Going Against

Frank Kermode

  • 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?

Along the way some also consider how this habit of dividing the work of a lifetime into distinct periods took hold. Stylistic and biographical conjectures along these lines were common in the 19th century, and they persisted in various forms until fairly recently. Then they came to be regarded as the product of a false consonance between art and the history of the artist, and they went out of fashion. But now they seem to have become interesting again, and by recognising what was wrong with the old approach a new generation of commentators hopes to devise a more plausible and durable theory of lateness.

What was wrong with the old theory can be traced back to J.J. Winckelmann, the 18th-century father of art history. Taking the history of Greece as his model, he put into circulation what one contributor to the Getty volume defines as ‘the triad of development, achievement and decline’. For this unqualified ‘decline’ one can, however, substitute something more agreeable, and truer to the fact that some late work offers evidence not of failing powers but of new achievement; it exhibits ‘serenity’ or even ‘transcendence’. Heinrich Wölfflin could say of Titian that because he had been ‘over the ground which contained the necessary preliminary stages’ he could incorporate ‘perfectly new possibilities in his final style’. And the aged Goethe was another model, this time of calm acceptance, serenity after a long life spent exploring the ‘possibilities’.

There was a time when a version of this pattern was familiar from standard accounts of Shakespeare. No doubt like many others, I was given Dowden’s Shakespeare: His Mind and Art (1875) as a school prize in the 1930s. Dowden detected four periods in Shakespeare’s career: ‘In the Workshop’, ‘In the World’, ‘In the Depths’ and ‘On the Heights’, where the poet emerged from the depths ‘wise, large-hearted, calm-souled’. Dowden’s scheme, once taught in a thousand classrooms, is now forgotten or treated as a curiosity, but the general idea of finding in the plays evidence of Shakespeare’s successive emotional states persisted. Even the austere E.K. Chambers felt obliged to believe that Timon of Athens signified a nervous breakdown, and even the very modern Edward Said, in an unexpected aside, speaks of the ‘new spirit of reconciliation and serenity’ in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Such a view clearly needs to be reconsidered in the light of Leontes’s murderous jealousy and Prospero’s habitual bullying; and in fact a revised version, which allowed these plays to include hatred and jealousy as well as forgiveness, would suit Said’s general thesis much better, but the casualness of the allusion shows that the serenity reading is still in the air.

As he remarks at the outset, Said had a personal interest in ‘the last or late period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health’, and his own experience induced him to ask whether great artists, near the end of their lives, could develop a ‘late style’. The expression ‘late style’, or Spätstil, is usually attributed to Adorno, who was probably the strongest single intellectual influence on Said. Adorno’s prime example of late style was late Beethoven. Said offers a modified version of his views. Adorno had attended closely to the late works: the last five piano sonatas, the last six string quartets, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. In these works, which still remember, but with extraordinary distortions, the usual musical forms, Beethoven established an alienated relationship with the contemporary social order. Adorno remarks the presence in this music of ‘unmastered material’, unmotivated rhetorical devices, carelessness, inept decoration and repetitiveness. Some of these works seem to be unfinished, or in other ways defiant of informed expectation. They are intended to be, sometimes grotesquely, out of touch not only with the public but with the work of the composer’s own middle period, so forceful, so structured, so consistent with his humane politics, as in the ‘Eroica’, the Fifth Symphony and Fidelio. By comparison with these masterpieces the late works are disorderly and even ‘catastrophic’. ‘For Adorno, lateness is the idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.’ Said calls this music ‘a form of exile’.

That’s a reduced and simplified account of Adorno’s view – as Said remarks, he was never an easy author to understand – but he provides the theme for Said’s meditations on the subject. It is too simple to begin by listing artists whose late great achievements crowned a lifetime of ‘aesthetic endeavour’ – Rembrandt, Matisse, Bach, Wagner and Verdi, for instance. Said prefers to contemplate instances of lateness that speak less of achievement than of ‘intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction . . . nonharmonious, nonserene tension and, above all, a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness going against’.

So Said develops Adorno’s account of the ‘negativity’ of late Beethoven, of a style that cannot be reconciled with any that preceded it, either in the artist’s own work or elsewhere. In working on the idea of the belated Beethoven, Adorno became himself a figure of lateness; and in adapting the idea Said seems to do the same. Not surprisingly, he associates these vagaries of late style with the approach of death. It is not a straightforward encounter; as with the ‘somehow inconsistent solemnity of a work such as the Missa Solemnis’, there is between the inherited forms and the unconventionality of their belated handling a gap that cannot be closed, explicable only as an irony appropriate to the modern age in which this form of lateness became historically possible. Adorno calls this outcome catastrophic; for Said the formula is more personal: ‘Lateness as theme and as style keeps reminding us of death.’

However, if this apocalyptic idea of lateness is to have any value outside the special case of Beethoven one cannot stop there: there must be some allusion to other cases. Said’s book consists of lectures and other scattered pieces, deftly assembled by Michael Wood, and not all bearing directly on the topic, though it is always near at hand. The most surprising contribution is an essay on Richard Strauss, who certainly had spent a long life studying ‘the possibilities’. He set some well-known stylistic puzzles: Elektra belongs to 1909, the same date as Schoenberg’s Erwartung, yet the more traditional Der Rosenkavalier followed in 1911. There has been much argument about this apparent violation of the principles of Modernism, but Said is surely the first critic to describe Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) as examples of late style. Adorno, who despised Strauss (‘a composing machine’ producing ‘illusory’ music), would not have approved, so Said here listens instead to another of his heroes, Glenn Gould. Gould was a serious admirer of Strauss, whom he praised for employing ‘the fullest riches of late romantic tonality’. But Said is interested also in an affinity the composer exploits between the present time and the 18th century, the proper setting for his luxurious meditations. The full experience of Strauss’s ‘lateness’ depends on that mastery of romantic tonality, employed in the service of meditation; and in the end it is Strauss’s late, last works, some thirty years later than the Rosenkavalier, that are found to have the full and proper lateness, as it is indulged in the last opera, Capriccio, the Metamorphosen, the Four Last Songs: sad, expert, polished music, offering no hint of resemblance to Beethoven’s strange late excesses.

