Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Starting over from the End

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Starting over from the End

Article excerpt

In my end is my beginning.

-T.S. Eliot, "East Coker" from Four Quartets

I have been thinking a lot about endings lately. To name two reasons, I recently completed my dissertation, and this is my final column for the Forum. Endings let us reflect on what we have done or what came before, and with that knowledge, ponder what will happen in the future. With respect to the arts, the advantage of having history at our disposal allows us to consider an artist's oeuvre in terms of beginnings and endings. Artists often have their works divided into stylistic periods that contain a certain set of characteristics that supposedly develop over time into original expressions. The early music of Igor Stravinsky, for example, owes a great debt to his teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and to his own Russian roots. By contrast, the music written at the end of his life fuses techniques developed in the early music with his unique employment of rival Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone method of composition. The epigraph above from TS. Eliot makes a powerful statement - an artist's works at the end of a career often represent a new beginning and influence future generations.

It is in this spirit that I would like to look at endings - in this case, a composer's final works - and try to identify some general features associated with them. Contrary to the usual perception that an artist's output and quality of work diminishes with age, the late compositions by many composers display the opposite. More often, they follow Eliot's assertion that "old men ought to be explorers." I would argue that the following traits appear in these pieces: a greater sense of profundity, introspection, and a careful attention to craft. Additionally, these pieces often become the basis on which future generations of composers continue their art. To examine this theory, I shall consider the career and late music of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven, whose hair clippings and skull fragments have been discussed in the past few years, also has been the subject of several recent books by Lewis Lockwood (Beethoven: The Music and the Life), Maynard Solomon (Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination), and Edmund Morris (Beethoven: The Universal Composer). All three books consider the circumstances and features of Beethoven's late music. Representative pieces from this period include the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last several piano sonatas and string quartets. Solomon points out that Beethoven's letters from this period (c. 1814-27) reveal a growing awareness of his mortality in which the composer placed life behind furthering his art. Two excerpts from Beethoven's personal diary allude to this decision: "Sacrifice once and for all the trivialities of social life to your art"; "Only in my divine art do I find the support which enables me to sacrifice the best part of my life to the heavenly Muses."

What does this late music, conceived as a challenge against the ravages of time and fate, sound like? The classical flourishes and rigorous formal proportions inherited from his predecessors Haydn and Mozart are largely absent. Also missing is the concept of the "Beethoven Hero" (also the title of a fine recent book by Scott Burnham), the larger-than-life figure towering over music history, with the bombastic and exciting sounds of the "Eroica" symphony and the "Emperor" piano concerto. Instead, paralleling his descent into permanent silence, Beethoven's late music exhibits a profound treatment of sound and silence: introspection, innovation, and a revival of the past - not his own past, but music of earlier masters such as J. …

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