Toward the middle and end of the 1730s there is a perceptible change in Bach's orientation, a change that, regardless of all continuity of Bach's highly developed idiom, gives a characteristic stamp to the works of the last twelve years....it arose logically from the aging Bach's increasingly systematic realization of a synthesis of his rich creative experience and his manifold musical interests.
The Art of Fugue and the B Minor Mass conform to this striking Bachian trait of 'intending to excel above others and oneself.' The Art of Fugue is linked to earlier fugue compositions yet moves to a level that is novel in principle. The entire multi-sectional work is derived from the same thematic material, a musical plan that presupposed a far-reaching process of thought with regard to the harmonic-contrapuntal implications of the chosen theme.
--Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (362, 365)
Beethoven - Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 - I. Maestoso - Allegro con brio
Beethoven leaves behind a musical track record of unrelenting confrontations....But the reason we care about these works is not that they express irreconcilable contradictions or exile. Rather, each constructs an alternative universe in which something is actually being understood about our world: some things are rejected, some are accepted, some are greeted with horror, some with resignation. Beethoven's late music, for example, embraces incongruities because—we are convinced—that is precisely what it means to see the world whole. There is accumulated knowledge here: recognition and reconciliation, not just 'intransigence' or 'unresolved contradiction.'
Late style expresses a sense of being out of place and time: it is a rejection of what is being offered. But listen to Beethoven or Strauss or Gould: the music is more like a discovery of place. That place is different from where one started; it may not even be what was once expected or desired. But it is there, in resignation and fulfillment, that late works take their stand, where even exile meets its end.
Brahms - 6 Klavierstucke, Op. 118 - V. Romanze in F Major
There is a decidedly autumnal quality to the works of Brahms's last decade of life, and this is particularly evident in the piano pieces of Opp. 116-119. For the most part, Brahms seems to have exchanged the expansiveness and power of his earlier piano works—the great Handel Variations, early rhapsodies, and the piano sonatas, for example—for a subtle, introspective poetry. It is tempting to see these late piano pieces as Brahms really writing and playing only for himself.
What makes these works really great and among the finest music written for piano is a combination of these factors:
Their introspection and concentrated, distilled poetic statements, especially relevant considering the loneliness and detachment we know Brahms to have struggled with in his last years.
The attention to detail as seen in the extremely refined counterpoint which is to some extent hidden beneath a lyrical surface. These were not charming, tossed-off remarks like the Beethoven Bagatelles, for instance, but were very carefully constructed and meticulously refined.
Their pianism. Brahms is no longer interested in pushing boundaries but in exploring the delicate inward-facing side of the piano's expressive potential.
Britten - String Quartet No. 3, Op.94, IV. Burlesque
Britten returned to the string quartet form after a thirty-year hiatus, when, as one critic [Peter Evans] suggests, he realized he was truly running out of time. The resulting work, whose finale looks back to themes from his previous compositions, particularly Death in Venice, reads musically as a meditation on his life by way of his compositions. Although the last quartet is not significantly shorter than his other two string quartets, it is noteworthy that the opening movement, entitled ‘Duets,’ does not follow classical sonata-allegro form. Evans is reluctant to make Britten’s illness wholly accountable for this deviation from traditional form, but he does question whether ‘the short spans of activity to which the composer was restricted during the years of his illness necessitated this reduction of scale’. But absolutely no one saw here any late failing on the creative level: in one of the earliest reviews, David Matthews called it ‘a masterpiece’; the New Grove claims that ‘few listeners will doubt that this is as profound a work as anything Britten wrote’; Kennedy puts it on par with Beethoven’s late string quartets; and Evans concludes that ‘the simplicity of its language and the serenity to which it aspires represent a distillation, not a dilution, of Britten’s expressivity during this most poignant period of his life,’ calling the last movement of the quartet ‘surely his last artistic testament’.
Gesualdo - Fifth Book Of Madrigals, 1. Gioite voi col canto
Gesualdo was only 45 in 1611 when he published his last two madrigal books, but the horrendous series of events the immediately preceding years and his own declining health had clearly forced him to face the issue of his final legacy as a composer. The overtly defensive tone of the prefaces to these last two books advertises that at the close Gesualdo was not buoyed by an unperturbed confidence, and also, perhaps more important, that he suffered considerable anxiety over a protocol demanded by his station that his name not appear on the title page of his collections. Indeed, for all the bombast of his declarations, the composer’s ego is revealed as conspicuously fragile.
-- Glenn Watkins; The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory
Like Liszt, [Gesualdo] explored strange new regions in his final years: ordinary chords glance against one another with little regard for conventional logic, creating fractured, kaleidoscopic patterns. One can look to Gesualdo’s biography for a psychological explanation; in his youth, the composer discovered his wife in bed with her lover and ordered both of them killed, and he displayed symptoms of a troubled mind ever after. But similar oddities color the late-period motets and madrigals of Orlando de Lassus, which appeared a decade or two earlier. The hothouse atmosphere of the Mannerist period in art allowed, even demanded, idiosyncrasy, and it was no different in music; Gesualdo, toward the end of his not very long life, chose instability as his natural idiom.
