Why so many artists do their most interesting work in their final years

02.18.17
Jonathan Biss
The Economist

When time is precious, composers and playwrights outdo themselves

Now musicians with very different views are wading into the lateness debate. In a recital series at the Wigmore Hall in London last year, Sir Andras Schiff played the last piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. The connecting thread was a culminating aesthetic mastery. In “Late Style”, a series of recitals in America and Europe through the spring this year, Jonathan Biss, a young American pianist, is presenting chamber works by three of those composers, as well as Carlo Gesualdo, Robert Schumann, Benjamin Britten and Johannes Brahms.

For each of these composers, late style meant something different. Gesualdo had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his last days in a torment which one can sense in his crazily discordant late works. The emotional devastation of Schumann’s final days becomes starkly evident in his ruthlessly pared-down Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Dawn”). The Britten string quartet which Mr Biss has chosen shows the composer delighting in an extreme—and to him quite new—economy of expression. The chaotic middle movement of Mr Biss’s chosen Schubert sonata reflects the composer, who was dying of syphilis, going to pieces in rage and terror. Brahms’s late works suggest a man whose emotional energy has been sapped dry; Beethoven’s suggest the opposite. What links these composers, as Mr Biss points out, is that “with each of them, something has happened to completely change their style”.

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