Ripe But Not Sweet - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
January 30, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. —

Gloucester: No further, sir; a man may rot even here.
Edgar: What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all. Come on.
—King Lear, Act V, Scene II

In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.
—Theodor Adorno

The reassurance of this beautiful scene at the end of "Lear" is a part of us all. This is the way it's supposed to be. A man may have aged, failed, may have fitful thoughts, given up hope. But with a pep-talk from his son and a strong arm to steady him, he can bear up with a measure of serenity and at least limp the remaining course of his days.

The writer, scholar and musician Edward Said [Sigh EED] died in 2003. His last, unfinished manuscript was, aptly, a book called "On Late Style." In a way it's a set of variations on "Ripeness" in the careers of a dozen or so artists and musicians, among them Mozart, Richard Strauss, Glenn Gould, and Beethoven.

Gould and Mozart both died young, and are in a category apart from the bearing up and going gently suggested by Gloucester's ripeness. Their lateness is retrospective. Richard Strauss, at the end of his long life, seemed to grow ever more amply Straussian. Almost a template, according to Said, for our image of the fulfilled artist's life-arc.

"Each of us can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. Rembrandt and Matisse, Bach and Wagner. But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don't produce the serenity of 'ripeness is all'?"

Said's referring to a cranky old coot named Beethoven who, we expect, would have responded to Edgar with "Get your hands off me! I don't need your help. Going hence... coming hither. That's the rot."

Even the component parts of Beethoven's late works — among them the last five piano sonatas, the last six string quartets, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony — are the stuff of lifetime study, ropes down a well, descending to depths most of us will never plumb. But Edward Said, in citing a couple of thinkers who've been below, makes perfectly intelligible the human struggle in Beethoven's final works. They comprise "an event in the history of modern culture: a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it."

We sense this even listening casually, like the odd juxtapositions in the quartets from dirges to dances. These were distressing to listeners originally, and still are to some degree. But don't we recognize something familiar in these "jump cuts?" Is his alienation so very different from ours? Deafness, sadness, misanthropy often sufficed to explain the weirdness, and you can't entirely dismiss ill-health as a reason "a man may rot even here." "Where one would expect serenity and maturity," writes Said, "one finds instead a bristling, difficult, and unyielding — perhaps even inhuman — challenge."

But these difficulties aren't perverse or pathological. They're a reasoned response to difficulty itself. Said quotes Theodor Adorno: "The maturity of late works does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are... not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation."

Something else is being asked of us in the late works. Still, why settle for bitter fruit? We don't have to. The Fifth Symphony, more conventionally organized, offers plenty of challenges and rewards us no matter how often we listen. However, the enormous drama (and it may all be a fine fiction) of what this man Beethoven seemed to be attempting in the late works holds us and awes us, in ways we don't always expect music to offer.

Near the end of his life, even the expanded conventions of composing he himself had help establish, no longer seemed adequate to his vision of what was possible. Which was, perhaps to his delight and certainly to his terror, everything. But how does one find a language to express Everything? Was the "episodic character" (Adorno) of the late works the beginning of a new grammar, or an acceptance of the limits of even his imagination. Edward Said:

"As an older man facing death, Beethoven realizes that his work proclaims, as Rose Subotnik puts it, that 'no synthesis is conceivable [but is in effect] the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness... that has eluded it forever.' Beethoven's late works therefore communicate a tragic sense in spite of their irascibility."

This dense passage, and the music it describes, has an impact every bit as cinematic as a Thor or a Superman losing their powers and facing mortality. For our human composer, whatever his powers, mortality is destiny, and his saga cuts us all the more deeply. His end is our end. How we wish Beethoven might have enjoyed some well-earned sweetness of ripeness in his final days. How well we know that he likely sustained the same fight, irascible, and heroic.

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