Sweet Music in the Death Throes


How many of you recall your Henry VIII? Not as in Showtime’s. More like Shakespeare’s.

Act III, scene i: Queen Katherine of Aragon is in her apartments. Much in the manner of King Saul, she calls on one of her gentlewomen to take up the lute and play to ease her saddened and heavy soul. The song plucked upon the lute is about Orpheus and his musical gift that could charm all the elements of nature and even soften the hearts of the gods. 

Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by. 
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, and hearing, die.

It’s a rather lovely sentiment, no? However, if you are familiar with Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, or even history’s (wherein Showtime’s The Tudors got this one right), you’ll know that the timing of this song comes as Henry is actively seeking to divorce Katherine. Her love and devotion to him mean nothing now that Anne Boleyn is on the scene. (To be fair, he needs an heir- a male one- and Katherine is proving incapable in that department.)

Furthermore, the myth of Orpheus does not end well, either. It’s rather tragic, what with Eurydice having to return to the underworld because Orpheus couldn’t follow ONE simply direction. If Lot’s wife has taught us anything, looking back is never a good idea. (There’s a life lesson in there somewhere…)

However, while reading those lines from the play, I had a bit of an epiphany. In nearly every opera, before a murder or death, a beautiful aria is sung- a swan song in the death throes, if you will. And, considering that I’ve been majoring on murder this month, I thought it would be fun to amble down the operatic byways and discuss the death throes arias that still haunt the hearers. 


The best example of sweet music in the death throes that I can think of is the Ave Maria that Desdemona sings in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. I love Verdi’s Otello, just as I love Shakespeare’s Othello. Both are impossibly tragic. However, as I’ve named the heroine of my second novel Desdemona, I am drawn to them; one for the poetry, the other for the music. The purity and sweetness of Desdemona’s character is exquisitely showcased in this final prayer. (Not to mention that I have only ever seen her portrayed as wearing the purest white linen, clearly a biblical reference. Her virtuousness is only ever shown in this way.) Without any thought that the one she loves could bear her harm, she prays, lays her angelic head upon her pillow, and only wake when her husband and lover takes her in his arms, passionately. The horror of her subsequent murder is only highlighted more when juxtaposed beside her final aria.


On a slightly more epic scale, there is Brünnhilde’s Immolation in the final act of Der Götterdämmerung (German for Ragnarök). When it comes to death throes, I don’t think you can top her aria which ushers in the collapse of the Hall of the Gibichungs and the subsequent incineration of Valhalla. (Hers is the voice that launched a thousand flames and burnt those topless towers of Valhalla.) This piece is the culmination of all the music from the previous two operas that comprise Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). In this performance, Brünnhilde not only brings the house down, she quite literally set it on fire. Honestly, she’s so luminous, you almost forget she’s about to die until she rides her steed onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre. 

While I have maintained a fascination with this opera ever since I read Michael Babcock’s The Night Attila Died in which he draws philological parallels between the evolution of the Norse myths and the life and death of Attila, I have to be honest, I am not all that keen on spending two days and a grand total of twelve hours (give or take an hour) working my way through Wagner’s masterpiece. That is it grandiose, I grant you. That it likewise deserves recognition and accolades, I give you most humble agreement. But that I will sit through it, all patrons will pardon me. I cannot endure my Wagner ear. (Not completely true, but I couldn’t resist the Much Ado About Nothing allusion there. Did you catch it?)


One of the best death throes arias I can think of, well, perhaps not best, but definitely one of my favorite, is the berceuse sung by Lakmé is Leo Delibes opera, Lakmé. (Berceuse is a French word that means lullaby.) Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest- Nilaknatha, has fallen in love with a British officer, Gerald. The affection is mutual. Nilakantha is enraged and sets a trap for Gerald, wounding the officer. Lakmé rescues and ferrets him away to a hut hidden in the forest. That is where she sings this lullaby to quiet his troubled body and soul. Shortly after its singing, though, one of Gerald’s comrades comes to implore him to return to his regiment. His life is in danger if he remains. Reluctantly, Gerald agrees. Lakmé understands his decision, and decides to take her own life, ingesting the poisonous datur leaf, and dies in Gerald’s arms. But, before all that tragedy ensues, there is that short idyll in the woods when she sings sweetly of the woodman beneath the starry sky. 


The final death throes aria I’ll highlight is from Verdi’s opera Aida. O terra, addio is poignant and glorious. Radames, Captain of the Egyptian Guard, is madly in love with the slavewoman, Aida. Aida is actually an Ethiopian princess. In reward for services rendered to the crown, the Pharaoh rewards Radames with his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, Radames loves Aida, not Amneris. Jealousy prompts Amneris to spy on Radames when he meets with Aida secretly to bid her adieu. However, Aida and he love each other too much; they plan their escape together. In the planning, Radames reveals which gates are left unguarded. Aida’s imprisoned father, Amonasro, who has also been spying nearby, reveals himself and absconds with his daughter. Radames is captured. Amneris gives him one chance to escape his fate of being entombed alive- renounce his love for Aida. Radames refuses, thus sealing his fate (pardon that unfortunate pun). The next we see of Radames, he’s entombed. But, hark, what light through yonder window breaks… No, not really a window and no light, but, from the depths of the tomb that will bear him into the afterlife, he hears a voice, the voice of his one true love. Aida has chosen to return to him, and together, in this swan song, they say farewell to earth and sing of the joys they will encounter together as heaven welcomes them. O terra, addio is magnificent, particularly sung by Placido Domingo and Montserrat Caballé. 


And, speaking of Domingo and Caballé, I do have to mention one more aria that fits perfectly into our topic of discourse today: Sono andati? from Puccini’s La Boheme. La Boheme, translated The Bohemians, is the story of several impoverished artists trying to etch out a living in Paris. Two in particular- Mimi and Rodolfo- have fallen deeply in love. However, first poverty then jealousy have torn them apart. Finally, Mimi, dying of consumption, finds her way back to the little flat where once the bohemian friends had spent halcyon days together. Reunited, Rodolfo and Mimi embrace and sing this last duet together. Then, as is the way of opera, Mimi succumbs to a fit of coughing and dies in Rodolfo’s arms. BUT, not before her swan song, which is spectacular. 

Okay. Okay. I promise. I’m finished. I could probably go on and on about the different death throes arias that are out there. However, I’m quite certain, dear readers, that you would not want to go on and on with me. That being said, let us exercise the little grey cells. What songs would you consider death throes arias? (I say songs because I think orchestral pieces from theatrical productions as well as movies can conjure the same sort of sense.) Can you think of a piece of music that immediately makes you think about an epic death? (Braveheart comes to mind…)