In a dry month, waiting for rain: what happens to innovators in old age?

Arsène Wenger may have run his last meaningful race but others no longer young are still on the track.

 

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In 1962, "with all his honours on", Duke Ellington made a record with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, prominent members of the younger generation of jazz musicians. When they finished the session, Mingus thanked Ellington and wondered whether “next time, we could do something avant-garde”. Ellington’s reply is worth its weight in rubies. “Oh, Charles,” he said. “Must we go back that far?”

By then, Ellington was a monument of American music, which is perhaps why Mingus tiptoed around him. As a pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and sponsor of talent, Ellington had come a long way from those pioneering days four decades earlier at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, ­Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Mingus had all helped to develop the vocabulary of jazz, yet Ellington felt secure. He wasn’t oblivious to the changing of the guard, hence his willingness to work with Mingus, but he did what he did, rolling along like the Mississippi, confident in his genius.

How does the creator continue to create once the maddening impulse of youth has fled? Ellington showed one way; Picasso, who was also by then in the last decade of his life, another. At the Musée Picasso in Paris, the fecundity of those final years has the force of a gale. Playful to the end in his drawings, paintings and sculptures, he brought on to the stage for a final bow those familiar musketeers, acrobats, card-players and pipe-smokers.

Stravinsky, like Picasso, understood the debt that all pioneers owe to the traditions from which they emerged. When David Sylvester wrote that Picasso had “affirmed until the end that, even when it is a diary, art is not meant to be a confession but a game”, he might also have been thinking of that protean composer who was born Russian, lived in France and America and was buried in Venice. Stravinsky and Picasso: what songs they sang!

Does Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, lie awake at night pondering Picasso’s distorted tumblers, or those beautiful collages of coloured paper that Matisse assembled in his final years? In his way, he, too, was a pioneer, transforming the footballers of Arsenal, a club that had been a byword for “inspired pedestrianism” (to use a phrase of Brian Glanville, the king of football writers), into the champions of England three times and almost conquerors of Europe.

You could argue that the rot set in on that night in Paris in 2006 when Arsenal surrendered a lead to lose 2-1 to Barcelona in the Champions League final. Victory would have crowned Wenger’s ten years with the London side. Now, aged 67, with a diminished team and the sands shifting, he resembles the narrator of Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “an old man in a dry month . . . waiting for rain”. Where he once turned geese into swans, he now turns swans into geese. The thrill is gone, and everybody knows it.

Wenger is eight years older than Matt Busby was when he stood down as the Manchester United manager in 1969, a year after they won the European Cup, as the Champions League was then known. Wenger is 12 years older than Bill Nicholson was when he left Tottenham Hotspur in 1974, and 22 years older than Brian Clough was when he took Nottingham Forest to their second successive European Cup triumph in 1980.

Jupp Heynckes was 68 when his Bayern Munich team won the Champions League in 2013 but, as they found out again so painfully in these past months, Arsenal are no Bayern Munich, who whack the Gunners for pleasure. Sport is a younger man’s game. It always was, for obvious physical reasons. Stanley Matthews may have played football until he was 50 and Jack Hobbs made 98 centuries after the age of 40, but they were exceptions. Jack Nicklaus, who won the US Masters, the last of his 18 major titles, at the age of 46, is another of the immortals.

“Gone like Imperial Rome/Or myself at seventeen,” W H Auden wrote, in his early American period. Auden makes an interesting study. A brilliant youth who told Nevill Coghill, his tutor at Oxford, that he intended to be not merely a poet but “a great poet”, he fulfilled his ambition before he was 40. Thereafter, he became a bit of a bore. The dazzling conversationalist turned into Johnny One Note and the great poet found he had nothing to say. Philip Larkin, another great poet who felt inspiration desert him, said it was like going bald: “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Wordsworth, who lived to 80, wrote few memorable lines in the second half of his life. To Browning, as some are swift to recall, he became “the lost leader”, a man left behind by events. But had Keats (who died at 25), Shelley (29) or Byron (36) lived so long a life, would not their poetry have suffered, too? Not all poets press on as did Thomas Hardy, who may be the greatest poet of the 20th century despite being born in 1840, or go out in a bonfire of rhetorical glory as W B Yeats did.

