Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten by Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon (review)
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Reviewed by
Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon. Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten. University of Chicago Press. viii, 152. $30.00

A masterclass in interdisciplinarity, the Hutcheons' monograph gathers richly contextualized biographies and music history situated within broad artistic, social, and political forces, read through critical age studies. They focus on the final works of Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten to challenge prevailing views of "late style" and misunderstandings of late life creativity. Through these figures, they offer extended commentary on figures such as Wagner and Offenbach, as well as shorter attention to Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Puccini, Janacek, Ethel Smyth, and Peggy Glanville Hicks, telling marvellous stories of the art world along the way.

The book is beautifully composed with distinctive exploratory chapters of each major figure elegantly linked by wonderfully wrought transitions. The authors aptly focus on a time period (nineteenth through twentieth century) when composers possessed notable creative control, had to weather substantial political storms, straddled an aesthetic shift to modern forms of music, and witnessed the birth of old age as a meaningful category. [End Page 112]

They lay out how, toward the end of life, an artist's desire for legacy generatively collides with a fear of decline. The incitement to create, they explain, is heightened by the desire to prove ongoing virtuosity. Somewhat circularly, that desire can only be fulfilled through creativity, depending also, as they meticulously explain, on reception.

The Hutcheons tread in the critical quagmire of "late style," which risks generalizations about artistic merit and ageist assumptions about late life frailty. They tread a fine line because, while infirmity often overlaps with old age, it would be inaccurate and damaging to equate the two. Rather than tying old age to a specific year of life, they consider late life to occur when a person faces physical and mental decline. As such, their book accounts for a physicality of aging that is often missed, due to contemporary desires to imagine old age can be vanquished. The Hutcheons address deep fears of physical conditions threatening a sense of self and, with it, creativity, to offer a host of examples of the aesthetic glory that can result from such tensions.

To do so, they focus on what they call an individual late style that intricately emerges from personal experiences and social situations over a lifetime. Their most notable contribution is their explanation of how late style depends upon critics, especially their latent and overt views of aging. "Late style is a matter of reception," they explain, so ageism is not only a social and political wrong, it can be an aesthetic one.

The "four last songs" of the book's title, then, must be understood in the context of a lifetime of individual experience and ongoing critical reception. Verdi's Falstaff, they show, was alternately received as new because of its departure from his usual tragedies and tired because of its failure to follow through on what some critics expected from a seventy-nine-year-old composer. The Hutcheons argue that Verdi's final opera strikingly combines continuity with rupture, concepts that appear in their explanations of each composer. Drawing on Robert Butler, they offer an eloquent "artistic life review" of Strauss, who they explain was deeply imbricated in German wartime politics, and also failed to "make it new." Messiaen similarly transformed from avant-garde to seemingly passé: a fanatically religious old man who had faded from his edgier past. The Hutcheons argue that he remains resiliently creative and faithful to his own style, despite and perhaps because of both anxieties that his talented students will upstage him and the exigencies of ongoing ill health. Britten's late life was complicated by his long-standing fascination with youth. Having prematurely lamented lost youth (at twenty-five!), he experienced what the Hutcheons call premature aging in his early sixties, due to effects of a stroke.

The book concludes that the four central composers can adapt better to the very individual situations of late life precisely because of their creativity, [End Page 113] despite ageist, and I would add ableist, perceptions that creativity would fade. Their final salvo that...


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