- On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain by Edward Said
Bloomsbury, 176 pp, £16.99, April 2006, ISBN 0 07 475836 5
- Late Thoughts: Reflections on Artists and Composers at Work edited by Karen Painter and Thomas Crow
Getty, 235 pp, $40.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 89236 813 6
The odd thing is that most of the contributors to these books doubt whether it is possible to offer a clear and distinct idea of the subject under discussion. Indeed, Karen Painter, one of the editors of the Getty volume, says right out that ‘late style does not exist in any real sense.’ But she and her colleagues continue to search for distinguishing marks of lateness in the work of major artists in their last years, to ask whether they give evidence of failing powers, such as might in the ordinary course of things be expected: senescence; illness; the decay of the senses; the certainty that death, always feared at a distance but now in the room, is taking a hand. Will these afflictions be reflected in a style markedly different from those they used in the periods of early promise and full maturity?
Vol. 28 No. 21 · 2 November 2006
It was strangely disconcerting to read two years ago what Edward Said had to say about Beethoven in his ‘Thoughts on Late Style’ (LRB, 5 August 2004), to which Frank Kermode now returns in his review of Said’s On Late Style (LRB, 5 October) Said’s commentary on the Beethoven of the last piano sonatas and quartets, the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony seems to me perversely to misread the evidence of these final works, their intensity and concentration, their control and command of the material.
Said takes his cue from Wendell Kretschmar’s view of Beethoven’s art in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: that it ‘had outgrown itself’ to become the voice of ‘an ego painfully isolated in the absolute’, ‘a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries’. But this doesn’t get anywhere close to describing the works themselves: the originality of their formal structures; the density and clarity and inventiveness of their texture; the astonishing articulation of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic lines; the energy and coherence of motivic development within the framework of each succeeding movement, as between one movement and another – from the brooding contemplation and drama of the slow movements to the speed and rhythmic propulsion of the scherzos that so often emerge from them.
Does this bear any resemblance to what Said paraphrases or quotes from Adorno: ‘a peculiar amalgam of subjectivity and convention, revealed precisely in the thought of death’? Is it possible to define such vitality in terms of death? What does it mean to talk of death appearing in Beethoven’s music ‘only in a refracted mode, as allegory’, or to say that this music ‘leaves only fragments behind’? And when Said/Adorno speaks of ‘the episodic character of Beethoven’s late work, its apparent carelessness about its own continuity’, as a ‘fractured landscape … devoid of sweetness, bitter’, ‘irresolute and fragmentary’, what can this be said to mean, set beside the rigour of the argument Beethoven pursues in his late work? I cannot make sense of his view of the Opus 110 Sonata as ‘somewhat distracted, often careless and repetitive’. True, this work is not driven, like the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, but that is because its lyricism – its intimate melodic appeal, culminating in the ‘Arioso Dolente’ and its return between the fugue and its inversion – is organised along different lines. Can this expansion of the essence of melody, so delicately balanced, be adequately described as ‘process, but not development’? Apparently it can. Or at any rate Adorno insists that in works like the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, the Diabelli Variations and the last quartets, Beethoven himself proclaims that ‘no synthesis is conceivable’ – though such an absurd conclusion is at every turn contradicted by the unfolding logic and momentum of the music, and nowhere more cogently than in the germinal motivic developments of the C sharp minor Quartet. The Said/Adorno view of late Beethoven seems to me not only unrecognisable, but to make no sense at all when measured against the evidence of what Beethoven achieves through his mastery of form and structure in these last works.