It’s interesting to look at the lives of artists and see the arc of them. Artists, of whatever kind, frequently begin showing their talents relatively young, spend some time learning their craft, then go on to do sometimes amazing things. A lot of times these things are done at a relatively young age; then the artist hits a plateau or a downward slope. It doesn’t always happen that way, of course, but that seems to be the usual thing.
It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Some artists do their best work relatively late in their lives, sometimes because they die relatively young, like Mozart and Schubert. Those who continue to be creative at a high level through middle and old age are fewer. Renoir and Monet are a couple from the world of painting, and maybe Picasso as well. Bach was composing at a high level towards the end of his life, though some might say his work had become overly abstract and technical. Tchaikovsky and Beethoven are two who did some of their best work towards the end of their lives.
Tchaikovsky was a very productive compower, in the varied areas of chamber music, opera, ballet, and symphonic works. Two of his concerti are still often performed to day, and his last three sympohonies are his most famous, and probably his best. His last work was his sixth, the Pathetique symphony, certainly not inferior to the previous ones. Shortly after that he drank a glass of water during a cholera epidemic, and died shortly thereafter. One of his similarities to Beethoven may have been that both of them suffered a great deal. Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and that seems to have caused him a good deal of suffering, as Russia was a very puritanical place in those days. He tried getting married at one point, but suffered such panic that the marriage didn’t last long. His patron was a woman, which also fits the general pattern. One source says that shortly before he died he had had sex with one of his nephews, and suggests that drinking contaminated water was a more or less conscious form of suicide.
Beethoven’s life was different. Most people know how he began going deaf at about the age of 30, the most devastating handicap a musician could suffer. It wasn’t until he had come to grips with his deafness that he began writing some of his greatest works, and these remain some of his most popular. JWN Sullivan, writing about Beethoven’s spiritual development, points out that his 3rd amd 5tj symphonies were about the triumph of Beethoven’s will over his deafness: he had discovered that his deafness couldn’t keep him from composing, and his triumph at that discovery can be heard in those symphonies. That triumphant feeling lasted about ten years, and through the bulk of Beethoven’s most famous compositions. But then he hit something of a dead end.
At that point he considered leaving Vienna to work for a nobleman, but was persuaded not to, by five local nobles. They wanted him to stay in Vienna, but this was the time of the Napoleonic wars, and not only was the currency unstable, but several of the nobles had problems, one dying, so that Beethoven never got much of the money promised him. He had been thinking about marrying, which probably would never have worked out well: he didn’t understand human beings in general, it seems, and was often contemptuous of them, considering that their beliefs were usually superficial. Women he probably understood even less well, so that he couldn’t have been a good husband, even if he could have supported a wife. He desperately wanted someone he could be intimate with, something made almost impossible by his deafness, as well as his attitude towards people in general. This, according to Sullivan, is why he spent so much energy on his nephew, who was a very ordinary sort of person, prone to getting into trouble, and certainly unable to understand anything about his uncle. For 7 or 8 years Beethoven wrote little of any worth. His Wellington’s Victory was a joke, and sounded like one, though it became the best-selling composition of his lifetime. But approaching 1820 he began to write again, and this time on a deeper level.
Sullivan characterizes his Hammerklavier piano sonata as Beethoven’s ferocious grasp on life, without a great deal of other meaning, though Beethoven knew the piece would last. Other pieces were coming, though, that were much deeper. The Missa Solemnis. three more piano sonatas, the Ninth Symphony, and his last quartets.
I’m not familiar with the Missa Solemnis, or the final piano sonatas, but I first heard the Ninth Symphony when I was young, maybe before I had entered my teens, at a time when I was already familiar with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, and immediately realized the Ninth was far better than those. I still consider it one of the most profound pieces of music I’ve heard, but Sullivan points out that it’s different from the earlier symphonies, in that the final movement of the earlier symphonies was superior to the earlier movements, and summed them up; this wasn’t true of the Ninth, even though Beethoven was the first to use a choir in that movement. As startling and dramatic as that was, the first three movements were still superior to it, and over the years I had come to that conclusion myself.
But according to Sullivan, and probably a lot of others too, Beethoven’s last quartets were his greatest work, and beyond any other music most of us know about. I’ve tried listening to them, and haven’t been able to hear that in them so far, perhaps because I haven’t experienced the suffering that Beethoven did. In his last years he was desperately poor and very isolated, partly because of his deafness, but also because he was so poor and so different from most. Few were willing to spend the time to communicate with him, and perhaps they wouldn’t have understood him if they had. Sullivan calls his last quartets beyond the normal range of human experience and understanding, and different from his earlier works in that they didn’t develop to a dramatic climax, but instead showed different aspects of whatever the experience was that had inspired him. He had written in his diary that he had to accept suffering, and, according to Sullivan, the quartets show that he had done so, and had (at least at times) achieved a perspective in which he saw that the creativity with which he had fought the suffering of his deafness had also been the cause of his suffering, and had had to be paid for. He had come to the conclusion that not only was this necessary, but right.
Few artists can have ended their artistic lives so profoundly. More usually, artists do their best work when relatively young, then find a plateau or become caricatures of their younger selves. Musicians that were famous decades ago still tour, and occasionally make albums. Maybe their professionalism makes them still worth listening to, but I’ve had the impression of musicians often being focused only on what they’re doing, trying desperately to become popular again, if they ever were. Maybe that’s a false impression, or one that doesn’t apply to a lot of older artists. I don’t know.
What I also don’t know is just where the creativity that’s so strong in some artists comes from, and why, in many cases, it leaves. Maybe I’ll speculate more on that in another post.