This essay on Strauss is the boldest and most brilliantly conceived and written part of the book. A chapter on Così fan tutte is equally adventurous but less satisfying, depending, I thought unconvincingly, on an elaborate confrontation between Mozart’s opera and Fidelio, interpreted as a reproach to Così and its librettist and composer; and on an exaggerated characterisation of Don Alfonso as both a mature libertine – ‘an understated version of his near contemporary the Marquis de Sade’ – and at the same time as a sort of moral tutor to the two young men. Said points out that Alfonso is ‘only the second authority figure’ in Mozart’s operas ‘to appear after the death of Leopold’. The opera itself, we are told, took its authors close to a vision of ‘a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme’, which makes it sound more like King Lear.

The rest of the book is about Jean Genet, Lampedusa (and also Visconti’s film of The Leopard), Britten’s Death in Venice (and Thomas Mann’s novella): all cases in which it is easy enough for interpreters to discover or insert some version of lateness. There is nothing mechanical or obvious about these studies, which buzz with excitement and intelligence and demonstrate what his admirers already knew, the extraordinary range of Said’s intellectual interests. The chapter on Gould is called ‘The Virtuoso as Intellectual’, and in thinking of Said we might reverse the order of the terms.

Writing about Gould means taking sides. ‘There is no way of getting past the fact that from the moment Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations became available, a genuinely new stage in the history of virtuosity was attained.’ There are virtuosi who might dissent from this or at least call it extravagant, but part of Said’s point is Gould’s indifference to such judgments, and his conquest of a broader public. Gould was only 50 when he died, but his eccentricities, his preferences, his flight from public performance, are in their way as odd as Beethoven’s defiance of opinion and his mixture of novelty and archaism.

The expression ‘lateness’ clearly needs to be elastic; no doubt it could be used of Keats or of Wilfred Owen and many other artists, though overdoing its elasticity might destroy what usefulness it has. Late Thoughts is a scholarly work, and seeks to avoid that fate. It is a handsome production, with many splendid illustrations, on high-class paper and with wide margins, qualities worth mentioning because the book is nevertheless one of those that will stay open only if you hold it down firmly with two hands. It’s probably worth the trouble, but it is a trouble that should have been avoided.

The old triad, we gather, is still permissible as long as we see that ‘to situate works within early, middle and late periods . . . is essentially a matter of pragmatism and pedagogy, not a sustained critical project with deep roots in aesthetics or philosophy.’ Yet the editor also claims that ‘late style does not exist.’ She goes on to assert that ‘no single character or aesthetic emerges consistently in last works.’ In bothering about the idea one is showing an interest less in great artists than in the much less interesting people who write about them – who write on ideas about lateness rather than on lateness itself, and struggle to fit those ideas pragmatically and pedagogically into some convenient pattern. So, it is claimed, the biographers of Mozart have manufactured a late style for him, and in doing so remade him on the model of Beethoven.

In the first part of the book the chosen subjects are visual artists, notably Mondrian, Rothko, Eva Hesse and de Kooning. De Kooning sets a nice problem for students of lateness, since, though apparently afflicted by Alzheimer’s, he was still working, still exploring the possibilities, in his nineties; he could ‘produce canvases literally without thinking, resulting in late works that bear no relationship to the debilitation or vaunted deliberation of old age’. There is no real consistency in the record: Rothko died at 66, Hesse at 34, but, as it happens, both were driven by debilitating illnesses to adopt new styles (which turned out to be late) and to work with paper. The section ends with a transcript of a conversation between Frank Gehry and Ernest Fleischmann, interesting but not really to the (barely visible) point, as Gehry is a youthful 77 and designing things all over the planet, and we do not know whether they are late or not.

Part Two is about composers, first ‘Mozart’s Beethovenian Afterlife’ – an essay which, along the way, exposes the mistakes and prejudices made by older biographers as they sought to confer a fitting lateness on the composer, who died at 35. John Deathridge’s chapter on Wagner will probably outlast the other contributions; he shows that Wagner, even when he was working on his last opera, Parsifal, really wanted to be writing symphonies. Deathridge provides some sketches, stillborn congeners of the Siegfried Idyll, to show what Wagner had in mind. Having argued for and committed himself to music drama as the legitimate successor of symphony, he didn’t succeed in thus scandalously betraying his allegiance. This excellent essay makes no attempt to suggest that these symphonic fragments have anything to do with lateness, except that the notion of doing symphonies happened to be in Wagner’s head, and was unlikely ever to be realised, however late it got. Bryan Gilliam’s essay returns us to Strauss and Four Last Songs. ‘These luminescent, autumnal songs are among Strauss’s finest late thoughts; they are works of neither resignation nor hope, but rather of serene acceptance’: a satisfactorily late state of mind for a man who after many life adventures lived even longer than his hero, the imperturbable Goethe, and, in the end, matched his serenity.