In Four Last Songs: Aging and Creativity in Verdi, Strauss, Messiaen, and Britten, a literary theorist and a physician reveal that creativity in older life is not only possible, but a powerful aid in meeting the challenges of the later years.
To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Linda Hutcheon at her home in Toronto.
Ruth Dempsey: What drew you to opera?
Linda Hutcheon: Well, we both love it, because it has it all: music, drama and poetry!
But in a way it was also "neutral turf" for us to work on together – with each of us coming to it from non-musical perspectives, but different ones (medical and literary). Opera calls for this kind of interdisciplinary work because it is not only music (despite what some musicologists think). It consists of words and drama as well.
We also felt that opera is an excellent vehicle to study more general cultural phenomena over time. Opera has a long (over 400 years) history in the west, for one thing. But because it takes longer to sing than to speak a line of text, opera plots must be condensed and concise. So what you get is the distilled essence of the plot, combined with the extravagance of sung drama. The desires, but also the anxieties, of a culture stand out in this kind of structure.
RD: Why did you want to study creativity in old age?
LH: Later life seems to be a fraught topic, generally speaking, in our culture with its commercialized, anti-aging, death-denying ethos which aims to keep us all young forever. We all want to live to an old age, but we don't want to look as if we are aging.
But there is a more personal reason. Though we both retired from teaching (and medical practice, in Michael's case), we have continued to do research and write on opera. We realized that we are ourselves now living a new post-retirement age that hasn't existed for very long and for which there are precious few models. Where does creativity fit into this context, we wondered?
So we sought those models from composers with long creative lives. And we found inspiring ones of continuing creativity and of resilience in the face of the inevitable challenges of aging. Their examples have allowed us to think differently (and more positively) about our later years, and, therefore, to live our own lives differently than we might have before.
RD: Your book presents fascinating profiles of four of the world's greatest composers. You start with Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and his rollicking Falstaff. What did Verdi want to do?
LH: Verdi, the great Italian composer of tragic opera, kept telling the press and his friends and family that he was writing Falstaff only for fun, for himself.
There were two reasons, in our view. One was to limit expectations, given that he was already in his late 70s and everyone (including himself) thought the previous opera, Otello, was to be his final one. But the other reason is that he was developing a lesson to teach the younger Italian composers to lure them away from their infatuation with the German composer, Richard Wagner, whose influence Verdi felt was threatening the Italian operatic tradition.
In this (new) final work, Verdi created not only his first comedy, but also a new style of operatic comedy that was very modern and very Italian – thereby consciously offering a model for those younger composers.
RD: Richard Strauss (1864-1949) confronted political and social turmoil in Nazi Germany, as he struggled to compose the self-reflexive Capriccio . . .
LH: Capriccio (1942) is indeed an opera about opera, in its themes and its musical recapitulating of the history of the form, from Gluck, Piccinni, Rameau, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Wagner to Strauss himself.
While escapism is usually given as the motivating force for Strauss writing this during the war, we think this work can be seen as the start of the composer's musical "life review." The increasingly isolated and aging Strauss looked inward and began an ongoing retrospective self-study to review and assess his musical legacy.
Capriccio would review his operatic career and bring to a culmination his actually very Verdian experiments with a conversational style of opera. It would also place Strauss's own work in the context of the history of opera through its recapitulative echoing of himself and others.
RD: Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was a devout Catholic who premiered his only opera, Saint François d'Assise, when he was 75. It seems Messiaen wanted to use his opera to bring God into the concert hall. Is that right?
LH: Yes, and from there into the opera house – not the usual place to see a work whose theme, according to the composer, is the "progress of grace in the soul of a saint.''
When commissioned to write the work for the Paris Opera, he could not resist the chance to renovate what in his eyes was a moribund art form (opera). This he would do through all his own innovations in musical rhythm, melody and harmony. Along the way, he would also ensconce his faith in the unlikely site of the opera house.
By the time the frequently postponed Saint François d'Assise was premiered eight years later in 1983, Messiaen had been sorely taxed creatively, physically, psychologically and emotionally. This first and last monumental opera was to be his Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and also his final testimony to his important musical innovations and especially his religious faith.
RD: Benjamin Britten (1913-76) was dealing with serious health problems, as he struggled to complete his masterpiece Death in Venice.
LH: Yes. Throwing himself utterly into composing of what he sensed was going to be his last opera, Death in Venice (1973), the ailing Britten made a pact with his family physician. He agreed to see a cardiologist and undergo treatment, if the doctor would keep him going with pharmaceutical therapy long enough to complete the opera.
At the risk of his life, he finished the work, and soon was hospitalized and underwent aortic valve replacement surgery (in relatively early days of such interventions). Not yet 60 years old, the combination of the surgery's failure to dissipate the debilitating symptoms of heart failure and a stroke suffered during the operation, led to major changes in the composer's life.
Britten composed fewer and smaller but equally fine works in his final years, proving that productivity and creativity are not synonymous!
RD: So what insights did you gain from writing Four Last Songs?
LH: We learned, first of all, that (despite the fact the everyone does it), it is as impossible to generalize about older age as about the young.
These composers' very different individual lives and careers, not to mention their creative imaginations, are unique. Yet their multiple examples of resilience in the face of the challenges of aging – physical, social, psychological, aesthetic – challenges that we all face, were inspiring to us.
RD: You give the last line in your book to British composer Ethel Smyth: "As long as breath is in your body life need never cease to be a creative effort."
LH: Yes, that seemed the very best summary of what these creative people had taught us – and the best advice we could imagine for everyone!