Chopin at the Funeral: Episodes in the History of Modern Death

by Lawrence Kramer
Journal of the American Musicological Society ()


This essay seeks to shed fresh light on Chopin's all-too-famous Funeral March by exploring its relationship to the social history of death. Virtually from the day of its publication, the march has had a career independent of the Piano Sonata in B♭ Minor, Op. 35, into which Chopin inserted it. It quickly became Western music's paramount anthem of public mourning, a role it played at funerals from Chopin's own to John F. Kennedy's. This civic character, however, at best represents only a fraction of the music's cultural resonance. By consulting the first context of the march, the treatment of death and burial in Chopin's Paris, it becomes possible to tell a different and a richer story. Responding to a historical crisis bequeathed by the French Revolution, France during the first half of the nineteenth century was engaged in renovating the culture of death literally from the ground up-and down. Three major institutions emerged in the capital to carry on this work, each with its own distinctive set of customs and symbolic practices: the catacombs of Paris, the Paris Morgue, and the modern cemetery, the prototype for which was Père Lachaise. Each of the three can be said to have left a mark on Chopin's Funeral March; deciphering those marks is the project of this essay.

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