Four Last Songs: aging, creativity and the meaning of life

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The cover picture shows Giuseppe Verdi sitting with a reflective expression on his face while he plays the piano. The book’s title is Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen and Britten, the latest collaboration between Linda & Michael Hutcheon, and I believe it is their deepest work yet.

As usual the work is multi-disciplinary, another interesting meeting place for a couple who come from divergent disciplines. He was a doctor and professor, she was an English professor and literary theorist, both at the University of Toronto. It is no wonder that these two students of conversation (he in his home department of Medicine, Respirology Division, she in her study of discourse itself) should be sharing their masterful conversation with us.

Previously that has meant books such as

  • Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (1996)
  • Bodily Charm: Living Opera (2000)
  • Opera: The Art of Dying (2004).

Their books look at life & death and the fascinating boundary between the two, especially when opera is so often situated right on the interface.

There can be several reasons why this book seems to hit me at a deeper level than the previous ones. Perhaps it begins with my awareness that we’re all getting older. Linda & Michael are now retired. My history with Linda is lengthy, the book Irony’s Edge, a graduate seminar on the multi-disciplinarity of opera, and the Opera Exchange series with the Canadian Opera Company representing delightful encounters over at least a couple of decades. Perhaps all four books are equally weighty, but for me this one seems genuinely momentous, and indeed catching me a bit by surprise. Their other books were entertaining but I think with this one there is something else at work.

While the title suggests Richard Strauss’s familiar “Four Last Songs”, the book studies the compositional choices of four different composers coming to the end of their lives, so that in effect we are looking at four different last songs:

  • Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff
  • Richard Strauss’s final compositions, including Capriccio, the Four Last Songs, Metamorphosen, and his second horn concerto
  • Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise,
  • Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice

While we’re ostensibly reading about aging composers and their late compositions, we are encountering them in context. For each composer we are enquiring into the meaning of life: their life, and indeed, any life. Perhaps it is because the focus this time is less the creations than the creators, in these case-studies of the composers themselves and the questions they each faced of how a life can be lived: questions we all must face.

This baby-boomer has been hearing about our aging cohort and the relevance of gerontology for almost as long as I’ve been aware of our cohort, that collective bulge in the population gradually moving its way from youthful rebellion to maturity, success, middle-aged comfort, and now with retirement staring us squarely in the face. I thought I knew what aging was, what the issues were, but after reading Four Last Songs, I recognize how much there is to know, how two-dimensional our cultural assumptions concerning aging truly are. A good analysis is ultimately a kind of deconstruction, and by telling me so much concerning what age and life do not actually mean, Four Last Songs is a book deconstructing our assumptions about aging. Many of our generalizations are wrong.

There are some moments reading this book that I was distracted from the subjects –the composers that is—in my thoughts about how this is relevant to my own life, the people I know who are aging, and yes, my own life choices. I’m grateful for the gift of some new language that I will incorporate into my conversation, and perhaps also into my life narrative. I needed to encounter “Vollendungsoper”: an idea via Constance Rooke (who spoke of the Vollendungsroman), whereby the Hutcheons posit the opposite to the Bildungsoper (or Bildungsroman, the old story idea of the novel of the youth coming of age). This is a story of completion or winding-up, whether it’s the completion to the life of the protagonist or the finale to the career of author or composer.

As far as the critique concerning late style –which segues us back into a discussion of opera, rather than the meaning of life—I like this passage for the way it problematizes the big pronouncements of the critic:

Because, as we have seen in the first chapter, late style is a matter of reception, critics cannot resist seeing and hearing in these last works the “style” of a dying man. But what they mean by “style” is never clear: sometimes it is thematic, while at other times it is formal, or even a matter of a perceived tone or mood. Whatever it is, as we have noted, it is always an interpretation, a projection, in a way, of the critic who knows these are the last works.

Michael & Linda Hutcheon

The Hutcheons have left me with a healthy skepticism concerning sweeping generalizations, even if when I look in the mirror –or re-read what I am saying about their book (which is roughly the same thing)—I seem to be guilty of wielding the same broom. Four Last Songs is at times as accessible as pop culture yet very careful in its language, scholarly in its research and in the conclusions it draws. Age and aging are concepts to be used with care, particularly now –in this era of “60 is the new 40”—when so many of our assumptions are being re-thought or jettisoned outright.

Yet for all its probing questions there are still the composers.  In the final analysis Four Last Songs is an extremely inspiring study of a heroic quartet.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Four Last Songs: aging, creativity and the meaning of life

  1. Pingback: Brecht, Music and Culture: Hanns Eisler in Conversation | barczablog

  2. Pingback: The Hutcheons launch Four Last Songs with, what else: singing | barczablog

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