Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More meditations on the curve of music history

The estimable Steve Hicken of Listen has a thoughtful post about the shape of music history. Finding the most appropriate geometry is an interesting problem, depending upon the number of parameters you'd like to account for, and whether the extent of a single parameter is expressible on an open or closed line. (Since I've been arguing for the complexity of some simplicity and vice versa, the geometry of my private musical-historical space might well fit on a torus. Leaving once again the question: Does it sound like a doughnut?)

And over at Sound & Fury, the sometimes sound and always furious ACD notes a recent opinion from musicological forensics. Beethoven is said to have died prematurely, due to lead poisoning caused by the malpractice of his own physician. This, of course, connects to a favorite theme of my own, the misplaced teleological approach to the later works of composers. Had he lived longer, Beethoven would surely have produced another couple of symphonies (if not more -- increased fluency in late life is not unknown), so discourse about the finality of the Nachlass is fundamentally mistaken.


Charles Shere said...

Ah, but Beethoven didn't live longer, is the point, nor did Mozart, Schubert, Mahler... and I believe they knew they weren't going to last much longer, is why their last music took the direction it did.

A better approach to this might be to observe the output of composers cut down by accident, quite unforeseen. Did they compose Nachlassen? I doubt it.

Then there are those who may have thought they were at death's door, but rallied for another twenty years or more... Strauss comes to mind. When he finally was dying, asked what it was like, "Why, just as I wrote about it in Tod und Verklärung," said he.

Daniel Wolf said...

Charles --

Okay, you're probably right about Schubert, but we'll have to disagree on the others.

There is a paucity of evidence about Mozart, but the course of his last year suggests something other than a musician resigned to death. His financial affairs had stabilized, if not improved substantially. The Magic Flute, the Clarinet and Bb Piano Concerto, and the smaller Freimauer Kantata were all successes, to which I would add the revision of the G minor symphony and Ave Verum Corpus and la Clemenza da Tito, a work which has received some welcome reevaluation in recent years. And, perhaps, most of all, the best evidence is that the completed fragments of the Requiem were done well before his illness.

I'm more certain that I'm correct about Beethoven. Although concentrating on quartets in his last two years, Beethoven had plans for substantial new works, including an additional symphony and several ideas for an opera. Moreover, the tone of the last works is seldom that of someone planning to die (like Strauss, perhaps, he had already explored that trope earlier on) but rather that of a musician with a lot more to accomplish.

Finally, in Mahler's case, Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony were both completed well before his illness (streptoccal blood infection) which came suddenly in Feb. 1911 (he died in May 1911 with the ms. of the Tenth incomplete). I can't imagine that he would have taken on his contract in New York nor would he have chosen to have his final work deal deal with the inconclusivity of a "Purgatorio". Like Beethoven, he was clearly a composer with further ambitions.

Charles Shere said...

A key word here is "ambitions." Ambitions; intentions; desires; ideas. I'm sure both Mozart and Beethoven had lots left they could have done, and plenty of ideas about how they might have done it. I do think, though, that Mozart (and Mahler) were aware of the probable imminence of death. (Mahler of course knew about his weak heart long before the strep infection.)

As to the inconclusivity of Purgatory -- Mahler was among other things an ironist; what better way to abandon the mortal career?

Where's Rossini in this? Would Mozart have gone his route, given the changing fashions in the opera business?

Where's Sibelius? Where, most tragically of all I think, Ravel? Ives?