In 1935 Klee suffered the onset of a painful and progressive skin disease, later diagnosed as scleroderma, that caused his death in 1940. Among the most powerful images of his final year is a group of drawings on the theme of the kettle-drummer, the most famous of which is the red and black paste painting Paukenspieler (Paul Klee Stiftung, op. cit., no. 1940, 270 [L 10]; coll. Paul Klee Stiftung).
The subject of the kettle-drummer is derived from an account of the death of Mozart, whose final gesture was reported to have been an attempt to vocalize the timpani passages in his Requiem, a commission which he vainly struggled to finish and which would ironically become his own elegy. Klee "revered Mozart above all other creative artists, indeed, above all other human beings. If the drums of the Requiem are linked in many Western minds with the coming of death, for Klee the two images must have been inseparable. He found in the image of the kettle-drummer an abstract poetic metaphor for death. Here was a way to transmute personal agonies and anxieties into universal visual forms" (A. Kagan, Paul Klee/Art & Music, Ithaca, New York, 1983, pp. 134-135).
The image of the drummer is rendered even more poignant in the present work by the presence of the young child grasping the musician's coat- tails--the combination of innocent youth and implacable fate describe the alpha and omega of human existence. The grid superimposed on the drummer's figure is perhaps the symbolic diagram of a life with its horizontal time lines, vertical peaks and valleys of experience.
Ein Strassenmusiker displays the vigorous, powerfully expressive and thickly brushed painterly line that Klee forged in the last three years of his life, while heroically and defiantly battling terrible pain. In contrast to the delicately articulated line in his drawings over the previous three decades, "Klee finally possessed a line of real stability, assertion and power. It endowed his art with a monumentality it had never known before, raising the poetry of his line from the intimate and personal to the universal, from pure subjectivity to powerful form" (ibid., p.131).