Starting in 2016-17 Jonathan Biss begins Late Style, an exploration of the stylistic changes typical of composers as they approached the end of life. Biss examines this phenomenon of “late style” through concerts of the later works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten, Elgar, Gesualdo, Kurtág, Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann, both for solo piano and in collaboration with the Brentano String Quartet and the tenor Mark Padmore. This multi-concert project will juxtapose these composers, offering audiences a rare opportunity to compare the late works of composers from a wide range of musical periods and sensibilities. The concerts will be played at venues including Carnegie Hall, San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, London’s Barbican Centre, and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Biss will give master classes at Carnegie Hall in connection with the idea of “late style,” and in February 2017 his Kindle Single on the topic will be published.
“The question of an artist’s ‘late style’ has long posed questions for art historians. What effect do years of accumulated knowledge and experience, combined with, perhaps, the realization that death is near, have on creativity? While this phenomenon can be observed in all art forms – think of Francisco Goya, whose ‘Black Paintings’ were painted onto the walls of his house and represent a total retreat from the outside world, or James Joyce, who more-or-less invented a new language to write Finnegans Wake – it is particularly fascinating in the case of music, the most abstract of all the arts, and thus the richest in subtext. For years, I’ve been struck by how much of the music I’m most drawn to comes from near the end of its composer’s life. These works are so different from one another, but they are all hugely gripping. Playing Beethoven’s Op. 111, or Schwanengesang, I feel that I’m living in a heightened reality—it’s a dizzying, sometimes frightening, always enthralling experience.
“Since the 1500s, a remarkable number of composers whose late periods came as early as their 30s or as late as their 80s have found new forms of expression as they approached the ends of their lives. Still more interesting, the change is not consistent from composer to composer. Some become more concise; others, more expansive. Some become fixated on death, while others find an almost child-like innocence. Some wrote their most complex music in their late periods, while others pursued an extreme simplicity.”