Monday, January 17, 2011
In 2008, the State of Washington legalized the choice 'of certain terminally ill, competent adults . . . to request and self-administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician.' This initiative, modeled after Oregon's in 1997, speaks not of physician-assisted suicide (PAS), but death with dignity (DWD) since terminal patients hasten death despite a will to live. In leading legal and medical journals, and courts of law, however, the term suicide is ubiquitous. For many critics, PAS is not about dying at all but killing, a distinction, according to Giles Scofield, captured in the music by two giants of 20th Century: dying in Mahler appears in the resolution of his 9th Symphony, and killing in Schoenberg, in his A Survivor from Warsaw. In musical terms, then, the slippery slope attached to the legalization of PAS ends in Schoenberg's compositional nightmare. This paper, inspired by Scofield, examines portrayals of dying in classical music and opera. Without denying the terror in Schoenberg's Survivor, one wonders whether alternative conceptions of end-of-life events presented in concert halls and the opera houses credibly support the conclusion that DWD is not about Schoenberg's killing but Mahler's dying. While understandings of dying are surely informed by a number of powerful sources - e.g., history, philosophy, and religion, perhaps the ubiquitous reach of death with dignity qua suicide is not the cue that Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or Britten have given.