An interesting piece over at Slate on great artists’ reactions to the sense that the Grip Reaper is at the top of his back-swing.¹  It’s worth a read, but I wanted to quote the first two paragraphs in particular:

The last thing anyone does or says has an inevitable fascination, poignancy, and poetry. The fascination only intensifies when that person is an artist, in the profession of doing and saying memorable things. “There is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote. “There is a door I have closed until the end of the world.” The old Joseph Haydn, who invented what we think of as a string quartet, must have wondered after his dozens of quartets which would be his last. It was the one he could not find the strength to finish.

Last words are pithier than last pieces of music, and the world remembers the apropos or the funny ones. Enlightenment genius Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “More light!” Gen. Robert E. Lee: “Strike the tents.” Gustav Mahler: “Mozart …” Richard Wagner, in the truest and most lucid words he ever spoke: “I feel lousy.” Oscar Wilde, contemplating the garish wallpaper in his hotel room: “One of us has to go.” Eugene O’ Neill, son of an itinerant actor, who was similarly unhappy about his last residence: “Born in a hotel room, died in a goddam hotel room!” Salvador Dali: “Where is my clock?” Steve Jobs: “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

These paragraphs struck me because of the mention of Papa Haydn in the first but not the second. (His late musick is cited later in the article.)  This is, perhaps, because Papa’s final words were not, in fact, about Himself, his Art or his Muse, but instead, typically, reflected concern for those around him.

Haydn died on May 31, 1809 in Vienna, just as Napoleon’s army was invading the city.  Cannon shells had been landing in the neighborhood of his house and his servants were terrified.  Papa, even though he was only semi-conscious and almost entirely spent, was heard to say in the end, “My children, have no fear, for where Haydn is, no harm can fall.”

This was characteristic of Papa, who had a history of looking out for those for whom he felt responsible.  (One cites the famous “Farewell” Symphony No. 45 of 1772, which was a pointed dig at Haydn’s patron Prince Esterhazy about letting the musicians of his private orchestra get home from an extended stay at another palace so as to be able to see their families.   The Prince took the hint.)  I bring it up simply because it illustrates again one of the things I find so admirable about the man.  Self-centeredness simply was not a part of his nature.  So unlike the image of the “artiste” that comes to mind these days.

¹An expression used by a Cornell law prof in the Bar-Bri bar review course in discussing the “dying declaration” (or “statement under belief of impending death” if you want to be pedantic) exception to the hearsay rule.  It’s always stuck with me.