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Music Worth Dying For


Most of us have given some thought to what music we might like played at our funeral. What would we want our loved ones to hear in such a moment?

While Monty Python's ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ or Robbie Williams’s Angels are decent enough options, what if you could be remembered in something really special? Something that helps your name live on? This is where composers have the edge. The lucky ones get to be remembered in works that resonate long down the ages.

Ockeghem hit the posthumous jackpot when he was commemorated in Josquin’s Motet Nymphes des bois in 1497. Ockeghem was already one of the most celebrated composers of the late 15th century, but his memorial in Josquin’s exquisite vocal work sealed his reputation. Nymphes des bois marks his passing in at least three ways. First by the words, a lament for Ockeghem written by the poet Molinet. The second is the use of the Requiem aeternam chant from the Latin mass for the dead, sung throughout by one of the five voices. Finally, Josquin’s music itself cleverly imitates Ockeghem’s own style.

That’s significant – it’s one of the first examples of a composer openly acknowledging their influences in their own work. Every artist today is aware of their creative roots. But in the 15th century musicians didn’t think that way. By using pastiche to commemorate an artistic predecessor, Nymphes des bois marked the beginning of a musical self-awareness that extends down to Led Zeppelin’s reworked blues licks, or hip-hop’s sampling of jazz and James Brown.

Since Josquin, composers have used material by their predecessors for a variety of ends - Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873) and Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli (1953) both signal their composer's sympathies with earlier eras, perhaps running against the fashions of their own time. Ravel dug into his country’s musical past for his Tombeau de Couperin (1914–17), a memorial to the great 18th century French composer and keyboardist François Couperin. His motives were political, however – reviving the long-forgotten French genre of the tombeau (tomb, or tombstone) and recognising a great French composer was a way for Ravel to advertise his nation’s cultural identity just as World War I was threatening to extinguish it.