost its hold. A single example will have to suffice. Franz Lehar was one of the most successful composers in the heyday of the operetta; The Merry Widow is merely the best known of his works. The Kaiser himself invited Lehar to write stirring patriotic ditties during World War I. Lehar’s songs were immediately set aside and never performed by the regime. This was not for lack of quality but because of Lehar’s grief and anger at the stupid brutality of war. His words spoke of wasted lives and were conveyed in music of deadly serious expression. Even an opera by the adored Lehar that showed war for what it was would not have seen a production. A continuing challenge for society is how much reality we can accept and how much escapism we demand in opera.

Broadway-type musicals gradually replaced operettas as lavish escapist entertainment. There was seldom a place for “serious death” (i.e., the lamentable passing of a major character). Musicals have continued to evolve, though, along with a public more willing to take the bitter with the sweet. Bizet’s Carmen has become Carmen Jones, murder included, but the major breakthrough was West Side Story. Gounod’s opera Romeo et Juliette had already drawn on the Shakespeare original, but the doomed young lovers in a gritty New York City neighborhood proved far more powerful. Puccini’s enduringly popular La Bohème was source for the hit show, Rent, which again relocated the romantic tragedy to a more familiar time and place. Interestingly, however, The Producers, the most popular show on Broadway at the beginning of the 21st century, completely bypassed the blood on Hitler’s hands: Nobody was quite ready for a musical about the Holocaust.

Death In Music of the People

Music exists beyond the temple and the concert hall, often becoming the soundtrack of both our lives and deaths. It would be futile to attempt to compile a finite list of human purposes, moods, and nuances that have been heightened through music. Just as feelings associated with love and yearning have been expressed in countless ways through music, so have our encounters with death. In fact, one of the most common themes in world music is love and loss. In this necessarily brief survey, we can only hope to suggest the richness and diversity of death in music of the people and identify a few strands that would be rewarding to explore more systematically.

“Break Now My Heart and Die”: Death as Intensification of Desire

So many people have experienced the pain of rejection and loss that expressions of this stressful state of mind can come across with a powerful impact even in songs from cultures separated from our own by time or distance. “Szomoru Vasarnap” (“Gloomy Sunday” in English) is known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song” because its composer took his own life after the death of his beloved. “Little white flowers will never awaken you, not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you.” Some of those who resonated to his grief through their own chose to end their lives in the Danube (the actual, muddy brown river, not the sparkling Blue Danube of the famous waltz). Fortunately, most sorrowing people have been content to sing the blues.

Death has also been invoked as an intensifier of feelings—often as a way of keeping or winning back the object of one’s desire. Superb songs in this genre appeared in abundance in 17th-century England, their brilliance undimmed by the passing years. One excerpt follows:

Better a thousand times to die
Than for to live thus tormented.
Dear, but remember it was I
Who for their sake did die contented.

Obviously, the cold heart should melt and his lady love come rushing into his arms.

Another song begins with the desperate languish:

Break now my heart and die
Immediately, however, he brightens:
Oh, no—she may relent!

Many since the ardent Elizabethan suitor have used a touch of death as a way of dramatizing their plight. The enduringly popular American folk song “On Top of Old Smoky” lets there be no doubt how badly one’s “false-hearted lover” has treated him by “leading him to the grave—

“And the grave will decay you and turn you to dust.
Not one maid in a thousand a poor fella can trust.”

Chances are that he more likely found another maid than dug himself a mountaintop grave, but the musical rhetoric was no doubt very satisfying.

Death as Deliverance

The vicissitudes of romantic love are experienced in personal life. Music has also inspired large numbers of people who have been stressed and oppressed as a group. A vibrant religious revival in 19th-century America was almost literally carried on the wings of song. “The Second Awakening” as it was called at the time, swept through England and the United States but found its most distinctive voice in a meld of West African cross rhythms and call-and-response tradition with the more linear melody and rhythm of the European tradition. The huge camp meetings devoted to prayer and song were usually interracial, with whites listening and learning from passionate music new to their ears (Epstein 1977).

