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Music and Transfiguration

A Composer's Last Works

It’s always fascinating to look at the entire works of a composer, to witness the development of an artist from his earliest works to his last. Sometimes, even just a particular genre, tells much of the story of the developing musician. Take for example Beethoven’s piano sonatas--starting with the Opus 2 sonatas that are so much in the spirit of Mozart and Haydn, you then pass through the Pathétique, the Waldstein and the Appassionata, then the colossal Hammerklavier, and end with the 32nd sonata in C minor. In all that, there is an incredible story of a composer reaching into the depths of his art and human existence. With some composers, there is a distinctive difference in the music they composed towards the end of their lives compared to their early compositions. Again, Beethoven is an excellent example. Just think of the difference between his Ninth Symphony and the other eight, or his late string quartets with those before. Another good example is Brahms. There is a much subtler difference, but a difference none the less, between his op. 117-119 piano pieces and his earlier piano sonatas and even his middle period variation sets. His Fourth Symphony also stands out from his previous three.

One such difference that I had not noticed before is Schubert’s String Quartet in C major. It was composed in the summer of 1828, just two months before the composer’s death. Now, I’m no Schubert scholar, but I was surprised at how un-Schubertian some passages of this work sounded. No doubt there are the charming and graceful melodies that Schubert is so well-known for, but some passages seem to have an almost Beethovenian roughness about them, while others have such an air of mystery it’s almost startling. As said, I’m no expert on Schubert, but there is no other piece by Schubert I can think of that quite has the unique sense of mystery as the String Quintet.

This is one of the things that has always interested me about classical music. How did the great composers get to the place where they composed their final works? For me, a composer’s last works are the most interesting and the most thought provoking. It is in their last works that, I think, they give the truest pictures of themselves.

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You must keep in mind that they all started composing at a very tender age when they were little more than children. Schubert began at 14? As they matured so did their music. I disagree that the last word is usually the truest. Old age is superior to youth in art, but youth prevails in ideas, novelties, enthusiasm. To me Beethoven's piano sonata no 3 in C major is already his greatest - perhaps.

Submitted by mustermeister on Tue, 05/24/2011 - 10:31. Report abuse

Actually, in many instances, a composer's earlier works have more to offer us than his later. I am thinking particularly of Schumann, whose earlier piano works are so cogent - take a look at Carnival, the Kinderscenen, Kreisleriana, the Fantasy, Arabesque, Novelettes, Faschingsswank aus Wien, and I'm sure that these do not begin to exhaust the list, but by comparison, much of his later output sounds tired, repetitive, and relying on established formulae. Debussy is another composer whose earlier works by far outstrip in interest his for me stillborn late efforts - I realize that there will be many who will disagree with this - but that is my reaction to his body of work. I could cite numerous examples as I did just jnow with Schumann. And by the way, mustermeister, I happen to agree with you on the worth of Beethoven's Op. 2, No. 3 in C Major, but there are plenty of others I would couple with it, from that period alone, such as Op. 10, No. 3 in D Major. And this is still far from exhaustive, even if I would say that a small minority of his sonatas do not quite cut it for me; also a small minority of the movements in Bach's WTC, but here on the whole I prefer the second book to the first. And Brahms was a very different composer in his very earliest works compared to his very last ones, and it is up for grabs which one might think are more significant.

Submitted by alger3041 on Thu, 08/09/2012 - 23:32. Report abuse

jsdubose015, I just reread your commentary and have to differ somewhat on one comment you submitted regarding Brahms; namely that of the Fourth Symphony standing out from his previous three.

In my talks with other musicians, I have found wide variation in opinions as to the relative worth of these four works, and have actually encountered partisans for each of the four. Speaking for myself, I have always considered the First to be the most interesting and for me the most outstanding. In it, Brahms resorts to a pictorial, narrative style of writing that very nearly approaches the high romantic writings of Liszt and Wagner - that is to say, coming closer to them without actually emulating them. The music is suggestive for me in a manner far more than Brahms normally allowed himself. And the fact that twenty years passed from the time he set its first notes down to the time when he released the work for
publication and performance should tell us something; obviously he had something very cogent to say in this work. For me there is a definite progression of events across all four movements (by the way, the only one
of the four in which the inner movements stand on an equal footing with the outer), and the work almost reads as a novel, quite telling its own story.
By comparison, the other four symphonies (at least Nos. 2 and 4) are an agreeable group of movements that manage to co-exixt together without too much concern as to their inner relationship to one another. The Third has something of the quality that I describe in the First - most especially demonstrated with the outer movements, but at least the second movement shares a little of the narrative under way; the third movement being a passing interlude but still requiring in performance an immediate segue
into the last movement to make any sense. Such is my view, at any rate.

Submitted by alger3041 on Thu, 08/09/2012 - 23:43. Report abuse