Chopin's dirge rest in peace
by Norman Lebrecht
As the Queen Mother's cortège trudged its stately way into the heart of Westminster, my ear clammed up like an affronted oyster. Not that maudlin march again, it protested. Can no one compose a better send-off than the dreary third movement of Frederic Miseryguts Chopin's Sonata number two in B-flat minor?
The tum-tumte-tum Marche Funèbre is the inexorable accompaniment to public mourning. Every assassinated US president has had it thudded out on his final journey, from William McKinley in September 1901 to John F Kennedy in November 1963. Thomas Alva Edison was so smitten by the solemnity that his factory ground out a wind-band recording of the relentless plod as early as 1906.
There is no knowing exactly when the march became obligatory. At Chopin's own funeral in October 1849, le tout Paris turned out to hear Mozart's Requiem, into which the dear departed's Marche Funèbre was inserted as an introit. The orchestration was by one Napoleon-Henri Réber, of the Conservatoire.
The march caught on with the fashionable classes - unsurprisingly, since it consists of nothing more complicated than a two-chord progression followed by a simple theme. Your average 10-year-old can render it competently on the piano; regimental bands distort the rhythms to keep the soldiery in step.
Its musical merits were debatable from the start. Robert Schumann, who initially acclaimed Chopin with the words "hats off, gentlemen, a genius!", decried the march as "repulsive" and inimical to the rest of the sonata. He advised Chopin to replace it with an Adagio in D-flat major to preserve the work's tonal scheme.
He was wrong - the entire sonata is predicated upon this morbid section - but poor Schumann only got to hear the theme a couple of times before he went stark raving mad. A modern music critic will be exposed to it a hundred times or more before he is fortunate enough to be carted away to its lugubrious tum-tum-te-tum.
The adaptation most performed nowadays is by Sir Edward Elgar, who knocked it off in 1932 for £75.
The old man was suffering a creative drought and found himself reduced to hackery. He told a passing critic that he would rather have written a new symphony of his own - not that it would have been played half as often.
Its adhesiveness is perplexing. Chopin's score is 162 years old, Elgar's is past 70, yet their solemn ubiquity prevails. Joseph Stalin, King Farouk of Egypt and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother have all been escorted to the same sad strains. Someone, somewhere, must surely come up with a more contemporary salutation.
The Americans, to be sure, have tried. There is no report of Chopin being played at Abraham Lincoln's obsequies. Instead, at each stage of the slain president's railway journey to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois, local musicians brought out their own Lincoln Marches. Mr CH Bach directed a dirge in Milwaukee, Mr George Root in Chicago. Spin-off sales of sheet music were brisk, but none of the passing elegies achieved immortality.
When President Roosevelt died in 1945, the orchestrated Adagio from Samuel Barber's string quartet in B minor was played at the funeral. It quickly caught on as the American way of mourning, whether as the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's Vietnam War film, Platoon, or as the season-opener in almost every American concert hall a week or two after last September's terrorist outrage.
At Robert Kennedy's funeral, Leonard Bernstein introduced the haunting Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which Luchino Visconti then borrowed for his movie Death in Venice. Both applications were inappropriate, since Mahler wrote the passage as a love-letter, not a lament. In any event, neither Adagio nor Adagietto is suitable for trudging.
So the search continues for a Chopin substitute. The loveliest lament ever written by an Englishman is Henry Purcell's ode for Dido. It would have made a more queenly Westminster farewell than the morose tinklings of a consumptive Pole. American presidents need to consider The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, or Morton Feldman's plangent tribute to his piano teacher, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety.
Minimalism is infinitely marchable. Almost anything by Glass, Reich and John Adams will march at half the prescribed tempo. Arvo Pärt's seven-minute Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, from the eastern hemisphere of post-modernism, is ideally suited to the slow tread of a bear-hatted brigade of guards. Sir Paul McCartney might be tempted to approve a half-pace version of Let It Be.
It would take me at least another page to survey the torrent of contemporary alternatives by such sombre composers as Schnittke, Ustvolskaya and Górecki - or Tavener, if it has to speak English. The choice is rich and the need for change overdue. Chopin's etiolated adornment has earned the right to eternal rest. Let the next great funeral be solemnised to a march of our time.