Listening to Chopin at the tombs

By Fr. John Girotti | Special To The Compass | October 31, 2019

Nothing focuses the mind more than visiting a graveyard. I find that as I have grown older, I feel more and more drawn to visiting cemeteries and to pray for the dead. The troubles of life, one’s own sense of inflated importance, are often moderated by visiting the tombs. It has been rightly said that cemeteries are filled with absolutely indispensable, irreplaceable people. And despite this fact, the world simply goes on and on without them. This, my friends, is called perspective. We need more of this today.

The music that often comes to my mind when I visit a cemetery is the famous funeral march by the classical music composer Frederic Chopin. Chopin was the greatest of all composers for the piano, and of his many masterpieces, his Second Sonata for Piano stands apart as one his finest compositions. The melody, although difficult to describe in writing, is very well known.

Most people have heard it before and associate it with mourning and funerals. But it is important to place this mournful melody in the context of Chopin’s entire musical composition. Chopin wrote his second piano sonata with four separate sections which, taken together, comprise the entire piece of music from beginning to end. The first three sections are easily understood and are quite beautiful. The fourth and last section of this sonata, however, is one of the strangest pieces of music ever written.

The sonata begins with a musical theme of birth. Loud, definitive chords indicate birth, and the young life is set in motion with a running musical gallop. The music becomes more and more active like the vigor of youth and young adulthood and ends with a hopeful and optimistic chord. The second section of Chopin’s work is more introspective and reflects the complexity of maturity. The joys and sorrows of life are all depicted in music. And then old age comes with a looking back to the galloping fun of childhood. The section quietly ends in death.

The third section of the sonata is the aforementioned funeral march depicting the sorrow, fear, hope and peace of death. But the piece of music does not come to a close with the final quiet chords of the funeral march. No, what follows is a minute-long feverishly swirling dervish of chords. It is quite unlike anything written before or since. Musicologists have long pondered what exactly this music depicts. Was Chopin depicting the agony of the damned in hell? Or is this the purification of the saved in purgatory? Perhaps it is the rustling of leaves over the graves in autumn. Or maybe it is the dust of the deceased in an empty graveyard blowing about in the wind and then settling back to earth again? This remains one of the greatest mysteries in music. I urge you to listen and decide for yourself!

There can be much rustling about in our lives. Our schedules, our daily tasks, our constant effort to keep up appearances can make our lives hopelessly hectic and torn. It is no wonder that current writers and filmmakers often use the merry-go-round to symbolize the pressure of modernity. How do we get on? When do we get off? How do we get off? We gallop through life with precious time to reflect and then suddenly things come to an end without a time to pause and remember who we are as a person, where we have come from and where we are going. What can we do about this rustling about called life?

Might I suggest visiting a cemetery? Walking among the tombs. Looking at the dates on the stones of those whom you have never met. “Look, she was born the same day that I was!” “See how young he was when he died…” “Look at how many children that couple had!” “What an example of faith she was.” You will find your mind focused with a new perspective. And a renewed appreciation for the gift of life which God has given to us. Every day is a gift. Make the most of it! For as we read in the 12th chapter of the book Ecclesiastes:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the evil days come, and the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them. … Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, and the Dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.”

Visit a cemetery and pray for the dead. You will be glad you did.

Fr. Girotti, vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, has just released a new DVD series, “Live Your Faith.” It is available through the Families & Schools of Discipleship Office, [email protected]

Related Posts

Scroll to Top