Death at Christmastime: Mark Twain & The Music of Merciful Release

It was Mark Twain’s last Christmas. His authorized biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, sat in the driver’s seat of an Aeolian Orchestrelle, one of the most powerful reed organs on the market, and pedaled out Schubert’s Impromptu No. 2 in A-Major.  “A turmoil of Christmas presents,” as Twain described them, were laid out in an upstairs parlor and, in the balcony off the library, stood a half-decorated tree which his youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, had intended to surprise him with.

Instead of celebrating, the 74-year-old author listened to Schubert’s deceptively simple melody and, through the window, watched the hearse carrying Jean’s coffin “wind along the road and gradually grow vague and spectral in the falling snow.” She had drowned in the bathtub during an epileptic seizure. She was 29 years old.

Twain could not bear to accompany the coffin himself and so he sent for his nephew, Jervis Langdon, named after the father-in-law he idolized. Overnight Jervis and the hearse would cover the distance between Twain’s Stormfield estate and Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira to deliver Jean, as Twain put it, “to her distant childhood home, where she will lie by her mother’s side once more, in the company of Susy and Langdon.”

Having already witnessed the burial of half a dozen family members, including his wife and two of his children, in the Langdon-Clemens family plot at Woodlawn, Twain did not feel it necessary to attend the ceremony in order to feel its effects. “The funeral has begun,” he wrote, “Four hundred miles away, but I can see it all, just as if I were there. The scene is the library, in the Langdon homestead. Jean’s coffin stands where her mother and I stood, forty years ago, and were married; and where Susy’s coffin stood thirteen years ago; where her mother’s stood, five years and a half ago; and where mine will stand, after a little time.”

Indeed, four months after these words were written, Jervis Langdon would, like the family’s personal reaper, deliver another coffin to Woodlawn.

At Mark Twain’s public funeral in New York City, an organist from Lafayette, Indiana named Clarence Dickinson, who would go on to become one of the most influential American composers of his generation, played Frederic Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, another of the well-worn organ reels which could be found in the deceased’s collection.

Dark, classical compositions like Chopin’s Funeral March were, to Twain, stimulants for introspection, helping to elicit memories which not only satisfied his mourning, but also fueled his late writing.

The Aeolian Orchestrelle which he had installed as aid to both his grief and his art, was enormous and expensive, costing the contemporary equivalent of $70,000. It was as close to cathedral organ as could be purchased for a private home. Sometimes Twain pressed Paine and other members of his household to sit for hours pedaling out his favorite reels, like a sentimental teenager listening to power ballads on repeat. But it could also be a source of jubilation, as when he and Jean sat together on the bench, or when it provided accompaniment for Clara Clemens’s impromptu performances. Twain had it played in the presence of his friend, Helen Keller, and was amazed when, recognizing the vibrations it made, she said, simply, “Music.”

Whether his guests were gathered around it to make merry or it was providing the soundtrack for his solitary drinking, the Aeolian Orchestrelle became the centerpiece of Twain’s daily activity for the final five years of his life, and the music it played was the soundtrack for his work during this period. Twain spent the vast majority of this time at his Stormfield estate in Connecticut, but on the few occasions he did briefly relocate he had the Orchestrelle disassembled and shipped to his temporary residences. He was not willing to be without its music for more than a few days at a time.

On his final Christmas, he remembered sitting beside Jean only a few days earlier as she played Schubert’s Impromptu. As her hearse crept over the horizon, and the memorable final chords resonated, the bereft father requested two more pieces of music, one for his eldest daughter, Susy, who had died of spinal meningitis thirteen years earlier, and another for his wife, Livy, who, though a full decade younger than him, had already been dead five years. 

Twain with Jean circa 1909

He purchased the Orchestrelle only a few months after Livy died. It was a characteristically counterintuitive monument to her loss, a lavish expenditure which she would certainly never have approved of. Writing to his sister-in-law, Susan Crane, late at night several months after Livy’s funeral, Twain reported that he had, for the first time in many weeks, pried himself from bed, only to venture into the sitting room where “there was not a thing visible anywhere that had not been made holy by the touch of Livy’s hand.”

