Think of all you’ll derive just by being alive

I ran across this line in a review this morning:

Similarly, though Brahms was nearing the “little blue pill” stage of his life when he wrote the Fourth Symphony, [the conductor] was determined that the composer come off as at the height of his musical virility and ready to wade into the trenches in the aesthetic wars between late-19th-century progressives and conservatives (Brahms being the reigning classicist).

This displays two of our favorite qualities here at Soho the Dog HQ: it’s 1) funny, and 2) wrong, but in an interesting way. Even if Brahms intended his last symphony as a conscious summing-up of his symphonic thinking, it’s hardly a wistful farewell. (Besides, the man was only 52 at the time.) But the temptation to consider a composer’s late output as related to some sort of dying of the light is near-irresistible.

We all crave the illusion of a well-rounded life; we can’t bear the thought of dying without the opportunity to give the prospect a conscious look in the eye. So we carve out the last ten, twenty years of an artist’s life and file any and all works as “late style,” giving a satisfying three-act structure to the meandering path of individual artistic evolution. Never mind that the works themselves often prove a disorderly leave-taking. Beethoven, possessor of the most famous late style in Western musical history, refused to play by the future’s rules: those last string quartets, right up to the disorienting finale of the “Grosse Fuge,” didn’t sum up his legacy in a tidy way, but instead left his aesthetic estate in contentious probate for generations. The story of Brahms contemplating a Ragtime-influenced piece shortly before his death, as related in Robert Haven Schauffler’s The Unknown Brahms, is, like much else in that entertaining volume, historically suspect, but its musical plausibility, in light of rhythmic ideas in Brahms’ late instrumental works, at least demonstrates that even the historically-minded Brahms wasn’t completely looking backwards at the end of his life.

Nonetheless, Brahms could be an exemplar of the stereotypical “late” style as well. Here’s one of his most tender farewells, bringing down the curtain with an extraordinary empathetic depth (click to enlarge).

Those are the final two of the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, op. 9. Brahms wrote it when he was 21. Most composers, in fact, develop the necessary technique for a sentimental deathbed scene pretty early on. Edward Elgar is a paragon of the valedictory, with his two later concerti, for violin and cello, held up as sterling examples. Elgar, though, had mastered the style by the time he was 40: both the “Enigma” Variations (age 42) and The Dream of Gerontius (age 43) have it in spades. Those works are hardly less elegiac because Elgar had the temerity to survive for another thirty years.

In the end (ha, ha), the whole perception of “late style” owes more to the imaginative needs of the audience than the creator. A couple of years ago, a series of lectures and compiled thoughts by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said was published under the title On Late Style. Said admitted that his attraction to the subject was a personal one, having been diagnosed with leukemia in 1991. His chosen subjects were those creators, like Beethoven, whose late work was more of a challenge than a benediction. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Edward Rothstein was miffed that Said seemed only interested in reinforcing his own intellectual biases.

But the reason we care about these works is not that they express irreconcilable contradictions or exile. Rather, each constructs an alternative universe in which something is actually being understood about our world: some things are rejected, some are accepted, some are greeted with horror, some with resignation. Beethoven’s late music, for example, embraces incongruities because — we are convinced — that is precisely what it means to see the world whole. There is accumulated knowledge here: recognition and reconciliation, not just “intransigence” or “unresolved contradiction.”

But that analysis is an expression of Rothstein’s bias: he no more knows what Beethoven was really thinking than Said, or you, or I do. It’s his own wish for a certain all-knowing equanimity in the face of death that causes him to read that equanimity into the music. Later, Rothstein takes to task Said’s analysis of Jean Genet, who, like more than a few aging artists at the end of their alotted span, was inspired to adopt the revolutionary ideals of a younger generation. Rothstein lays out a series of rhetorical questions:

But wouldn’t a “late style” have some sense of irony about this romanticization of violence? Or some notion about precisely what these light, sparkling, open figures were intending? Wouldn’t it require being more attuned to the precise character of the contradictions so warmly embraced? Doesn’t late style require some scrupulous self-reflection, some sense of how earlier perceptions might themselves require revisiting and revising? Wouldn’t something similar have even helped Said’s own late style?

Answers: not necessarily; not necessarily; not necessarily; not necessarily; but then it wouldn’t have been Said’s style. Rothstein is unwittingly painting a portrait of how he would like to be remembered: a thoughtful realist, sympathetically but firmly dismantling the folly of youth with hard-won wisdom. Said, who spent his own career delineating the ways in which scholars projected their own worldview into their supposedly dispassionate analyses, would have appreciated the irony.

The point is not that Rothstein is wrong—his characterization of late Beethoven is certainly more plausible than the AARP-centric reading of Brahms’ 4th that sparked this ramble—but that the way he hears late Beethoven has far more to do with him than with Beethoven. And much of that is due to the coincidence of chronology: Rothstein’s description of late Beethoven, for example, could just as easily describe Fidelio. But since we know that Fidelio is middle-period, not late-period, we don’t look for intimations of mortality in it.

In fact, there’s more than a few composers who did know that they were not long for the world, whether due to age or disease, and went out of their way to avoid the usual late-style trappings. Benjamin Britten, who had already produced a perfect farewell with Death in Venice, followed it up with the violent immediacy of Phaedra. Michael Tippett closed his final work, The Rose Lake, with a wink, the plop of a frog into the water. Verdi wrote Falstaff. Rossini set loose his “Sins of Old Age.” Elliott Carter, who continues to cheat the actuarial tables at the age of 99, has become a fount of energetic, bracing, quirky works that defiantly insist on being encountered on their own terms, rather than through the prism of their composer’s age. It’s those of us who think we have a fair amount of time left that are concerned with stage-managing our exit; closer to the deadline, it seems that the best revenge is often just to keep on keeping on.

One comment

  1. I completely agree with you about Rothstein and his review! How could one possibly know??I also think you ought to take a look at the quotation at wellsung, which is Furtwangler on Brahms. It doesn’t ring quite right to me.

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