The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (In the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jasper on April 2, 2012 at 4:24 am

    I’ve lately been reading Jan Swafford’s biography of Brahms, and it’s curious how that composer fits both ends of the spectrum, with respect to death-obsession as both a youthful and an ‘elderly’ endeavor. In a sense, his most life-affirming works seem to stem primarily from his middle period; early masterpieces like the d minor piano concerto and the op. 13 Begräbnisgesang were strongly informed by the spectre of Schumann’s slow demise, and of course there is the string of late piano and clarinet works that are so closely tied to the deaths of many of his friends and colleagues.
    . In regards to Mozart and Schubert, it is interesting to speculate about whether their particular sort of precocious output would have slightly lessened in quality with advancing years, as in the case of Mendelssohn, who lived to a (very) slightly older age. When it comes to certain kinds of artistic endeavor (music, chess, and mathematics in particular) there doesn’t seem to be any discernible pattern of when one’s ‘peak’ may occur.. it’s curious that these 3 fields also happen to be the only 3 fields in which we are faced with the notion of childhood prodigies.
    . I agree with the observations about Mahler: I can’t really call any of his major works ‘uplifting’ in the grandiosely positive sense of the word… I find myself quite moved by his intrusions into the ethereal realms, but slightly skeptical of his ‘redemptive’ qualities. (Sorry, Lenny.) Wagner, alas, eludes me also. Perhaps I just haven’t given it the chance it deserves. Perhaps I’m too much of a Brahmsian at heart, for that to ever occur. (See above.)
    . I like to look at the cases of men like the 3 Great B’s of classical music, as instances of men at the peak of their powers who happened to suddenly die and therefore leave their last works as being ascribable to some otherworldly plane of thought. But let’s face it, even their most youthful works would be beyond the abilities of 99% of us poor mere mortals to replicate. Seems pretty otherworldly, doesn’t it? So yes, I think that mere proximity of the body to mortal death is not a necessary prerequisite for increased insight into the spiritual realms. Perhaps youth, or the spirit of youth, is better able to capture such a glimpse, when life hasn’t become so tarnished by skepticism and the humdrum pragmatic concerns of our existence. Some of these great writers, then, happened to be artists who knew, better than most, how to hold on to that ever-important youthful vitality.


    • Hello Jasper, and sorry for the late reply.

      Yes, I love late Brahms also: there is a deep. autumnal sadness to those late works which seems miles away from such stormy earlier works as that Opus 5 piano sonata, or the 1st piano concerto. It does indeed become very tempting to ascribe the changes to greater maturity and wisdom or whatever, but it’s really no more than the change in one’s personal outlook that occurs in anyone’s life. I don’t know that i love late Brahms more than I do early Brahms.

      I’m afraid our teenage lad is a big fan of Wagner and of mahler, so i can’t really escape their music. i am certainly enjoying mahler far more than i used to, but I remain a bit wary of getting too close too Wagner.

      It’s interesting that you say “Perhaps youth, or the spirit of youth, is better able to capture such a glimpse…” Wordsworth feels much the same, I think, in “Ode on the Itimations of immortality”: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more” he laments. The trope of greater wisdom accompanying age is turned on its head.

      Perhaps it’s best simply to acknowledge that an artist’s perpective is bound to change over the years: that is true for all of us, even those of us who aren’t artists.

      Cheers for now,


  2. Posted by obooki on April 6, 2012 at 12:57 am

    I’ve always been of much the same opinion – though I keep citing late Faulkner, and then people just laugh at me.

    Another example very similar to the Shakespeare, of course, is Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – all reconciliation with tragedy, death, life, sin, pollution, and like nothing else in Greek tragedy.


    • The problem with late Faulkner, as I understand it, was that he drank too much to be as productive as he had been earlier in his life! I don’t know that i’d argue with the contention that the late 20s and 30s was his most productive era, but The Mansion, a late novel, strikes me as being among his best, and even his last novel, The Reivers struck me as pretty damn good.

      Oedipus at Colonus, like The Winter’s Tale,, is a play i’ve love to see well-performed on stage. Many years ago, i saw Peter Hall’s production at the National Theatre with Alan Howard, but found it very disappointing, mainly, I suspect, because he used a translation in rhyming couplets: it just doesn’t work in English – it sounds like doggerel.) Even reading it, it is a wonderfully moving work, and, as you say, like nothing else in greek tragedy.

