Gustav Klimt, Fur Forest I

Late Style: Music, Transcendence, and Catastrophe

Instructor: Nathan Shields
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

How does music reflect the experience of physical decline and the confrontation with death? This question lies behind the notion of late style: the belief in a distinctive musical idiom, of visionary purity or unresolved complexity, achieved by great artists toward the end of their lives. Today the idea has assumed the status of common sense, applied in recent criticism to everyone from Bob Dylan to John Coltrane. We think we understand what lateness is, and that we know it when we see it. Yet the concept has a specific origin: it comes from Beethoven, above all from the enigmatic monuments of his late string quartets. And it has been subject to multiple, often contradictory interpretations: to 19th-century critics, late style implied the ascent to a realm of transcendent spirituality or subjective inwardness; to modernist thinkers like Theodor Adorno, it was something like the opposite: an insoluble puzzle in which the contradictions of the artist’s society were at last laid bare. “In the history of art,” Adorno wrote, “late works are the catastrophes.” How, if at all, can we understand “late style?”

In this course we will trace the concept of late style from its origins, examining the different ways in which it has been understood and the varying bodies of music to which it has been applied. We’ll consider canonical examples of late style in classical music, including Beethoven’s late quartets, Bach’s Art of Fugue, and Wagner’s Parsifal, alongside late music by Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky. We’ll explore how the concept has been applied to jazz and popular music, listening to recordings by Coltrane, Billie Holiday, David Bowie, and others. And we’ll read discussions of late style by Adorno, Thomas Mann, Edward Said, Carolyn Abbate, and Geoff Dyer, considering how the concept has reflected and shaped our broader understanding of music, the self, and society.

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
July 16 — August 06, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open

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