Thoughts on Late Style

Edward Said

Both in art and in our general ideas about the passage of human life there is assumed to be a general abiding timeliness. We assume that the essential health of a human life has a great deal to do with its correspondence to its time – the fitting together of the two – and is therefore defined by its appropriateness or timeliness. Comedy, for instance, seeks its material in untimely behaviour, an old man falling in love with a young woman (May in December), as in Molière and Chaucer, a philosopher acting like a child, a well person feigning illness. But it is also comedy as a form that brings about the restoration of timeliness through the komos with which such a work usually concludes – the marriage of young lovers. Yet what of the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health (which, in a younger person, brings on the possibility of an untimely end)? These issues, which interest me for obvious personal reasons, have led me to look at the way in which the work of some great artists and writers acquires a new idiom towards the end of their lives – what I’ve come to think of as a late style.

The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. In late plays such as The Tempest or The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare returns to the forms of romance and parable; similarly, in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus the aged hero is portrayed as having finally attained a remarkable holiness and sense of resolution. Or there is the well-known case of Verdi, who in his last years produced Otello and Falstaff, works that exude a renewed, almost youthful creativity and power.

Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all? This is the case with Ibsen, whose final works, especially When We Dead Awaken, tear apart his career and reopen questions that are supposed to have been resolved before such works are written. Far from resolution, Ibsen’s last plays suggest an angry and disturbed artist who uses drama as an occasion to stir up more anxiety, tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leave the audience more perplexed and unsettled than before. It is this second type of lateness that I find deeply interesting: it is a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness, a going against.

Adorno uses the phrase ‘late style’ most memorably in an essay fragment entitled ‘Spätstil Beethovens’, dated 1937 and included in a 1964 collection, Moments musicaux, and again in his posthumously published book on Beethoven (1993). For Adorno, Beethoven’s last works – those that belong to what is known as the third period (the last five piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last six string quartets, 17 bagatelles for the piano) – constitute an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works are a form of exile from his milieu.

So convincing as cultural symbol to Adorno was the figure of the ageing, deaf and isolated composer that it turns up in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – Adorno gave Mann a great deal of help with the novel – in the form of a lecture on Beethoven’s final period given by Adrian Leverkühn’s composition teacher, Wendell Kretschmar:

Beethoven’s art had overgrown itself, risen out of the habitable regions of tradition, even before the startled gaze of human eyes, into spheres of the entirely and utterly and nothing but personal – an ego painfully isolated in the absolute, isolated too from sense by the loss of his hearing; lonely prince of a realm of spirits, from whom now only a chilling breath issued to terrify his most willing contemporaries, standing as they did aghast at these communications of which only at moments, only by exception, they could understand anything at all.

There is heroism here, but also intransigence. Nothing about the essence of late Beethoven is reducible to the notion of art as a document: that is, to a reading of the music that stresses ‘reality breaking through’ in the form of history or the composer’s sense of his impending death. If one thinks of them only as an expression of Beethoven’s personality, Adorno says, the ‘late works are relegated to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document. In fact, studies of the very late Beethoven seldom fail to make reference to biography and fate. It is as if, confronted with the dignity of human death, the theory of art were to divest itself of its rights and abdicate in favour of reality.’ Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.

Impending death is a factor, of course, and cannot be denied. But Adorno, who means to defend the rights of the aesthetic, is preoccupied with the formal law of Beethoven’s final compositional mode, a peculiar amalgam of subjectivity and convention, evident in such devices as ‘decorative trill sequences, cadences and fiorituras’. This law, he remarks, is

revealed precisely in the thought of death . . . Death is imposed only on created beings, not on works of art, and thus it has appeared in art only in a refracted mode, as allegory . . . The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. It breaks their bonds, not in order to express itself, but in order, expressionless, to cast off the appearance of art. Of the works themselves it leaves only fragments behind, and communicates itself, like a cipher, only through the blank spaces from which it has disengaged itself. Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with the Being, are its final work.

It is the episodic character of Beethoven’s late work, its apparent carelessness about its own continuity, that Adorno finds so gripping. When we compare such middle-period works as the Eroica with the Opus 110 sonata, say, we are struck by the cogent and integrative logic, the driven quality of the former and the somewhat distracted, often careless and repetitive character of the latter. Adorno speaks of the late work as ‘process, but not as development’, as a ‘catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity’. Which is why, as Kretschmar says in Doctor Faustus, the late works often give the impression of being unfinished.

Adorno’s thesis is that all this is predicated on two considerations: first, that when he was young Beethoven’s work had been vigorous and organically whole, but became more wayward and eccentric; and second, that as an older man facing death, Beethoven realised that his work proclaims that ‘no synthesis is conceivable’: it is in effect ‘the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it for ever’. Beethoven’s late works, therefore, communicate a tragic sense in spite of their irascibility. How exactly and poignantly Adorno discovers this is evident at the end of his essay. Noting that in Beethoven, as in Goethe, there is an ‘overabundance of material’, he goes on to say of Goethe’s late works – very much with an eye to Beethoven’s – that the ‘conventions’ are ‘splintered off’ from the main thrust of a piece, left to stand or fall away, abandoned. As for Beethoven’s great unisons, they are ranged besides huge polyphonic ensembles. ‘It is subjectivity,’ Adorno adds,

that forcibly brings the extremes together in the moment, fills the dense polyphony with its tensions, breaks it apart with the unisono, and disengages itself, leaving the naked tone behind; that sets the mere phrase as a monument to what has been, marking a subjectivity turned to stone. The caesuras, the sudden discontinuities that more than anything else characterise the very late Beethoven, are those moments of breaking away; the work is silent at the instant when it is left behind, and turns its emptiness outward.

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