Corpuses of Corpses: Death’s Power on Music

“These facts might appear strange, but that there has prevailed from time immemorial not only the custom of taking care of the dead beyond the grave, but also a belief that the favors of heaven very often accompany us to the tomb, and continue to be extended to our remains”.

-Michel de Montaigne, “Our Feelings Continue Beyond this Life”, Essais

He gives multiple examples of this. The Scottish King Roberts decreed that his bones be taken to battle “as if his destiny had fatally annexed victory to his limbs”. South American Indians would drag the bodies of the courageous dead for luck in battle.

This essay of Montaigne’s is especially poignant in a year where many musicians have passed away. It leaves one to contemplate the relationship between death and music.

Take David Bowie for instance. His album sales have increased at a staggering five thousand percent rate this year (here). The contributing factor? There is no way around it. His death. Interest resurfaces because of Bowie’s own demise. Do we automatically buy the music of whoever passes that week? Or is there something working underneath this urge, similar to what Montaigne noticed? Does the power of an artist not only extend beyond her lifetime but become magnified?

Look at jazz artists. They have to compete with the deceased for album sales. Kind of Blue might top a breakthrough work from Esperanza Spalding or Robert Glasper. Classical composers have cast a shadow on those who come after. Beethoven’s death ushered the demand for a response, leaving composers such as Brahms in a precarious position. Think even farther along to modern day concerts. Repertoire that people pay to see consists in the corpuses of corpses. Living composers are left out to dry. Death has a primary factor in these impositions.

The examples Montaigne mentioned above he considered to be when “a certain active power is attributed to the remains.” We do not carry the bones of Bowie with us, let alone those of Beethoven when we play his sonatas. What remains we have is the music left behind. Within that is this multifaceted power of death.

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