Jonathan Biss: The Late Style
Do composers unknowingly save their best works for last? This winter, pianist Jonathan Biss returns to Carnegie Hall to share his artistry and intellect in a fascinating three-concert series in which he explores the late works of great composers past and present.
“Some of my favorite compositions were written during composers’ last creative periods,” Biss says. “I want to discover what new paths they traveled at the end of their lives, whether because of maturity, wisdom, or their mortality, or something different altogether.” When Beethoven composed his final works, he could not hear them. “Music was one of his ways of reaching out to other people,” Biss continues, “yet he was communicating in a language that no one else spoke. Beethoven’s late music was so far beyond his audiences’ comprehension that he risked alienating them completely—but he didn’t care.”
Despite his deafness, Beethoven heard things his contemporaries could not. One of his last works, the Piano Sonata No. 32, Op. 111, is so strikingly modern that one of the variations in the second movement often sounds more boogie-woogie than Romantic. In his first “late style” program, Biss performs this sonata, along with works by a contemporary composer who he said “looks back in time,” György Kurtág.
“I want to discover what new paths they traveled at the end of their lives ...”
Joining Biss on the program is one of America’s premier ensembles, the Brentano String Quartet, playing late works by Britten and Bach. “There’s an anecdote—which I hope is true—that after the Amadeus Quartet premiered Britten’s last quartet, one of the players remarked, ‘Ben wrote his own death.’ And in this quartet,” Biss adds, “I think Britten reveals some of the darkest layers of his personality because the piece is his harrowing reckoning with his own pending death. It’s one of the most powerful works of the 20th century.”
The Brentano also shares selections from Bach’s contrapuntal masterwork, The Art of Fugue, in the same concert. Conceived over nearly a decade but not published until after the composer’s death, The Art of Fugue virtually takes a single melodic idea and spins it out in every possible pattern in four canons and 14 fugues, one of which was left unfinished. “If you look at Bach’s late music,” Biss says, “it’s unbelievably complex, yet at the same time so simple. The Art of Fugue takes Bach’s aesthetic purity to an extreme place.”
The Brentano joins Biss for a second concert in the series, when they perform music by one of the most macabre musicians in history, Carlo Gesualdo. Though active at the turn of the 17th century, Biss explains, “Gesualdo ignored established rules regarding harmonic tension and release, so his music contains ideas that composers wouldn’t begin to fully explore until the 19th century.”
Some of Gesualdo’s most harmonically daring works were doubtless inflected by his personal experiences. He gruesomely slaughtered his first wife and her lover when he caught them having an affair, and spent his last years in isolation suffering from depression. The Brentano performs arrangements of his late madrigals, like “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (“I die, alas, of sorrow”), which Biss calls “the ravings of a madman.”
Schumann descended into madness in his final years, caused by syphilis, poisoning from mercury used to treat it, or both. He composed some of his last piano pieces, the Fünf Gesänge der Frühe (Five Songs of Dawn), just five months before he was institutionalized following a failed suicide attempt. In his second concert with the Brentano, Biss performs these haunting works, which the composer’s wife, Clara, described as “very original, as always, but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange.”
Though Mozart’s health was declining towards the end of his life, “most people today would argue that he didn’t know he was dying,” Biss says. “But there’s a sublime simplicity in the music he wrote in his final year.” We hardly hear a hint of melancholy in the String Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 614, which the Brentano performs as the conclusion to the second concert in the series. If Mozart was aware that this would be his last major chamber work, the strings dance so playfully together that he must have been laughing in the face of death.
“Schubert consciously decided that he needed a new language to communicate what was important to him ...”
Schubert, like Mozart, was extremely prolific despite dying in his early 30s. Unlike Mozart, however, “Schubert consciously decided that he needed a new language to communicate what was important to him because of his struggles with mortality,” Biss explains. “While his style was always in flux, in his late period, Schubert’s music became so unbelievably expansive and exploratory.”
For the final concert in the “late style” series, tenor Mark Padmore shares the stage with Biss for a Schubertiade. Together, they perform selections from Schubert’s Schwanengesang (Swan Song), a collection of posthumously published songs that Biss says includes several “nightmares in sound.” In those, we hear Schubert’s anguish as he grappled with cyclothymia, similar to bipolar disorder, and his physical and mental decline caused by syphilis, which likely afflicted him for years before his death.
“These composers went in diverse directions at the ends of their lives,” Biss muses. “But whether they knew it was the end—or whether they hoped for 30 more years—in their maturity, they no longer needed to prove anything to anyone.”
—Stephen Raskauskas has for written for The Wall Street Journal and arts organizations across the country.
Photos of Jonathan Biss by Chris Lee.