Filed Under:

Deathbed Music: The Final Works Of Famous Composers

Play associated audio

When it comes to last words, there's a kind of poetry in even the oddest ones. Oscar Wilde hated the wallpaper in the room where he died: "One of us has to go," he muttered. Salvador Dali: "Where is my clock?" Steve Jobs: "Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow," according to his sister, who was in the room.

Writer and composer Jan Swafford was thinking about these and other last words recently. In a piece for Slate, he takes a look at another kind of swan song: the late or final works of famous classical composers.

Swafford says that final compositions, like last words, are often desperate, manic, indulgent and reverent. Some are all of those at the same time. Take, for example, the most widely known last work: Mozart's Requiem.

"One of the things that's interesting is that composers of his era, Haydn and Mozart in particular, were really more into lighthearted things than tragic things," Swafford says. "Mozart's operas, which are basically sex comedies, are generally more popular and more highly regarded than his religious music. Tragedy wasn't really his style — except, when he happened to be dying, he wrote one of the great tragic pieces of all time."

For the full version of this story, including Jan Swafford's thoughts on last works by Beethoven, Schubert and others, click the audio link at the top of the page.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


Christopher Marlowe Credited As Shakespeare's Co-Author On Henry VI Plays

True authorship of Shakespeare has been debated for centuries. Now, the New Oxford Shakespeare edition will list Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe as co-author on the three Henry VI plays, part one, two and three. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Florida State University professor Gary Taylor, one of the general editors of the new volume.

2,500 Years Ago, This Brew Was Buried With The Dead; A Brewery Has Revived It

In an ancient burial plot in what is now Germany, scientists uncovered a cauldron with remnants of an alcoholic beverage. They teamed up with a Milwaukee brewery to re-create the recipe.
WAMU 88.5

Do Hyper-Local Term Limits Work?

Montgomery County residents are voting this fall on term limits for their local council representatives. Are they picking up on lessons learned from Prince George's County?

WAMU 88.5

AT&T’s Proposed Acquisition Of Time Warner

AT&T’s bid to acquire Time Warner: Join us to talk about what the proposed merger of the country’s second-largest wireless carrier and a major content company could mean for consumers and the future of U-S media and telecommunications.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.