Kurtág - Játékok, VII.15 - Hymenaios, für Susanne und Mark Sattler
As the composer and his contemporaries are aging it is striking to observe the peculiar direction that the collection takes, with an increasing number of pieces referring specifically to loss. To Johnson, “The very fact that Kurtág has chosen this ‘compositional sketchbook’ of ‘children’s pieces’ as the initial creative forum for his grief at the loss of a dear friend is extremely telling.” 205 In fact, Varga had already observed in an interview with the composer that the processional characteristic of several of Kurtág’s works, moving at slow pace, could be constructed as a funeral march.206 Thus, having in mind the beginnings of Játékok as a collection for children, full of inventiveness and fine humor, this transformation is for me one of its most fascinating aspects, still deserving a more extensive study. The list of pieces included in the present discussion strives to bring more light to this aspect of Játékok, but is not meant to be definitive. The examples appearing in this chapter are just a selection in order to achieve a better understanding of the composer’s late style, though it is impossible to discuss all its nuances and manifestations within the limits of this document.
--Kurtág's Játékok: Playing Games with Tradition, Gabriel Neves Coelho
Mozart - String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat Major, K. 614 - IV. Allegro
If the late quartets and quintets are condemned in particular, it is chiefly because they do not correspond to the ‘Classical’ ideal promoted about 1850 on the basis of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn and the quintets K. 515 and 516 of 1787 - in this sense, they are rejected on broad, biographical grounds and because of the unfulfilled expectation (or perhaps the unfulfilled desire) that they correspond to what was then (and still is) accepted as the Classical style. But there was no such expectation at the time the works were written, nor were the works received as such...What later critics perceived as new and often unsuccessful ‘late’ style, then, was not an issue for Mozart’s audiences, even though the style of the works is clearly ‘different’...
--Simon P. Keefe, The Cambridge Companion to Mozart
In its broadest sense, "late Schubert" refers to the works he wrote in the final few years of his short life, starting in 1823 or 1824. At the same time...the term carries a distinct psycho-biographical change, particularly since these works feel, often uncannily so, as if they were written under the star of looming mortality. In its classic formulation "late style," which at least in connection with music originated in Beethoven criticism, refers to a meaningful conjunction of stylistic and biographical characteristics. Above all, late style establishes a new interrelationship of objective and subjective, of convention and inspiration, borne by a sort of wisdom, resigned that a more conventionally harmonious balance is not valid at this moment, and perhaps never was.
Schubert’s later works do pursue exactly this sort of formal and expressive recalibration, yet since "late style" is normally applied to the works of an artist’s old age, there seems to be something questionable about referring to the late style of an artist whose life ended at thirty-one, even one who worked for his last months, if not years, with the expectation that death might well be imminent.
Schumann - Gesänge der Frühe, Op.133 (1853) - 4. Bewegt
...Schumann's late music seems to have emanated a dangerous glow. Perhaps it is not surprising that Clara, the most famous champion of her husband's works, suppressed or ignored almost all the late works, forever associated in her mind with his illness.
But surely, over the years, the lack of understanding of Schumann's later thoughts should have been corrected, as it has been with so many other composers (Beethoven included)? But no: instead of following the fascinating labyrinth of Schumann's musical development, too many commentators have dismissed all but the most popular works. Where Schumann's late music embarked upon experimental paths – including two major pieces of church music (almost severe in their archaic beauty), a set of piano pieces inspired by the dawn described by Christoph Eschenbach as "Mahler for the piano", uniquely personal concertos for cello and violin, a fascinating set of almost Wagnerian Choral Ballads based on German legends, and so on – many writers have made no attempt to understand them, but have bleated about loss of inspiration and a sad falling-off of mental powers. This, in turn, has meant that performers and concert promoters have shied away from programming works perceived as unpopular, just because they are unknown.
Schumann has, however, always had his passionate champions. Particularly for other composers, his music represents freedom, an unfettered creativity – stream of consciousness, even – that transcends schools and styles. While the composers of the 19th-century French, Czech, and Russian nationalist movements tended to reject Beethoven and to detest Brahms, they still loved Schumann. And in our times, there are many composers – Kurtág, Holloway, Holliger, Rihm to mention but a few – who have paid tribute to him in countless works. Oliver Knussen puts it well: "Schumann is quite merciless – just as you're getting over having your heart broken by some incredible bit of harmony, he does it to you again in the very next phrase."
Schumann's music is curiously alive today. One cannot pigeonhole him (perhaps that's why critics have difficulties); he is too experimental, too close to the edge of the known soundworld. Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally he is way ahead of his time – outside of time, in fact, looking simultaneously into the past and the future.