Composers often die under unusual or depressing circumstances. Consider Wallingford Riegger, student of Modernist composer Arnold Schönberg, laid low by a head injury after becoming entangled in the leashes of two fighting dogs. Or Polish Romanticist Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, buried in an avalanche while skiing near his home in the Tatra mountains. There’s a fateful twist to the death of Spanish nationalist composer Enrique Granados Campina, who overcame a fear of the open sea and sailed to New York to hear an orchestral performance of his piano works—only to have his ship torpedoed on the return voyage by a German submarine.
Sad as these premature deaths may seem, there’s a certain abruptly-resolved something to each of them that stands in marked contrast to the lingering death of Tchaikovsky. Tormented by his homosexuality, the composer let himself be corralled into a marriage with Antonina Ivanova Miliukova, a nymphomaniac and borderline psychopath who threatened to kill herself if he refused her. Unable to live in peace with himself or Antonina Ivanova, Tchaikovsky first tried unsuccessfully to catch a fatal case of pneumonia. A second attempt to do himself in, many years afterwards, was more successful: In the teeth of a raging cholera epidemic, he drank a glass of unboiled water and died a week later. A number of theories have been brought forth to explain this fateful act, and the particulars of each are uniformly depressing.
Today, at least, Tchaikovsky rests in good company. His grave and those of musical contemporaries Glinka, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov make up a constellation of classical lights in the “artists’ necropolis” of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery graveyard in St. Petersburg. I paid a visit there some years back, partly out of my own curiosity but mostly to satisfy, vicariously, my Tchaikovsky-buff dad’s. Cemeteries, famous or not, have never particularly interested me—with the exception of sprawling and faceless military ones, and then for an entirely different set of reasons. If anything, cemeteries have always struck me as proof that if it isn’t always easy to surround yourself with friends and family during one’s lifetime, in death it’s really a crap-shoot.
But then again, I’ve been lucky enough so far to not have many graves to visit. Grave Matters, by Mark C. Taylor, is essentially a picture book of famous graves accompanied by a 33-page essay about “his” ghosts, a list that includes family members and philosophical and literary obsessions alike. The essay itself is a curious mix of history, literature, teleological rumination and personal reminiscences brought on by Taylor’s apparently lifelong fascination with graves and graveyards. It’s a self-indulgent piece of writing, though not necessarily in a bad way. I’m comfortable enough with not knowing any of the answers to get slightly irritated at times with the pious tone Taylor takes to his subject matter, but ask me again in 50 years. I’d still recommend reading his thoughts on the subject—they’re as valid as anyone else’s. A lot of people choose methods much more extreme to make peace with their restless ghosts. In Taylor’s essay, you just get the feeling he finds it therapeutic to thank “his” ghosts for what they’ve taught him and imagine that they can somehow hear him.
“Graves matter,” he writes. “It is not just the matter of matter—dust, dirt, stones, grass, leaves, moss, even mould—but the matter of place or its lack. Death forces us to consider our final place in the world—physical as well as social. By the side of the grave, life appears to be a constant flight from or search of place. Even in a world where everything seems to have been displaced, there is a finality of place that cannot be avoided.”
Fair enough, but who thinks things like housing arrangements in death matter a whit to anyone but the living? Almost everyone, actually, judging from the ritual tokens and pieties we sprinkle at gravesides, the historically class-conscious arrangement of graveyards themselves, and books like Taylor’s.
And who, at some point, has never said of a departed friend or family member, “If only so-and-so were alive to see this?” There’s a word for that, by the way: prosopopoeia, a rhetorical device for invoking or representing an imaginary, absent or deceased person.
In the song by Chuck Berry, Beethoven is roused prosopopoeially from his slumber and told to give Tchaikovsky the news. “Chuck Berry, eat your heart out” is a non-fatal example.
Obviously, an awareness of what the dead might think of a particular thing has always influenced human activity—not least in literature, and here’s just one more example, from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. In a fictional cemetery all awhisper with the voices of its occupants, the petulant voice of vice crusader A.D. Blood is the one that addresses the question of indignity most directly (and who doesn’t like the idea of an indignant ghost?): “Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora/And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier/Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?” And, talking earlier of famous Russians, did you know that when the Germans invaded Russia during WWII, they spitefully surrounded Tolstoy’s solitary grave with their war dead?
The photographs of Dietrich Christian Lammerts have the final word in this treatment, and they’re pretty much what you would expect: moody, textured black and white. Just beyond composer Richard Wagner’s final resting place, in a lush tract of German woods, the trees are awash in light and the bushes seem poised to burst forth with a phalanx of Valkyries. Prosopopoeially speaking, it’s what Wagner would have wanted.