Overcome again with grief, Twain requested his secretary, Isabel Lyon, take a shift at the Orchestrelle. For four hours, he sat staring out at the storm and requesting “dirges, funeral marches, and – saddest of all – wedding marches.” “The wedding is never otherwise than a tragic event,” he told Crane, “upon the wedding-bell should be written ‘A day is coming when one of these hearts shall break.'”

Few works capture the combination of present celebration and anticipated tragedy which widower Twain describes so well as Handel’s Largo from Xerxes. The opera, depicting a royal love triangle, was a critical and commercial failure during Handel’s life, but the music was revived in the nineteenth-century, with “Ombra mai fu” becoming particularly popular at both weddings and funerals. Twain frequently asked Lyon to play it three or four times in succession.

“Elsewhere in my Autobiography,” Twain promises in his final entry, “I have told how the Intermezzo and the Largo came to be associated in my heart with Susy and Livy in their last hours of life.”

If that was in fact the case, the pages in question did not survive.

But Lyon recalls in her own journal that on one of the many occasions he requested that she play these pieces, he created a scene not unlike his later vision of Jean’s funeral, amalgamating his memories with vivid fantasy: “I can fit words to both those pieces, as the coffins of Susie and her mother are borne through the dining room and the hall and the drawing room of the Hartford house, Susie calls to me in the Intermezzo and her mother in the Largo – and they are lamenting that they shall see that place no more.”

Livy’s coffin never passed through Hartford and Twain was not present to see Susy’s conveyed. Music was a catalyst for the memory of a house which he knew well, but also, more importantly, for Twain’s creation of scenes of mourning which had been denied him by the actual circumstances of his wife and eldest daughter’s deaths. Letting the song wash over him was not a concession to nostalgia and regret, but rather fuel for therapeutic invention. Sam narrated scenarios involving his family which offered peace and closure, not for them, but for himself.

On another occasion, Lyon acknowledged, “The music is wonderful. The Largo is like a caress.”

Though Twain often satired conventional depictions of heaven and the hereafter, he retained a faith that death was a “merciful release.” This was perhaps a necessary mode of coping for somebody who had been disproportionately visited by trauma and tragedy.

In just the year preceding Jean’s death, Twain had attended the funerals of his favorite nephew and namesake, Samuel Moffett, and Henry Rogers, the renowned financier Twain considered his “best friend.” He had also lost two of his favorite editors, Richard W. Gilder of Century magazine and William M. Laffan of the New York Sun, both of whom Twain considered “old, old friends,” but whose funerals he could not attend without risks to his own failing health. All were at least five years younger than him, but he was accustomed to losing loved ones prematurely.    

While Paine and Lyon worried that he was being consumed by grief, in private writings Twain repeatedly expresses nothing short of “envy” for the deceased. Reflecting on Jean’s corpse, he saw, as he had previously seen in his wife, that “all trace of care, and trouble, and suffering, and the corroding years had vanished.” “Would I bring her back to life if I could do it?” Twain wrote, “I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for the strength to withhold the word. And I would have that strength; I am sure of it.” Death, he insisted, is “that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor.”

He pitied only the living, himself included. When his nephew had died the preceding year he told Jean, “The pathetic sight of the broken-hearted family was a heavy drain upon me and struck me down.” To his sister-in-law, he wrote, “O, fortunate Sam Moffett! fortunate Livy Clemens! doubly fortunate Susy! These swords go through and through my heart, but there is never a moment that I am not glad, for the sake of the dead, that they have escaped.”

The compositions Twain chooses to memorialize his fallen kin are rich with melancholy and sentiment, with refrains appropriate for funeral processions and ample stretches of dark chords played at tempos slow enough for the griever to wallow in. But each also contains unexpected moments of lightness, brief modulations which invite happy memories and gratitude.

As Kerry Driscoll has shown, Twain had a somewhat awkward and anxious relationship to the classical music which was a key ingredient in his wife and daughters’ New England bourgeois education. He was torn between “obligatory genuflection at the alter of high-brow European culture” and the Anglo-American folk tradition of his youth, which represented “the democratic inverse of the grand operatic tradition.” He frequently asserted publicly, with characteristically self-deprecating humor, that he was only fit for low tastes and the song he requested from his one surviving daughter, Clara, a professional opera singer, on his own deathbed – Robert Burns’s “Sweet Afton” – was distinctly from the latter corpus.

