Composers confront death: Kimmel series explores late-in-life works

As they aged, greats like Bach and Schubert became freer to be themselves

Was it a nightmare, insanity, or death that Schubert meant to evoke in the second movement of his D. 959 Piano Sonata? Who did Beethoven think would ever be able to understand his last piano sonatas, or the Grosse Fuge, Opus 133?

Sharp eyes will notice the late opus numbers on these works, and even sharper ears may detect something they have in common. The concept of “late style” has long been a preoccupation of musicians and writers, and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society is putting its arms around the concept starting Thursday with a monthlong series of concerts, panel discussions, blogs, and podcasts.

"Departure & Discovery: New Directions at the Apex of Creativity" looks at the phenomenon of composers having something special to say at the end of their lives. What that particular something was varied. For some, like Verdi with Falstaff, it was clarification and economy of musical language. Others, like Beethoven, were entering new realms.

Pianist Jonathan Biss, one of the creative forces behind the festival, says that if there was a quality shared, it was the sense that after a lifetime of working with a duty to utility, many composers finally reached a point of being able to say exactly what they wanted to say.

Brahms, Biss says, had been “incredibly burdened by the preoccupation that he should become the next Beethoven.” In the early and middle parts of his career, “you can hear the music and know this is someone who is conscious of doing what was expected of him. And in terms of late pieces, they are first of all no longer concerned with grand structure, but also personal, so willing to be extreme.”

He says that the Opus 118 Klavierstücke -- which Biss will play on the second of the festival’s three concerts -- “makes no concessions to its audience in terms of wanting to be lovable. It’s incredibly moving, of course, but moving by virtue of Brahms baring his soul. Brahms is an interesting case. He wrote the Opus 111 String Quintet, and then he retired. And everything that came after was a new level of writing purely for his own fulfillment.”

Bach, Britten, Kurtág, Schumann, Gesualdo, Mozart, and Schubert all are represented by a mixing and matching corps of musicians made up of tenor Mark Padmore, violist Hsin-Yun Huang, and the Brentano String Quartet. A panel discussion that includes Harvard University musicologist Christoph Wolff explores the question of late style.

Biss has written a forthcoming Kindle Single that allows listeners to make connections to what he is actually putting into practice as a performer.

“The first time I wondered what it might be like to die, I was 13 years old,” he writes in the essay. “The occasion was not the death of a loved one, or a gruesome news story, or a Quentin Tarantino movie (each of which I had experienced previously), but rather my first encounter with Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 111.”

Biss plays the work Thursday, in the first concert in the series.

Whether or not Schubert knew he was writing his last music when penning the D. 959 Sonata, Biss hears that terrifying second movement as a depiction of “the nothingness that comes with death, but also the terror at not knowing what death is and yet being forced to face it.”

The festival promises to raise more questions than it answers. As for why Schubert ends the piece with the carefree, liberated music he does, Biss says: “I don’t understand it. But I really don’t think I’ve ever not shed a tear when that movement arrives.”

“Departure & Discovery: New Directions at the Apex of Creativity" includes concerts on Feb. 16, March 6, and March 13 at the Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Sts., plus a panel discussion on Feb. 16. Tickets are $25 each, $10 for students. Information: www.pcmsconcerts.org, 215-569-8080.