Edward Said’s last (and posthumously published) book was On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Vintage, 2007), and its chapters explore the question of whether the distinctive work produced late in life can be systematically understood as a peculiar genre. One might imagine, for example, that artworks generated in one’s maturity might be liberated from the self-censoring impulses to impress audiences or critics, or could stand as paradigm-shattering objects that after a life spent exploring the limits of the status quo can finally imagine their transcendence. Such possibilities confirm a culture’s instinct to celebrate Old Masters but also contradict an equally plausible sense that the most innovative work is done by the young, whose brilliance can find self expression in manners not yet tainted by social pressures to conform to what everyone else thinks is possible. One can find apparent confirmation of both views: artists tend to do their most innovative work late in career, scientists and mathematicians early.
Said’s interest in the topic was cultivated as he prepared a seminar on the subject at Columbia University, and the reviewers who have considered the book haven’t been able to escape the suggestion that his late attraction to the topic was prompted by Said’s knowledge of his own imminent death. Said’s take is not to celebrate late work as a culmination but to see it as conflicted; as he sees it, “artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.”
Said was inspired by Theodor Adorno, who also wrote on these questions. One of Adorno’s most widely read essays, “Late Style in Beethoven” (1937), begins with this observation: “The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.” How to explain this? In Beethoven’s case, Adorno sees no abandonment of musical convention: rather, in the late work, “no longer does [Beethoven] gather the landscape, deserted now, and alienated, into an image. He lights it with rays from the fire that is ignited by subjectivity, which breaks out and throws itself against the walls of the work, true to the idea of its dynamism. His late work still retains process, but not as development; rather as a catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground or harmony of spontaneity.”
For Adorno, then, Beethoven was an epochal figure in musical history because he was able both to reflect his time and artistically transcend it. His later inward turn is thus seen by Adorno as a deflection away from the heroic/romantic themes earlier motivated by the French Revolution, a retreat into authenticity (alternatively, Stephen Rumph and others see this inward move as more reflecting the emergence of German political conservatism, but that is another argument…).
But what of early style?
An artist’s first work is often purely derivative of the period in which he or she has been schooled. Often a distinctive voice does not emerge until much later. But in some cases the first major work contains defining attributes that will remain actively at work to the very end. Like the scholar whose academic career is forever inflected to some extent through the dissertation project, some artists’ first significant efforts exert a sustaining force in their later emergence.
Beethoven illustrates the dynamics of early career development as well as the later. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major (op. 19, 1795), which was actually his first (it’s numbered second because of the sequence of publication, not creation), marked his compositional debut in Vienna at the age of 24. After years of performing, Beethoven was no stranger to classical music circles; Carl Czerny lauded his improvisational skills and, noting that LvB’s playing even moved audiences to tears, said “there was something magical about his playing.” But the premier of the B-flat concerto was a source of major stress and the young Beethoven was still revising it days before its premier.
The B-flat concerto is usually considered Beethoven’s weakest. When he submitted the piece to his publisher, Beethoven said “I do not give it as one of my best.” In choosing to select what would be his official Opus 1, Beethoven chose not the concerto but trios written for piano, violin and cello. But later in his career he chose to perform the piano concerto again and again, as if he had a particular attachment to his first major effort. As Ken Meltzer put it in an introduction accompanying a recent Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance of the piece: “During his career as piano virtuoso – ultimately curtailed by the tragic onset of deafness – Beethoven frequently programmed the B-flat concerto for important events and played it to great acclaim. If the B-flat concerto is perhaps not the equal of the other four, it is nonetheless a pleasurable work that offers tantalizing glimpses of the genius soon to emerge.”
Production of the concerto was tied up in concerns about money and making ends meet. Beethoven was working with Joseph Haydn, who vouched for his productivity in Vienna in asking for more money from his patron, Maximilian Franz, only to find that the pieces he was forwarding to Franz had actually been written back in Bonn. The episode caused a break with Haydn that never fully recovered, and Beethoven shifted over to a new teacher, Johann Georg Albrechtsberger while also resuming violin lessons. Meanwhile, as he acquired a local reputation and an agent, his fortunes began to improve and soon (especially bolstered by the fame generated by his first publications) Beethoven was a celebrity. By 1798 his fame was cemented among Vienna’s elite by production of his oratorio, The Creation, though it was this same year (if his famous 1801 letter is to be believed) that saw the first indications of the onset of deafness that would finally lead him into a world of total silence.
Beethoven’s symphonic works are usually thought to move from a heavy early reliance on his mentors (including Haydn) into works reflecting his own astonishingly unique voice, and less attention is given to the piano concertos. But in the case of Beethoven, his first concerto reflects the combination of embarrassment and pride that shapes later careers and more mature work.
SOURCES: Ken Meltzer, “Notes on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Opus 19 (1795),” Encore ASO, April 2008, pgs. 27-28; Theodor Adorno, “Late Style in Beethoven” (1935), Adorno’s Essays on Music, selected, with intro., commentary, and notes by Richard Leppert, new translations by Susan Gillespie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pgs. 564-568; Edward Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Vintage, 2007); Edmund Morris, Beethoven: The Universal Composer (New York: HarperCollins, 2005); Stephen Rumph, Beethoven After Napoleon: Political Romanticism in the Late Works (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).