      But if we are to take the vision of reconciliation beyond tragedy as a sign of greater wisdom (and I do appreciate that you’re not saying this), then we must conclude that Euripides went backwards over the course of his career: the early Alcestis ends with such reconciliation, whereas his late plays such as Iphigenia in Aulis or The Bacchae are about as dark as may be imagined. But then again, I don’t think i ever quite got Euripides…


  3. I found this a really interesting and moving read, Himadri. I so agree about Shakespeare’s late plays. It was interesting to watch Simon Callow perform Jonathan Bate’s one-man play ‘Being Shakespeare’ on Sky Arts on Sunday evening. The play captured that sense of redemption, renewal and healing in the later Shakespeare – and Bate touched briefly on how the shift in tone may have been partly nudged by the cycles of renewal asserting themselves when Shakespeare’s first grandchild was born – a healing moment perhaps in his grief at losing his son; and a hopeful beginning in his full view, as his own mortality began to close its round. It’s impossible to know if that was the case – but hopeful renewal in this world, mixed with other-worldly intimations of mortality, and the power of healing redemption seem to have been a powerful mix in his mind in his later works.

    There’s a similar sense of redemption and cycles of renewal in Dickens’s last novel ‘Edwin Drood.’ There are passages in the book with such a strong sense of mortality linked to timeless cycles of darkness and light. The descriptive passage on the last page he wrote, just hours before he died, resonates with a beautiful sense of the possibility of light and transcendence. Despite all the dark places his mind travelled, Dickens seemed to keep his faith in the possibilty of true human goodness right to the end.


    • Hello Melanie, good to see you around again! (I have read your recent blog posts, by the way, but have been having great trouble in finding some time in which to write anything at all coherent and sensible!)

      In a sense, I rather like it that we know so little of Shakespeare’s life. I keep telling myself that one shouldn’t interpret the artist’s work in view of the artist’s life, but the temptation is quite often too much. And yes, I do succumb to it. But .. surely a work, any work, should be judged purely on its own terms? We can but conjecture, at best, teh extent to which an artist puts his or her frame of mind into the work: there is no shortage of artists creating exuberant works during tragic periods of their lives, or, vice versa, creating tragic works when their lives were happy. This is because, whatever their frame of mind, what matters most, what makes them great artists in teh first place, is their imagination – their ability to transcend their own particular circumstances. Coul dhakespeare’s extraordinary imagination not have imagined serenity and reconciliation even before his personal circumstances had called for such qualities? Wouldn’t a man possessed with so prodigious an imagination, and so insatiable a curiosity in the workings of the human mind, have thought deeply about mortality even before coming close to his own?

      But even so, having said all this, the temptation to see the work in terms of the life is a difficult one to avoid. We do – or, at least, I do – go to late works of artists expecting some sort of great wisdom. But I feel uncomfortable about it al the same.

      Cheers for now,


      • Thanks for reading my posts, Himadri. Please don’t in any way feel obliged to leave a comment. I’m just happy you’ve visited there! After all, I can relate totally to difficulties in finding enough time and headspace. I read and enjoy many, many more of your posts than I manage to engage with in the way I would like to…

        I like the fact we know so little of the details of Shakespeare’s life too. I think feeling uncomfortable about the issues you raise is exactly the right approach. ‘The play’s the thing’ and has to be foremost. I just threw in the brief musing from Bate’s biographical play about Shakespeare, in the spirit that it was offered up by Bate himself – i.e. as an interesting nugget of conjecture; the sort of thing that appeals to that side of us drawn to the glimpses of the person behind the works we love. I think it has to be implicit in any scholarly approach, that such conjecture would be a very small part in the extremely complex sum that is Shakespeare!

        In his book ‘Soul of the Age’ Bate aims to ‘observe the interplay of [Shakespeare’s] mind and his world’ and – acutely aware that ‘the process has immense perils’ – Bate quotes the critic Barbara Everett on the problem of writing about Shakespeare’s life:

        ‘…if his biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.’

        It’s a fine line to tread, with many pitfalls, but like you I do feel drawn to speculating about the person that sometimes steps forward and feels in very direct connection with us through the plays. Especially as I get older, I recognise more and more of the different life experience patterns that truly earth the imaginary leaps in the works. Sometimes, there’s a danger too in precluding the possibility of how much a life is bound up with a writer’s work. You intuitively feel the earthy first hand sense of revelation – and recognise its roots, as well as marvelling at those genius flights of imagination. But, when it comes to taking any biographical musings any further, they wouldn’t stand up much to rigorous investigation. I wouldn’t put half of what I wonder about in an academic essay!

        On the issue of wisdom, I’m drawn to a feeling that it’s maybe a case of the questions rather than answers. Maybe it does its work best via all the common flaws, and human trippings up, these genius artists share with the rest of us as they journey alongside us in the quest to understand. Great artists are able to hold that ‘mirror up to nature’ and to express what the rest of us feel, but struggle to articulate – I think that’s where we can find valuable guideposts. But I might be talking a load of twaddle (sorry for the long ramble – hope it makes sense!)


  4. Speaking of late greats, what do you make of “late” Shakespeare? Late Shakespeare is interesting. It’s very magical, complex, romantic and at the same time economical and highly simple, tortured at times, highly beautiful. Coriolanus is perhaps the harshest of this “late” Shakespeare, but I have been thinking of The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, “late style” masterpieces.


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