I’ve always been interested in the choices composers make very late in life. In this respect, the Lagrime is very much like Bach’s Art of Fugue. Both are towering collections that catalog techniques built up over entire careers, and both are more concerned with pure expression than any overall sense of narrative. They both represent an active aging mind that keeps returning to the same themes to try to find some sort of essence. Debussy’s music in old age also becomes more and more abstract as he seems to drill through his material, through the prettiness towards some sort of austere purer beauty. Beethoven goes through a similar phase very late in life where he becomes increasingly interested in theme and variations. These take a small bit of musical material and turn it over and over, and in Beethoven’s hands these variations become searches for essential meaning.
There is an alternative, of course. Verdi got out all of his religious doubts and terror in his Requiem and then kept right on composing. You can see his writing desk at La Scala as he left it. It’s a mess, with spilled drinks, some manuscripts, and some stained playing cards. For his last work, he wrote . .. a comedy. And dying, as we know, is easy. Comedy is hard.