A young pianist’s thoughts on late style

What is Late Style? It’s a question that has long preoccupied writers and thinkers, from Theodor Adorno to Edward Said. And now Jonathan Biss, an American pianist in his mid-30s, is exploring the concept of Late Style through a series concerts featuring a variety of composers and works. His second London concert was on 27th March 2017 and included works by Schumann, Kurtág, Chopin and Brahms.

Here’s Biss in his own words about his Late Style project:

It really has interested me that there are so many composers who were already writing great music but still at the end of their lives moved in new directions. For example, with Beethoven because the late works are so special, had he stopped at Op.80, we’d still say he’s one of the greatest, but he still found a new language in later life. This is also true of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and figures as diverse as Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich and Gesualdo. I am just fascinated by this idea that the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is finite, limited, seemed to have focused so many composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. Either age and/or coming to the end of life it seems you reach the point where you just say what you need to say, you don’t worry about how it will be received. All of these works are very different but I think the link is that these people have the freedom to say what they need to say.

Interview with The Cross-Eyed Pianist

And here is Edward Said on the notion of an artistic late style:

The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality.

Each of us can supply evidence of late works which crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavour. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all?

Some composers have a very distinct Late Style – Beethoven, for example, who was long lived (by the standards of his time) and whose late works reveal an intensely philosophical other-worldliness and sense of acceptance (but never resignation). For Chopin and Schumann, who both died relatively young and whose music featured in Biss’s concert programme, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. For some composers, it suggests a confrontation with mortality, an expression of the ultimate life lessons; yet for others their late style does not always bring wisdom and serenity. Take Schubert, whose music occupies Biss’s final concert in May: Schubert was dying (and knew he was dying) when he wrote his last works, but rather than express acceptance of his own mortality, these works seem to communicate an “incompleteness”, a sense that he had much more to say, and that he had perhaps reached a moment in his compositional life, freed from the shadow of Beethoven, where he had the freedom to say it without worrying about how it would be received. In the late music of Brahms, one finds an individual facing death without any questioning or belief that there is something beyond, an afterlife. His music is not “anti-hope” but there are motifs and gestures in the late piano music which create a deep sense of melancholy. In his earlier works, one feels he has something to prove – as indeed he did: anointed the heir to Beethoven as a young man, he carried the weight of expectation. This has gone in his late works, replaced by a vulnerability and a wish to speak but perhaps not always quite able to.

For Jonathan Biss, the notion of creative lateness is not only related to physical age but also to an attitude of mind. In composers who died young, in particular, there is the sense of a life lived with intensity, that time is finite, and this seems to have focused composers’ imaginations in a very specific way. For a more senior composer, such as Brahms, the combination of accumulated wisdom and the sense that time is limited produces music which is impeccably wrought yet emotionally unleashed. In his book On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), Edward Said highlights a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence in artists’ or composers’ late works, which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, or reconciliation. This “insouciance” – and artistic confidence – was evident in all the works in Jonathan Biss’s programme.

In Brahms’ late piano works which form Opp. 118 and 119, there is a serenity combined with vulnerability, an acceptance that the end is near, yet these are not valedictory works. Biss preceded these pieces with the second movement of Brahms’s Third Piano Sonata, showing how the chain of falling thirds pre-echoes the opening of the Opus 119, the last pieces Brahms wrote for the piano. It was interesting to hear the connections: the piano sonata, written when he was only 20, already sounds fully formed, mature, tightly structured and sophisticated. In the late piano works, there is greater spaciousness, more freedom of expression, a sense of a composer who no longer has anything to prove, an ‘insouciance”. In the post-concert talk, Biss admitted his great affection for Brahms’ music and this was clear in his performance. A generous, warm tone, careful attention to details of phrasing, tempo, rubato and articulation, and a sensitivity to Brahms’ shifting moods – from achingly tender to almost chaotically reckless in the Rhapsody of Op119, made this, for me, the highlight of this interesting programme.

The programme opened with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, composed in November 1853, just a few months before Schumann’s irretrievable mental breakdown. Here is a composer who has turned desperately inward, the “Eusebius” (sensitive, introverted) side of his personality very much to the fore. The music has a bittersweet quality, and Biss’s ability to highlight the lyricism and poetry which overlaid darker undercurrents of emotion made this an absorbing and thoughtful opener to the concert.

Kurtág’s miniatures – six fleeting yet highly concentrated pieces from the huge sequence called Játékok  (Games) – revealed Biss’s persuasively rich tonal palette and his appreciation of Kurtág’s understated yet emotionally intense soundworld. These are late works “in spirit” (and for a composer as long lived as Kurtág’, they may well be his “middle period” works!). Kurtag, like Brahms before him, knew he was sitting on top of years and years of so much great music: he had “a super-historical awareness”, yet by the end of the 1960s he had come to a creative impasse as he strove to come to terms with the great Western musical tradition. His response was Játékok: conceived on one level as short playful piano pieces for children, on another fragmented aphoristic or wistful commentaries and hommages to the music and composers which had gone before. Here, the composer’s lateness is expressed in fleeting works. Like the late Brahms there’s an insouciance and confidence in these tiny works: here is a composer who feels no need to speak too loudly to be heard.

Chopin’s mighty Polonaise-Fantaisie Op.61 followed almost without a pause, its drama and fervency providing a striking contrast to the previous works. Out of the entire programme, this was the work which felt less successful for me and it was rather muddled, the clarity of melodic line and musical thought lost in the almost ferociously extrovert passages. The overall effect was one of uncertainty and improvisation, a sense of the composer asking of himself and audience “What kind of a piece is this?”. Perhaps Chopin’s creative lateness was the ability to make extraordinary music out of two genres – a fusing of the Polonaise (a Polish dance) and the fantasy. The end result is a hybrid – a collection of free associations.

If the programme had an obvious theme (aside from Late Style), it would be the intensity of the music performed: four composers who had found a purity of expression in their late works, a compelling need to speak with the freedom to say what they need to say without concern of how their music would be received. Jonathan Biss has been praised for his intellectual and musically curious approach to his programmes and music making, and this thoughtful and highly personal programme suits his musical personality.

In the final concert of this series, Biss is joined by tenor Mark Padmore to explore Schubert’s last songs, and the great A major Piano Sonata, D959 – highly works emblematic of Schubert’s final year which reveal a composer facing death as stylistically as diverse then as he had ever been before.

Lateness is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present

– Edward Said


(Photo of Jonathan Biss by Benjamin Ealovega)




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