Reviewed Elsewhere: Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten.

Michael Berkowitz's picture

Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon. Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. viii + 152 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-25559-0.

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 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.
 
... 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. ... 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.