“There’s a better day coming—Oh, Glory Hallelujah” expressed the hopes of white families trying to wrest a difficult living from their farms and crafts. For enslaved (and even the relatively few freed) blacks, the songs of deliverance spoke even more deeply. A double meaning developed as a divided nation moved to war: Deliverance referred to the Kingdom of the Lord that would follow the release of death—but it also signified the underground railroad through which one might possibly escape to northern states.

Music of ecstasy had been shunned throughout mainstream Christian worship, but the impulse was alive and flourishing in many black churches and also in some white congregations, such as the Appalachian shape-note singers who vigorously preserved a tradition that had served them well in Scotland. The deliverance movement is still very much in evidence throughout a variety of musical genres, including country and rock. Earthy and egalitarian, the deliverance spirit has no truck with the idea that only the angels are allowed to sing.

Music as Memory

Ancient bards understood that words could be remembered more easily if rhythmed, rhymed, phrased, and shaped. Historical and mythological events were conveyed in this manner, with prayers and incantations also set to a kind of music. Music also serves memory in a more personal way, however. Moments that have long since passed are with us again—for a moment—in a song that we heard on that occasion. The people of the past are not entirely dead or, at least, not entirely forgotten, when we share the music we experienced together. Great-grandparents the young have never known can be invoked by making the music they made. Music of many kinds has a way of inviting the ghosts of memory. The dead themselves may reach out in hopes of being remembered by song. “There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” is the title of a bluegrass lament that asks the listener to write a few words for his headstone. Back again in the 18th century, an already ancient headstone had its own song to similar effect:

Under this stone lies Gabriel John
In the year of our Lord, one thousand and one.
Cover his head with turf or stone,
‘Tis all one, ’tis all one.
Pray for the soul of Gabriel John,
If you please you may, or let it alone.
‘Tis all one.

Life and love are fated to “fade away like the dew on the grass” laments a traditional Irish song. Song itself is one of the creations by which something of love’s essence can be preserved through the infinite distance.

Dancing With Death (But Watch Your Step)

This is a temporary holding category for a variety of musical relationships with death. Being death is one of the more dramatic types, having kinship with the broader phenomena of death personifications (Kastenbaum 2001). The example here is provided by the numerous rock bands that have made a point of identifying themselves with death or the dead. The list includes Dead Milkmen, Deadnecs, Dead Presidents, Dead Kennedys, Death, Megadeath, and Grateful Dead (and not to forget the historically minded, Dies Irae). A psychosociological analysis would delve into the heightened anxiety related to death in adolescence and the strategy “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” But that is for another day.

Hammering home one’s criticisms of society with death as the heavy club is another dramatic maneuver. The counterculture movement during the Vietnam War was spear-headed by musical protests. Phil Ochs was on the front line in that struggle, one of his songs concluding every stanza with,

I am the masculine american man
I kill therefore I am.

Ochs self-destructed, one of all too many who have danced with death in an artistic modality and thereby forfeited their lives.

Country Joe and the Fish also sent up the establishment repeatedly, notably in “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die,” another musical salvo at the Vietnam War:

Open up the pearly gates,
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.

A broad and more reflective type of relationship might be called embracing death and the dead. For example, a traditional community in Venezuela has devised its own blend of folk, popular, and church music (Girard 1999). The symbolic embrace includes at least two musical forms: The dead man’s flute is played, thereby affirming a spiritual relationship between the living and the dead, and the ritual for a dead child is sometimes a joyful festival in which the music helps the deceased to become an angel who will help the family from her new abode with the Lord. Musicians accompany the funeral processions to the church and remain outside, performing a restrained and reflective type of music.

Traveling Music for the Journey of the Dead

The journey of the dead has been a feature of many belief systems through the centuries (Kastenbaum forthcoming). Orpheus employed his musical talents to charm his way into the Underworld, but far more common have been performances at funeral or memorial services. In reviewing types of traveling music, I could not help but notice differing emphases. Soliciting the goodwill of the deity and scaring off dangerous spirits are maneuvers intended to protect the survivors and perhaps ease the ordeal of the after-death journey. The emphasis, though, can be more on the human than the divine by affirming societal institutions, serenading the departing person with music that was close to his or her own heart, or enhancing the memorial experience of the survivors. More than one purpose can be served by the music, but usually one can be seen as dominant.

