Profiles of Late Style: Christoph Wolff

Christoph Wolff, a German musicologist, is a preeminent scholar and faculty member at Harvard University. He has written prolifically about J. S. Bach, Mozart, and music history. His most recent book is Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor. (Photos by Andrew Hood)
“Yes, they were geniuses, but they also had bills to pay and this is a significant part of what drove their production.”

Our lives, and creative processes, are deeply influenced by the time and space in which we live. This is part of what it means to be human. Yet when we think about musical masters we can elevate them in such a way that they transcend the constraints of real life and somehow become super-human.

We sat down with Christoph Wolff, Harvard musicologist, to talk about how the historical and sociocultural context shaped the Late Styles of Bach and Mozart and how both artists were very much men of their time.

Bach’s Late Style: Bridging Traditional and “Modern”

Bach was deeply shaped by what was happening around him, especially the social and cultural ramifications of Age of Enlightenment — a shift that not only impacted science, but art, music, and prevailing values and norms as well. It was in this context that Bach struggled to preserve a half-lost, traditional art form in the wake of society’s full embrace of science, modernity, and reason.

Wolff explains that in the last years of Bach’s life, “he was frustrated with his school administration and with the rector. This was at the height of the Enlightenment and the rector was interested in rebuilding the school’s curriculum and adding more science… and music was in the way.” Bach still administered his department, but had to come to terms with the changing priority of his work.

In many ways Bach’s Late Style bridges the old and the new and reflects the social shifts happening around him. He uses the art of contrapuntal writing to explore things he felt were not possible through other modes of discovery, a reaction against the reductionism espoused by the Enlightenment. In contrast to this though, Wolff states that in Bach’s last years, the style of his Goldberg Variations and the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 “is different from his earlier keyboard works because he is now examining things that happened at the university. This was a time of scientific discovery. So he goes and explores things through a more scientific musical style like canonic polyphony. He finds that very attractive.”

Bach’s later works are not an attempt to revisit the past nor are they a full embrace of the new age. Instead Wolff proposes, “What is often overlooked is that it is… a way to integrate traditional art into the most modern type of music you could imagine at that time. That was Bach’s way of engaging with his context.”

Mozart’s Late Style: Ambitious and Complex

The traditional interpretation of Mozart’s Late Style is often described as a “sunset” with the composer slowly fading away as he battles with financial trouble, depression, and a shrinking audience base.

However, Wolff has a different interpretation. He thinks Mozart’s Late Style could be characterized by “a more ambitious, complex style.” In fact, Wolff believes that Mozart was preparing to pivot to an entirely new form, “Mozart didn’t plan to die so early, but he wanted to start in a very different way”. He didn’t care how others saw his art because he was venturing into new territory that released him from the boundaries of what was possible through the Enlightenment.

Mozart’s position as Imperial-Royal Court Composer allowed him to experiment. Wolff explains, “With the imperial appointment and a steady income” the requirements of his position freed Mozart up to pursue his craft…he doesn’t know how long the Turkish War will last. All the noble families lost their heads of households because they were generals in the war and concerts and entertainment were not a priority. But Mozart is preparing things for when the Emperor comes back. He starts a very ambitious program— writing the three final symphonies and all kinds of chamber music. There is no sunset there… His pieces are longer, more ambitions, more complex because he knows the Emperor is very interested in polyphonic style. So Mozart picks up on Bach and Handel and all of that. It is really a new approach.”

Wolff says that it was the foresight of the Emperor in appointing Mozart as Court Composer that provided ample creative space. “Salieri was appointed at the same time as Mozart as Kapellmeister. In terms of rank this was the higher position and got paid a bit more. But after he assumed the Kapellmeister position Salieri essentially stopped composing. He had no time — he was an administrator in charge of running the orchestra…. But Mozart had none of these obligations. He was free to compose. The Emperor was very smart. He could see that Mozart was a performer/composer and [decided to] buy him the time.”

Creative Confidence, Freedom, and Exploration

There are other similarities Wolff sees in the Late Style of Mozart and Bach. One is a deep confidence in their creative ability, “They are not striving to build reputation — they are cashing in on it. They also really want to enjoy what they are doing.” Another is creative freedom, while they might be employed in the service of the King, “They don’t want to work for others. They ultimately work for themselves.”

Late Style also involves a creative exploration as both Mozart and Back search for new, more saturated, means of expression. “They don’t want to get bored with the same old stuff… they slow down and yet have more ambitious plans in the sense of packing more in because they know what they can do. Accumulated knowledge and confidence in their abilities allows them to put more into their works.”

Yet one cannot overestimate the influence of context on these musical masters. They faced many of the same challenges contemporary artists face: an ever-changing creative aesthetic, massive social and cultural shifts, financial constraints, and finding the time to create.

Wolff states, “Yes, they were geniuses, but they also had bills to pay and this is a significant part of what drove their production. One needs to consider these biographies in abstract terms, but also in terms of concrete situations and the ups and downs in the arts. When the economy goes bad, where do people save money? In the arts!” And somehow, both Mozart and Bach managed to use these constraints and challenges to propel their work forward. May we be inspired to do the same.

End Note: Hear more from Christoph Wolff at our Panel Discussion on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at 5:30 pm in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater

The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.