Monday, November 20, 2006

(picnic, lightning)

Biography certainly plays a role in what a composer does and how she or he does it, but it doesn't work retroactively. In this Mozart year, we've been bombarded particularly hard with narratives about his final hours and final works, each narrator certain that this coincidence has some meaning beyond our simple despair that these works happened to be the last. There are similar narratives about final works for many composers. But, aside from those composers who decide consciously to stop, resting on their laurels, or to retire in a fadeout or with a bang, or just plain decide to quit, a concerted end to life and work is just not the stuff one plans. You don't compose your way off the stage. While we now recognize that many of the late works of Mozart have a unique maturity, and in particular an attitude towards musical history that had to have been a growing part of his musical consciousness, and it is immensely difficult for us to imagine what Mozart would have done next, it is even more difficult to believe that he heard those late works as either late or last. For the composer, those works were simply new, and his mind was surely already turning toward the next.

Hans Rott died at 25, leaving only one major work, a Symphony in E major (1880). A piece that should have been heard as a promising, if not brillant, beginning -- and one that was probably essential to Mahler's development -- thus gets (mis)heard as tragic and culminating, transfering it into the realm of requiems and the like.

I've written here previously about the case of Mahler, affected (perhaps) by the "Ninth Symphony Curse" yet managing in spite of it to write 10 or even 11 symphonies (depending upon how you count) before dying too early, at 50. Conventional wisdom assigns these to the stylistic category of late works. Late in chronology, but are they necessarily late and last in the composer's imagination? A narrative culminating at the Ninth or Das Lied von der Erde or the 10th, misses the point that, had he lived an average lifetime, at his pace of work, we'd now be listening to Symphonies 15 or 16, or perhaps an opera or two. Imagining the tonal directions that such pieces might have taken -- given Mahler's access to nearly complete chromatic collections in the tenth as well as his lament for the loss of meantone intonation with its pure thirds -- is tantalizing and a particular challenge to the Viennese chromatic language that would emerge after Mahler's death. And speculating about the formal invention that he might have achieved is perhaps even more of a challenge to that tradition.

Morton Feldman may have gotten it right with his Last Pieces (1959), which he composed while still young (if not youthful, a word that I find tough to use with Feldman at any age), and, in spite of the title, were neither his last pieces, nor even late pieces, not even by a longshot. But could it be that by detaching the notion of a late style from age or career chronology, Feldman usefully got over the anxiety of a late style, allowing himself, in the second half of his career, to compose as if he had all the time in the world?

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