On Late Style By Edward W Said

A final ode to autumn's art
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The Palestinian writer Edward Said, who died in 2003, has been in the news again because of his friendship with Daniel Barenboim, this year's Reith Lecturer. The two men met in London when Said himself was giving the 1991 Reith Lectures. Their friendship led to the creation of several ground-breaking "humanistic" projects, notably the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra which unites young players from Israel and Arab countries. Although Said was principally Columbia Professor of Literature and a much-honoured intellectual, he was also an accomplished pianist and a knowledgeable music-lover. For some time he was music critic of The Nation, and a music conservatory in Palestine is named after him.

On Late Style is a collection of essays exploring the idea that late artistic works are not always serene and transcendent, but on the contrary sometimes unresolved and contradictory. Ranging from Beethoven through to Richard Strauss, Britten, Jean Genet, Glenn Gould, Lampedusa and Cavafy, Said discerns in all a stubborn refusal to unite things which ultimately could not be reconciled. This had varied effects, from the puzzling "fissures and fragments" in late Beethoven to Cavafy's refusal to write about the present, Richard Strauss's anachronistic, sensuous operas, and Glenn Gould's refusal to perform to a live audience.

The book, unfinished at Said's death, was completed by his close friends. As Michael Wood says in his introduction, "I find I can't believe that he wanted to finish this book." Our awareness of Said's own final illness runs as a sad counterpoint to every page. Said himself poignantly noted that he was "always interested in what gets left out".

In writing about music, he often used the vocabulary of literary analysis, frequently invoking his intellectual mentor, the fearsomely complex German philosopher Theodor Adorno. This makes Said's essays a challenging read. When he writes that Adorno's "characteristic anti-identitarian notion is that of antinomian opposition, unresolved contradictions that he believed he existed to maintain", one can only wonder what sort of reader he hoped for. On the other hand he was right, I think, to say that "today's literary intellectual has little practical knowledge of music as an art". Clearly he was proud that here was one intellectual who knew more about music than many musicians and was unafraid to trump them.

Fortunately for the unspecialist reader, however, academic argument is not the only tone of the book. He also has an "andante amabile" mode which can run for pages, and which I found easier to relate to.

"Lateness" is a problematic concept that in most cases can only be known retrospectively. It's easy to look back at what turned out to be someone's final works and label them "late", but to the individual artist they may have been just the next thing they happened to write, with plans for lots more. The artists would not have known which period of their lives they were in, unless they were both old and ill.

Certainly Beethoven, aged 57 and profoundly deaf, had intimations of mortality. Lampedusa, who wrote his only novel when he was 60, suspected it might stand as his testimony. The Greek poet CP Cavafy, knowing that only a small number of his poems had ever been read, must have had a good idea at the age of 70 that time was short. But Mozart at 35 probably didn't, and nor did Glenn Gould at 50.

Every chapter contains complex and memorably succinct thoughts, but my favourite is on Mozart's opera Così Fan Tutte, which deserves to be widely read. "Most people concede that the music is extremely wonderful, but the unsaid implication is that it is wasted on a silly story, silly characters, and an even sillier setting," writes Said. The plot turns on two girls whose lovers are persuaded to test their fidelity by dressing up as "Albanians" and wooing one another's partners. To the Albanians' great discomfiture, they succeed all too easily. The trick is finally revealed, but Mozart does not indicate that the lovers return to their original partners. This was daringly cynical, or, as Said puts it, portrays "a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme, one whose law is motion and instability expressed as the power of libertinage and manipulation".

Said notes that at the time Mozart was writing Così, he was also writing to his wife Constanze, beseeching her not to flirt during her rest-cure at Baden-Baden. Mozart sounds warm and concerned, but in another letter he writes, "To me, everything is cold - cold as ice." He speaks of "feeling a kind of emptiness, which hurts me dreadfully - a kind of longing, which is never satisfied, which never ceases, and which persists, nay rather increases daily". Said comments that this shows Mozart's "special combination of unstilled energy and cold control: these qualities seem to me to have a particular relevance to the position of Così Fan Tutte in his life and oeuvre."

Said remarks on similar conjunctions of unsatisfied longing allied to cold detachment. Which comes first, and does one provoke the other? Can they combine to create some sort of propellant force? Each artist's life supplies individual answers. Said talks of Cavafy's ability to "render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile ... in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm". Writing of Euripides, he comments that "the peculiar sensation of the Euripidean tragedy is its playfulness". And he notes that Giacometti's portrait of Jean Genet "caught the man's astounding combination of storminess, relentless control, and almost religious stillness".

On the further shores of this topic, he discusses Genet's astounding idea that "much more important than commitment to a cause, much more beautiful and true, is betraying it". This is a very intriguing sequence of insights and probably the one that will most haunt me. Where does detachment intersect with desire?

It is Beethoven whose uncompromising late style is the door that bangs most loudly in Said's face, awakening him to new insights. "The artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it." The word "achieves" is typical of Said's ability to draw together surprising ingredients, enabling us to see that Beethoven's "difficulty" was a conscious choice. But intransigence was only one aspect of his late style, also characterised by music of unearthly beauty and spiritual power. Both the instransigence and the beauty set him apart. "His late works constitute a form of exile," comments Said, who must have known more about this subject than most.

Susan Tomes is the pianist of the Florestan Trio and author of 'Beyond the Notes' (Boydell & Brewer)