The memento mori in music: Beethoven, Parker and Getz

“Following this session, Parker returned to his hotel, set fire to the room, was arrested and placed in Camarillo State Hospital psychiatric ward, where he remained for 6 months”…

The session produced Loverman, which some have claimed is a hopeless, cracked mess, with a missed intro. Well, maybe in a way, but The Knife is not alone in thinking it is brilliant, emotional and completely convincing. Charlie Parker didn’t record many ballads, more’s the pity. What isn’t in doubt is that he was a mentally shattered drugged up wreck when he made it. As a commenter on this blog said:

I personally think that this is the best version of this song because of the stumbling, mistimed music. it goes with the heart-wrenching theme of the piece. here is a person desperately searching for love that may never come. those sentiments aren’t always packaged in a neat little box. so, unbeknownst to Parker at the time, he had tapped into the essence of the song. He’s in the darkest recesses of his soul, just like the woman in the song. you can appreciate the music on its own, but when you couple it with the torture of the artist, it becomes something more. it becomes an experience that we get to share with the artist. not knowing that he was in such a state would make listening to this selection less personal.



Stan Getz was an ill man, wracked with liver cancer, knowing he was near the end, when he recorded this duet with pianist Kenny Barron, at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen in 1991. Exactly 3 months later he died. Unlike Charlie Parker, the critics were pretty much unanimous about the recording’s greatness. However, the same link of art to suffering applies, it seems to me.  Particularly as Getz had spent much of his life as a self-confessed monster, claiming at one point “I’m too evil to die”.  His tone is so beautiful it can often render some of his works a bit ‘cold’, but not this one:



166 years before Getz, and 122 years before Parker, a musician who seems on the face of it to be a million miles from both, Beethoven, had recovered from a serious illness, probably both physical and mental – in relation to his near permanent state of emotional turmoil. In his thirteenth string quartet, op 132, he produced a remarkable third movement, with the telling subtitle of the heiliger dankgesang, the full translation of its title being “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode”.  In a finely tuned description of it, found in the middle of one of his novels,  Aldous Huxley wrote:

“Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities. And everything clear and bright; no mists, no vague twilights. It was the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep. It was the serenity of a convalescent who wakes from fever and finds himself born again into a realm of beauty. But the fever was ‘the fever called living’ and the rebirth was not into this world; the beauty was unearthly, convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian melodies was heaven.”

(If you really want to try to understand late Beethoven, and these piece in particular, try here, here and here, but take your time)


The common theme in all these is illness, and mortality. Parker spiralling downward,  Getz drifting towards his death,  Beethoven recovering. And in each case, against the odds, it produces great, mysterious and compelling art.


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