Late Style

Soho the Dog is my favorite music blog. Matt Guerrieri has been serving up second helpings of Awesome Sauce with posts on polydactyl pianists, Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, and, most recently, musicians’ premature deaths, specifically Glenn Gould’s and Felix Mendelssohn’s. He notes that Gould would be 75 if he were still alive, and would almost certainly have a blog. And Matt writes a wonderful analysis of the sole surviving chorus of Christus, an oratorio left abandoned at Mendelssohn’s death. More particularly, he writes about a single cadence that telescopes all of Mendelssohn’s erumpent mastery into seven measures. And here is the point:

Every time I hear that cadence, hear Mendelssohn at the point where his craft will finally let him do whatever he wants to do, I can’t help thinking about the fact that it was, unwittingly, the end of his career. And you know what? I don’t feel sadness, or regret, or wistfulness: I’m downright pissed, pissed that he didn’t live to produce a normal life expectancy’s allotment of music, pissed that he didn’t get to let his imagination fly on the wings of his technical mastery, and pissed that he came to be remembered as simply a prodigy who had a certain flair for melody but somehow lacked the mettle and inner strength (you know, because he was a Jew) to excel in the “larger forms” that seemed to be the only criterion anybody knew how to apply in those days.

This got me thinking about how people reconcile themselves to a great artist’s early death by deciding that it is a decree that History pronounces on that artist’s talent. What is, is right. Mendelssohn — meh, he’s gone as far as he’s gonna. Next!

Nietzsche is not impressed by this line of thought:

It is . . . a moral outrage that Raphael should die at thirty-six; a man like Raphael should never die. If, as apologists of the actual, you wish to come to the aid of history, you will say that Raphael expressed everything that was in him; longer life would only have enabled him to repeat himself, not to create new beauty, etc., etc. You would thereby become the devil’s advocate, precisely because you idolize the event, the fact; but the fact itself is always stupid and has always resembled a calf more than a god. Besides, as apologists for history, your prompter is ignorance, since it is only your ignorance of a natura naturans lilke Raphael that hinders you from being outraged that he lived and will never live again.*

Life is precious, and we while we have no choice but to reconcile ourselves to death, we also have to affirm life against all intellectual rationales for embracing death — which was also the point of a superb post Jonathan wrote in response to Malachi Ritscher’s horrifying suicide-as-political-protest. So the hell with that I-hope-I-die-before-I-get-old rock’n’roll BS.

On the other hand, Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club blog recently argued that a lot of pop-cultural figures would do themselves a favor if they died before they had a chance to spoil the memory of their youthful accomplishment. Examples of past-due artists: Woody Allen and Flavor Flav. Comment posters also nominate Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Elvis (duh), Leslie Nielson of Naked Gun fame . . . readers of this blog can no doubt supply their own. Examples of artists who chose the right (early) moment to make their exit: Tupac, James Dean, and Kurt Cobain.

What I find interesting about this issue is how it points to the problem of late style. Edward Said’s last book was, appropriately enough, a meditation on this topic, titled On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. What a great idea for a book! Why did no-one think of this before? Late style is definitely a thing. Said considers Richard Strauss, Thomas Mann, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, and Theodor Adorno, among others. Classical music lovers who read this blog can supply additional examples of composers and performers whose last years found a way to some deeper place: Liszt, Brahms, Wagner, Debussy, Schubert, Verdi, Horszowski, my old teacher Leonard Hokanson . . .

In fact, among classical music heads, it’s so axiomatic that age brings wisdom that it might come as a surprise that it is ever otherwise. But among improvising musicians, or, more broadly, musicians of a primarily oral tradition (e.g. jazz, hiphop, rock), the opposite is more often true. Name any jazz musician whose performances became more vital, innovative, and influential after age forty. Name any rock musician whose recorded work maintained an equal level of relevance and impact throughout his/her career — let alone became deeper or richer. Someone like Dylan gets props just for showing up. No-one really thinks that Modern Times is in the same league as Highway 61 Revisited — critics are just happy that Dylan’s doing decent work again. There’s an unspoken assumption that you simply couldn’t expect Dylan to create anything like his 1960s work. In rock, no-one has a career like that.

Why is this? I don’t think it’s just because audiences value youth more for popular music than for classical music. It doesn’t have only to do with reception; there is simply no equivalent of a “late style” in popular music. Why?

* Friedrich Nietzsche, “History in the Service and Disservice of of Life,” from Unmodern Observations, trans Gary Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 128-29. BTW, the editor defines natura naturans as a “scholastic term meaning ‘nourishing’ or ‘creative nature,’ usually opposed to natura naturata, i.e., ‘created’ or even ‘mad-made’ nature.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Late Style

  1. KEN says:

    I’m probably not smart enough to comment here, but this is something I’ve thought a lot about. I think a lot of it has to do with a complete lack of training and development for popular musicians. Camille Paglia has said that rock musicians are America’s greatest wasted resource, and I think she’s right. The industry is set up just to mine all the rich, natural nutrients out of them without investing in their future possibility of development. In the clear-cutting that happens, then, you get a bunch of burn-bright-but-fast stars.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    I agree, some talents get clear-cut, no question. I’d add to that by saying that not only the music industry, but *everybody* is guilty of making musicians’ lives hell, including musicians. And including audiences. I’ve always thought that rock musicians get put in a no-win situation. Your first album is a modest success. Your second album is a breakthough that builds on the strengths of the first. You now can (a) make another album in the same mold, and rockcrit hipsters will say it’s derivative. Or you can (b) strike out in bold new directions, and your audience will hate it, because it doesn’t sound like your first two albums. Which I suppose leads to heroin addiction and a VHS Behind the Music episode. And a lame comeback album. Maybe a couple of collaborations. And now you’ve had the classic career arc: great beginning, dicey middle, weak ending. Just a thought. Anyway, thanks for the comment.

  3. headbanger says:

    Yes! If we try to look at the life of a rock musicians, they are not successful. Even they gain their popularity but they loose their life. Right? Yes, they gain their popularity, but it is because they are putting their self under pressure just to maintain their popularity and to met the expectations of their fans to them but what happend to their lives? Are they happy?

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