At every composer’s passing, we are left with a single work we consider to be their final opus. In most cases, composers are not even aware of their impending departure. However, the romantic notion of some musical genius on his deathbed furiously penning on staves of parchment his last will and testament is nevertheless an alluring one. Such thinking is unavoidable in the case of Beethoven’s last completed work, Op. 135. Its final movement, the answer achieved with great difficulty, asks the question “Must it be?” and answers, “It must be.” Such philosophical musing is what coaxes us into thinking of this piece as some ultimate life statement.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 17th String Quartet is the last of his completed instrumental works, and was written two years prior to his death. He continued to work on various projects after this quartet including a film score that did make it to screen. However, with mental illness fast encroaching upon his faculties, Villa-Lobos could no longer sustain the prolific pace of his earlier years. Of the three composers on this program, it is Britten who is perhaps most aware of his fast approaching demise. The 3rd String Quartet was written during Britten’s final illness and as his health faded he continued to tinker with the composition. In the weeks leading up to his passing, Britten workshopped the quartet in Aldeburgh with the Amadeus Quartet. The somber tone of the piece interspersed with ecstatic outbursts and moments of playfulness reveal Britten’s conflicted emotions as he nears his end.
Works on the “Famous Last Words” program include:
Beethoven, String Quartet in F major, Op. 135
Villa-Lobos, String Quartet No. 17
Britten, String Quartet No. 3