Boston Symphony Orchestra's concerts Oct. 6-8 offer complementary corteges: German composer Jörg Widmann's piano-and-orchestra "Trauermarsch" ("Funeral March," a Boston premiere) and Johannes Brahms's "Ein Deutsches Requiem," which contains its own stylized funeral march. It is an opportunity to consider the funeral march itself, a form that seems generic and timeless, but grew out of an unusual and specific historical moment.
Marches had accompanied selected funeral processions, particularly military funerals, since the Renaissance; occasionally, a high-profile decease would rate a bespoke number. (Henry Purcell's music for the 1695 funeral of Queen Mary II, for instance, included a march.) But the funeral march as its own genre dates from only the late 18th century, a product of the French Revolution's dissonant attitudes toward death.
On the one hand, the Revolution moved obsequies out of the church into the secular sphere, where music and spectacle propagandized the new order. Scholar and musician Raymond Monelle proposed the 1790 premiere of François-Joseph Gossec's "Marche lugubre" — composed for a ceremony honoring soldiers who died fighting their Royalist officers — as the birth of the modern public (and, often, politicized) funeral march, and the template for many examples to come: dramatically stark, intensely brooding.
But in other ways, the Revolutionary government tried to make death invisible. Increasing reliance on the guillotine only compounded the problem of where to put the bodies — especially in Paris, where churchyards and burial grounds already were severely overcrowded. Individual funerals were replaced by impersonal mass burials; old bones were systematically relocated to catacombs. Erasing the commemoration of death from everyday life created a psychological vacuum that, after Napoléon's coup, was rapidly refilled. Burial processions became compulsory; the catacombs, a tourist attraction; and new, parklike cemeteries aestheticized the realm of the dead.
Two famous funeral marches echo the Revolution's contradictions. The march from Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 ("Eroica"), like much of his heroic music, bears the stamp of the Revolutionary style that Gossec exemplified. By contrast, Frédéric Chopin's well-known funeral march (from his op. 35 Piano Sonata) evokes (as musicologist Lawrence Kramer has argued) the post-Revolution reintroduction of ritualized — and Romanticized — funerary rites.
Widmann's "Trauermarsch" adds further dimensions by consciously referencing another notable funeral march, that of Gustav Mahler's 5th Symphony, a work itself haunted by Beethoven's ghost. Like so many other musical tropes, the funeral march has gone from being a specific, occasional observation to an idea with a detached, distinct history and tradition—in other words, a life of its own.
Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra and pianist Yefim Bronfman Oct. 6-8, Symphony Hall. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.