Clara sang to her father the kinds of songs which he had sung to his daughters. They had, for him, the “force of association,” forever “enobled” by the sentiments they stimulated. With these sentiments came the affective flood. The “force of association,” according to Twain, inevitably overwhelmed the force of any individual will. One could not control the thoughts and feelings which a familiar piece of music, verse, or other art would produce.

Six months after Livy’s death, he was reminded of a few lines from Thomas Moore’s “Oft, In The Stilly Night,” a lyric poem he associated with Susy’s childhood, as well as her death in 1897. Its final lines – “Sad memory brings the light. / Of other days around me.” – articulated exactly the value of the associations provoked by cultural products. To jog a memory, even a painful one, was also to unlock a stream of consciousness. Twain might not be able to control where exactly this stream would take him, through both trauma and triumph, but he recognized that it would dependably place him in the psychic company of his lost loved ones.

In a New York City hotel room, Twain began transcribing lines and stanzas from songs and poems which he remembered his family enjoying during the fond days he wanted to recapture. He wrote, “All those things move me now to the deepest deeps when I hear them, with a divine pain which is a divine pleasure.”

Rather than avoiding the associations which would force him to reckon with his many painful losses, Twain would seek them out. On that same stationary where he had written lines from Moore’s “Stilly Night” and Benjamin Franklin Taylor’s “The Isle of Long Ago,” he also recollected “the intermezzo – the intermezzo – I sat with Susy at the Opera the first time I ever heard it.”

What Twain calls “the Intermezzo” is better known as “Intermezzo sinfonica” from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. The family had seen the international sensation several times on multiple continents, including in Florence in 1892 (likely the occasion Twain was alluding to).

With its ability to fill a domestic space with the most popular orchestral compositions of the era, the Aeolian Orchestrelle became a powerful tool for provoking the “force of association” which would allow Twain to commune with his dead relatives. This was not just therapeutic in its own right, but was fuel for the autobiographical writing which occupied much of Twain’s time from the death of Susy in 1897 to the death of Jean in 1909.

Paine, who pedaled the Orchestrelle more times than he could count, observed that within hours of Jean’s passing, he found Twain “writing steadily,” and he continued to write, more or less continuously for the next three days, producing what would become the final chapter of his Autobiography. Paine, who joined Twain’s entourage in the author’s final years, may not have realized that this was a familiar pattern. As Joe Csicsila has shown, Adventures of Tom Sawyer “emerges not from a place of nostalgia but instead from Twain’s grief and is fundamentally about processing the loss of his son.” Similarly, after the death of Susy, Twain sought the “surcease of sorrow,” as he put it, quoting Edgar Allen Poe, by compulsively writing what became the 718-page travel book, Following The Equator.

While these books might be regarded as escapist projects, “The Death of Jean” directly addresses therapeutic writing and, by referencing his memorializing music, reveals that Twain is not retreating into imaginative worlds to hide from emotional pain, but rather confronting it there, giving it regular audience, and, by so doing, providing himself temporary relief.   

The Schubert, Handel, Mascagni, and Chopin compositions, as well as others Clemens had programmed into the Orchestrelle – notably, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor – were carefully chosen to stimulate his grief, the fragments of memory and figments of imagination with which he created friendly ghosts. 

Susy fell ill at the piano in the Clemens’s Hartford house. Knowing this, Livy had refused to return to premises. Sam felt quite differently. “It made the house dearer to me,” he claimed, “It seemed to me that the spirits of the dead were all about me, and would speak to me and welcome me if they could: Livy, and Susy, and George, and Henry Robinson, and Charles Dudley Warner. How good and kind they were, and how lovable their lives!”

By dying at Stormfield on Christmas Eve, Jean made the house priceless to her father. With nobody left who could make him leave, he insisted, “I shall stay in this house.” “The spirits of the dead hallow a house for me,” he wrote, “It is dearer to me tonight than ever it was before. Jean’s spirit will make it beautiful for me always.”

And it was there where he heard his last work of merciful music. In her own memoir, Clara Clemens wrote, “I have been grateful all the succeeding years that I had not failed to give Father the serene sense of comfort he evidently felt from hearing three little Scotch songs he always cared for.”