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Untimely Meditations | The Nation

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Untimely Meditations

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The second, more problematic aspect of late style on which Solomon draws has a special pertinence to Beethoven, whose late works (notably the Ninth Symphony, the last five piano sonatas, the final handful of quartets, Missa Solemnis) form an identifiable group and show marked evidence of a considerable transformation in his actual compositional style from the romantic heroism of his middle-period works to a difficult, highly personal and (to the listener and even his contemporaries) a somewhat unattractive, not to say repellent, idiom. It is as if the earlier extrovert has turned inward, and now produces gnarled and eccentric pieces of music that make unprecedented demands on performer and listener alike, and at the same time convey a sense not of resignation but of an unusual rebelliousness, breaking barriers, transgressively exploring the basic elements of the art as if anew.

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Edward W. Said
We mourn the loss of Edward Said, who passed away on the morning of Thursday, September 25, 2003. Edward W. Said, the...

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This essay--Edward W. Said's first piece for The Nation from the magazine's May 30, 1966, issue--is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published by Said, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.

In an introduction he wrote for Rachel Bespaloff's On the Iliad, Hermann Broch, the distinguished Austrian man of letters and author of The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil, speaks of what he calls the style of old age as follows:

[It] is not always a product of the years; it is a gift implanted along with his other gifts in the artist, ripening, it may be, with time, often blossoming before its season under the foreshadow of death, or unfolding of itself even before the approach of age or death: it is the reaching of a new level of expression, such as the old Titian's discovery of the all-penetrating light which dissolves the human flesh and the human soul to a higher unity; or such as the finding by Rembrandt and Goya, both at the height of their manhood, of the metaphysical surface which underlies the visible in man and thing, and which nevertheless can be painted; or such as the Art of the Fugue which Bach in his old age dictated without having a concrete instrument in mind, because what he had to express was either beneath or beyond the audible surface of music.

Theodor Adorno's severely rigorous short essay "Beethoven's Late Style" catches the gist of this style aphoristically in one of the chapters of his posthumously published and unfinished book on the composer, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. What characterizes the late style, Adorno writes in this early part of the book, is not Beethoven's biographical apprehension of death (which, if it appears at all, does so only in the figure of allegory) but rather a new aesthetic that is fragmentary, incomplete, elusive and surprisingly full of outworn conventions (trills, fiorituras, "ingenuously simple...accompaniments") that are "made visible in unconcealed, untransformed barrenness." Far from the ripeness of a mature fruit, this peculiar style and the late works it gives rise to "are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them." Adorno concludes with this bravura set of formulations:

The caesurae, however, the abrupt stops which characterize the latest Beethoven more than any other feature, are those moments of breaking free; the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outward. Only then is the next fragment added, ordered to its place by escaping subjectivity and colluding for better or worse with what has gone before, and can be exorcized only by the figure they form together. This illuminates the contradiction whereby the very late Beethoven is called both subjective and objective, while the light in which alone it glows is subjective. He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As a dissociative force he tears them apart in time, perhaps in order to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.

This may seem impossibly gnomic, and it is certainly complicated to decipher, but its main arguments are clear enough. First of all, late-style Beethoven is not, as one might expect, all about reconciliation and a kind of restful summing up of a long, productive career. That is what one finds, for example, in Shakespeare's late romances like The Tempest, The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline, or in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, where, to borrow from another context, ripeness is all. In Adorno's account of late style, there is violence, experimental energy and, most important, a refusal to accept any idea of a healing, inclusive restfulness that comes at the end of a fruitful career. Second, and this is crucial for Solomon's book (which, oddly, mentions Adorno only in passing), the late-style phenomenon overturns our ideas and experiences about the coherence, organic completeness, the wholeness of the work, which is tied together (if that's the right way of putting it) in unexpected ways. Solomon shows, for example, that for a long time after Beethoven composed the choral finale to the Ninth Symphony, he was endlessly toying with the idea of replacing it with instrumental music and doing away entirely with the choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy." And what we have now, Solomon continues, is hardly the unitary hymn to joy but rather a composition whose "fusion of styles and procedures is matched by the multivalence of its forms, which constitute a palimpsest of superimposed hybrid structures--a set of variations; one or another sonata form; a four-movement cycle superimposed on a sonata-allegro concerto form with double exposition...; a cantata; a through-composed text-derived form; a suite; a divertimento; an operatic finale; and even a free fantasy." Everything about the work echoes "resistance to the given. That is why it begins with open fifths, tonal indeterminacy, a sense of the void."

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