The last thing you’ll ever hear: what is the world’s best deathbed music?

Courtesy of | By Kate Molleson | Originally Published 11.08.2017 | Posted 01.02.2018
The makers of a new show about the perfect musical farewell turned up a lot of names, from Celine Dion to U2 to Susan Boyle. But there was one clear favourite: the light-filled music of Estonia’s Arvo Pärt

Why is there so little music for the dying? Maybe we’re shy of these fragile moments, feeling they’re too intimate to intrude upon with any extraneous sounds. But a deathbed doesn’t need to be hushed. French monks at Cluny in the 11th century practised extensive dying rituals, singing Gregorian chant for as long as required. Sometimes the chanting went on for weeks. In a 21st-century parallel, Rufus Wainwright described how his whole family sang to his mother Kate McGarrigle as she breathed her last. “One of the nurses said this could go on for four days,” he recalled, “and we had already exhausted the back catalogue.”

Multiple studies suggest that the idea goes beyond romanticisation. According to one US report, music can “decrease depressive symptoms and social isolation, increase communication and self-expression, stimulate reminiscence and life review, and enhance relaxation”. Music therapists often recommend songs with a personal association: the first dance from the patient’s wedding, a song their mother used to hum. When Joey Ramone left us in 2001, he was listening to U2’s In a Little While. A professional psychic in Florida has provided a list of songs “people seem to universally enjoy”. They range from Celine Dion to Enya to Susan Boyle – so it might also be worth specifying what music you don’t want to hear on your deathbed.

The Scottish Ensemble has been doing its own investigations. At a Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, its string players asked patients what music helped them feel the most mindful, the most calm and present in the moment. They tested works by Philip Glass, La Monte Young, and Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The Glass (part of his String Quartet No 2) was generally popular but soon wore thin. “It felt like cheating,” says the ensemble’s manager Fraser Anderson, “like some kind of instant mindfulness fix”.

The deep drones of La Monte Young worked for some. “That was totally hypnotic,” said a patient called Laurie after hearing the ultra-minimalism of Composition 1960 #7. “It completely released me to the point that I am crying. That’s the best feeling I’ve had in years.” Others found the static two-note canvas too stark. “It was the complete opposite of relaxing,” said Mike. “As an engineer, I found I wanted to get up and fix something!”

The most popular choice, though, was the light-filled music of Estonian Arvo Pärt, which chimes with extensive anecdotal evidence from across the world. “I’m fascinated by his popularity,” Lenton said. “Personally I love art that invites the viewer to dream their own dreams. I admire Caravaggio because of the darkness that surrounds his characters. What you can’t see makes you imagine more. Isn’t the same true of Pärt’s music?”

Listen to Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt

One thing that distinguishes Pärt from other minimalists (and like other minimalists, he never liked the label) is his overt spirituality. While American counterparts like Glass and Reich wrote fizzing visions of new social structures, the quiet Estonian explored a slower model reaching deep into faith music. His complex early works were denounced by Soviet authorities – they didn’t like his serialism (decadent and, worse, western) nor his religiosity (double whammy). So for several years he simply listened: to Renaissance masses, to Russian orthodox chant, to the unclad polyphony of Notre Dame organum. When he re-emerged from silence in 1976, it was with an astoundingly simple piano piece called Für Alina: two voices, one moving in steps, the other circling (“the instant and eternity struggling within us”). This was no vacuous simplicity: intense feeling saturated every note.

Matthew Lenton is the director of Vanishing Point, the Glasgow theatre company whose new co-production with Scottish Ensemble explores the role of music in end-of-life care. “I haven’t died yet,” he says, “so I don’t know whether the idea that music helps you transcend – well, I don’t know whether it’s valid or bollocks, just a romanticisation of what happens when we die. But there’s something intriguing in it.”

The work at the heart of this new show is Tabula Rasa, a concerto for two violins from 1977. Lenton chose it after reading that the second movement was often requested by Aids patients in New York hospices. Again, the music contains two voices, slowly dropping in register and eventually dropping off – Pärt doesn’t give us the final note of the scale, but leaves four bars of written silence. “The music feels like it will keep going,” Lenton explains. “Even though the instruments physically aren’t able to. Like bodies no longer able to be a vessel for the soul or consciousness.”

Tabula Rasa introduced Pärt to western audiences when it was released in 1984. The music was hailed as timeless – that blend of medieval style and serrated modern harmonies – but Pärt has always evaded that analysis. “Time has a deep meaning,” he says, “but it is temporary, like our lives.”

1 Comment

  1. My beautiful brown eyed boy Jacob ‘forever 20’ took his last breath to my favourite song that he introduced me to on the way home from having chemo one day. The song is aptly called ‘it’s nice to be alive’ by Ball Park Music. The song before was ‘gone to Carolina in my mind’ by James Taylor & the last song that was played was ‘here comes the sun’ by the Beatles and thats when the sun shone through the window onto his face for the rest of the afternoon ♡ the last sense to dissappear & go away is hearing, so we made sure we told him how much we loved him & we told him it was ok to let go (even though we didn’t want to) x

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