“An old man’s eagle mind . . .” How remarkable Yeats’s final poems are: “An Acre of Grass”, “Under Ben Bulben”, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. In them, everything that had come before – the personal and national mythology, filtered through a reading of the ancient world – came together, like the elements in a Bruckner symphony. No less than Stravinsky or Picasso, Yeats managed to find a balance between a youthful ardour and that eagle mind.

Cézanne, in his late oils and watercolours, dissolved six centuries of Western art into shapes that fed directly into cubism and everything that came after. No wonder Matisse called him “the father to us all”. Sibelius, by contrast, was never far from a vodka bottle in the last three decades of his life. Mozart had done a lifetime’s work when he died at 35. Schubert, four years younger at the time of his death, had so much music left to give and, had he given it, the history of music would have been enriched beyond our imagination.

And yet, when we talk about Schubert’s late style and the extraordinary works that he created in the 18 months before his death in November 1828 – the three last piano sonatas, the pair of piano trios, the great C major symphony, the string quintet, Winterreise – are we being sentimental? Do we think of these works as having a spirit of departure because we know that typhoid fever claimed his life just as he was setting out? No, there is something in them oscillating between sanity and a world beyond that compels us to hear them in such a way.

When it comes to late style, though, one man stands supreme. In March 1827 Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, telling the mourners at a tavern to toast the memory of the departed and, knowing the nature of his own illness, to raise a glass “to him who will be next”. It is astonishing to note that their paths crossed only a couple of times, possibly because Schubert held the elder man in such veneration.

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What more can be said about those five late quartets, composed between 1825 and 1827? This is music, Stravinsky said, that will always sound contemporary. Place those works next to music written in the 20th century, even by masters such as Shostakovich and Bartók, and Beethoven will always sound fresher. The emotional depth of the piano sonatas, for instance, is matchless. There can be no greater creator of music, of anything, than Beethoven, for nobody can express with such profundity what lies within us. With him, to borrow from Wordsworth, who was born in the same year, 1770, “We see into the life of things.”

It was Beethoven whom Richard Strauss evoked towards the end of his life. Having drifted in a dreamlike state through the enormity of National Socialism, Strauss awoke in 1944 to find the Munich opera house where his father had played the horn in rubble. Metamorphosen, composed for 23 strings, is an elegy for the Germany he knew and it incorporates a theme from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony to remind listeners (and himself) that, despite the horrors of Nazism, German culture could not be bombed into submission.

But Strauss was not through. In 1948, at the age of 84, he reverted to the Romanticism of his early years with his Four Last Songs. They could have been composed half a century earlier, so lush does the full-cream orchestration sound. They seemed to come from a world in which Schoenberg was merely a rumour and were none the worse for that. Strauss never heard his swansong, passing away in 1949, a year before Kirsten Flagstad gave the first performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but the songs will mark him down for eternity.

Arsène Wenger may have run his last meaningful race but others no longer young are still on the track, as the current ­David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain underlines. Frank Auerbach is still painting, Harrison Birtwistle is still composing, Mario Vargas Llosa is still writing and Ken Dodd is still wielding his tickling stick. Tony Bennett, who is in his 91st year, had an 85th-birthday celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 and managed his voice with admirable strength. We don’t know exactly how old Plácido Domingo is (he claims to be 76), but he still adorns opera houses across the world, on stage or in the pit.

Ellington, incidentally, also worked with John Coltrane in 1962, before the saxophonist went a bit peculiar. Like Mingus, Coltrane tipped his hat to the master, a tribute from youth to age. Not something one hears these days at a football ground in north London. 

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On