Is ‘late style’ a meaningful critical concept?

Out, brief candle! As life nears its end, thoughts can acquire urgent clarity. This truth may not be particularly perceptible in literature, because novelists find endless ways of disguising it. But it’s so evident with playwrights, composers, and visual artists that ‘late style’ has become an accepted critical concept. Consider the late plays of Henrik Ibsen, furiously rattling the bars of the bourgeois cage. Discount for a moment a brain-researcher’s recent suggestion that the abstraction of Willem de Kooning’s late paintings reflects the onset of dementia, and consider instead the late works of Van Gogh and Goya.

Look at Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’, the most famous of which is ‘Saturn devouring his son’: no falling-off in technical mastery there, but a view of humanity which is visionary in its hellishness. Look at the paintings which Van Gogh made during his last days in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. Observation has given way to a celebratory stylisation, as swirling brush-strokes reflect exuberant patterns of clouds, trees, flowers, and swelling ears of wheat. For these artists ‘late style’ meant an encounter – one terrible, the other joyful – with the hyper-real.

The term ‘late style’ was coined by the German Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno, as a label for his doctrinaire view of Beethoven. For him, Beethoven’s last works were the triumphant expression of a determined refusal to resolve life’s conflicts harmoniously. This view was later endorsed by the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said, who – in an article posthumously published in the London Review of Books – declared that this ‘negativity’ of late Beethoven was actually a strength. ‘This lateness is a thing in its own right,’ Said approvingly wrote, ‘not a premonition or obliteration of something else.’

Adorno and Said were both musicians, but musicians with very different views are now wading into the lateness debate. In a recital series at London’s Wigmore Hall last year, Sir Andras Schiff played the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert; for him the connecting thread was a culminating aesthetic mastery. In a series of ‘Late Style’ recitals in America and Europe, the young American pianist Jonathan Biss is currently presenting chamber works by those same composers, plus Carlo Gesualdo, Robert Schumann, Benjamin Britten, and Johannes Brahms.

For each of these composers, late style meant something different. Gesualdo had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his last days in a flagellant torment which one can sense in his crazily discordant late works. The emotional devastation of Schumann’s final days becomes starkly evident in his ruthlessly pared-down ‘Gesänge der Frühe’. The Britten string quartet which Biss has chosen shows that composer delighting in an extreme – and to him quite new – economy of expression. The chaotic middle movement of Biss’s chosen Schubert sonata reflects that composer, who was dying of syphilis, going to pieces in rage and terror. Brahms’s late works suggest a man whose emotional energy has been sapped dry; Beethoven’s late works suggest the absolute opposite. What links these composers, as Biss points out, is that ‘with each of them, something has happened to completely change their style’.

What is that something? It seems to be an amalgam of circumstance and psychology, and no composer exemplifies this more vividly than Beethoven. Deafness to the world of real sound gave Beethoven the freedom to create hitherto undreamed-of new sound-worlds, and that played into his vaulting ambition to address posterity.

Moreover, his late works were profoundly symbolic, sometimes seeming, through sheer technical illusionism, to make time stand still – as though he wanted to extend his own life. In Late Beethoven (California UP) the American musicologist Maynard Solomon points to the frequency – most clearly seen in the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata and the Ninth Symphony – with which a series of themes is tried and impatiently rejected, before the right one is hit upon to launch a finale. Mr Solomon likens this process to a search for the thread out of a labyrinth, and the liberated playfulness of the final Bagatelles indicates that Beethoven had indeed found that thread.

As Fiona Maddocks observes in her elegant collection of mini-essays (Music for Life, Faber), we tend to over-romanticise last works, and there is some truth in that. But the hard evidence does point to a late psychological and artistic step-change with many great artists. Life’s candle burns most brightly, when it’s about to go out.

[published in The Economist on Feb 18 2017]

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