Alex Ross gives some examples of how aging composers reached a state of terminal grace, and goes on to present some thoughts on what makes the late stage compositions what they are:
Musical figures from Monteverdi to Messiaen have had careers that can be plotted as steadily rising curves. In old age, certain composers reach a state of terminal grace, in which even throwaway ideas give off a glow of inevitability, like wisps of cloud illumined at dusk. It’s hard to think of another art form in which so many peak achievements—Bach’s “Art of Fugue,” Beethoven’s late string quartets, Verdi’s “Otello” and “Falstaff,” Wagner’s “Parsifal,” to name a few—arrive at, or near, the close of day. More than, say, poetry, which tends to thrive on youthful passion, composition seems a cumulative labor, a long process of trial and error, of possibilities rejected or exploited. And, perhaps because writing music is such a purely mental exercise, composers can go on working even after age takes its toll. Think of Handel writing “How Dark, O Lord, Are Thy Decrees” as his sight was failing, or Beethoven creating his most visionary pieces after deafness had set in, or Shostakovich carving final messages of flickering hope and deepening despair as Lou Gehrig’s disease and other ailments immobilized him.
Powers sounded a skeptical note, pointing out that Shakespeare continued writing after “The Tempest,” spoiling our sense of that work as his grand farewell. “Perhaps half the meaning that we find in last wills and testaments lies not in late style but in ourselves,” Powers wrote. But the composer Bruce Adolphe set out a late-style rule that rang true for a lot of the music under examination: “To say exactly what one means without complication but also without compromise.” That idea, which is essentially a call to artistic honesty, does explain Shostakovich’s existential desolation as well as Messiaen’s religious delirium; in each case, the composer’s technique has no purpose other than to express the underlying emotion.
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Tags: Western classical music