The mass or requiem for the dead is essentially a prayer offering to God. Beating the funeral drum, clanging the gong, and shooting off guns and fireworks, as in traditional Hmong customs (Bliatout 1993), scares off the more malignant kind of spirits. Military funerals maintain discipline and honor loyalty to the very end and would not be the same without the bugler sounding “Taps.” There was at first a compelling practical reason for this poignant musical rite. A Union soldier had died during the Peninsular Campaign early (1862) in the Civil War. Ordinarily, his comrades would have fired three volleys over the grave. This would have been a risky action because the enemy was nearby. Instead, the bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton, played a new call that had just been composed by Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield. The effect was impressive: It just seemed right! Soon both the Union and Confederate armies were sounding “Taps” over the graves of their new-fallen comrades, and a new tradition had been born. “Saying Kaddish” is a recitation that verges on music with its measured risings and fallings. Unlike the mass, Kaddish is a private ritual that carries the personal relationship between survivor and deceased beyond the grave. Music chosen to reflect the preferences of the departed person, the survivors, or both has become increasingly diverse as more people now shape funerals in accord with their own values and wishes. “Amazing Grace” has become a favorite, but so are the songs that a couple had danced to many years before. More than one teenager whose life ended violently has been sent off to the pounding snarl of rock or the confident patter of hip-hop.


In the past, we featherless bipeds flocked together in small, face-to-face societies where birth and death and everything in between were shared experiences. Life and death were with the people. Today, increasingly, our experiences are channeled through mass media, and individuals often become just faces in a crowd. The recent book Bowling Alone (Putnam 2001) tells us perhaps more than we want to know about this drifting apart, this loss of communitas. It seems to me that neither death nor music has escaped this trend. Death became a taboo topic—always making exception for the fascination with violent and bizarre endings. The “dirty work” was parceled out to shunned specialists. Death happened to somebody else in some other place. For the most part, the dying died alone, and often they still do (Sulmasy and Rahn 2001).

Music once happened mainly in the home, the fields, the church, the dance halls, and the drinking houses, taking its character from the participants and their circumstances. The memories made through music were personal and enduring. “A song in a smoky bar on a rainy evening” is the tear of remembrance for a character mourning the death of a friend in J. D. Robb’s Vengeance in Death (1997). “Why Do I Love You?” is the song with which a young man serenaded a young woman on their first real date; 50 years later, my father still counted on it to bring a smile to my mother’s face. Today live, spontaneous, and personal music making has been eclipsed by a powerful music industry, subdivision of an even heftier “entertainment industry.” The industry delivers the “product” it considers most profitable, using a marketing strategy that divides rather than links generations and subgroups. “Youth consumers” have become by far the highest priority. This age segregation interferes with the transmission of musical traditions. Replace the images of barbershop quartets, families gathered around the piano, and resonant field songs with isolated individuals plugged into headphones to consume music targeted for their demographic profiles. The make-our-own music traditions still have a breath of life, but the trend is toward a passive mass consumership. With music having become “audio” and treated as a manufactured product, what of the quality of the lives and deaths that once were served by “free-range” music?

In recent years, the American public has started to reclaim its own lives and deaths: peer support groups, death education courses, hospice care, and discussion of end-of-life options are now a firm part of the scene. We are, I suggest, still in search of music to live with and take with us to the end. (Not even the widely felt tragedy of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America has yet produced music with more than ephemeral appeal.) Perhaps society has become too complex to ever again share deeply in a common music. Nevertheless, we should not make the mistake of underestimating the potential of music (as well as the other arts) for expressing and illuminating, comforting and uniting, heightening and deepening the mortal human condition.

Insightful authors (e.g., Benzon 2001; Leppert 1995; Toch 1977) have demonstrated how strongly integrated into our being is the impulse to create, perform, and live through music. We also have many examples of inspired musical creation in near prospect of death (Einstein 1937; Kastenbaum 1992).

And perhaps we will be forever haunted by the concluding lines from Dryden’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”:

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour;
The Trumpet shall be heard on high—
The dead shall live, the living die.
And Music shall untune the sky.

In the meantime, though, it is music that most ebulliently crosses national, ethnic, and socioeconomic borders. It is music that so readily expresses our joys and sorrows. It is music that goes where words cannot. And where there are no answers—or no answers we want to hear—there is music.