Interior, Dress, and Bowl of Apples are all masterpieces. All three have the characteristics of Matisse’s late period. They fill their canvases right to the edges and press against them. The borders between color zones are crisp and clear. Each separate zone of color is relatively uniform and unmodulated. The earlier two hark forward to the last, and all three culminate in the radiance of the late cutouts and the extraordinary stained glass of the Dominican chapel at Vence, his culminating achievement.
Ludwig van Beethoven is the canonical example of the artist who grows better every moment of his life. Recall that Beethoven in mid-career (roughly 1802-12) composed the Third, Fifth, and Eighth Symphonies, the Kreutzer Sonata, and the two most perfect works in music—the G Major Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto—along with dozens of other masterpieces. After all, he combined, in midcareer, perfect structural mastery of sublimely lovely thematic mat-er-ial with a Shakespearean sense of humor. Listen to the coda of the C Minor Piano Concerto’s last movement, where the tempo switches to 6/8 and the soloist tiptoes over a new version of the rondo theme trying not to burst out laughing and wake the orchestra in his sheer exuberance. But he fails, and the last pages are the loveliest laughter in music.
Yet, in his later years, we find Beethoven inventing a new kind of theme, in which the mat-erial is so powerfully compressed (carbon squeezed into diamond) that a single terrific statement emerges with no rhythmically separate harmonic lines: Each musical line speaks in the same rhythm, and often there is no harmony at all. The most cele-brated example is the first theme of the Ninth Symphony: It emerges out of a musical mist, atomized sound (which Beethoven also invented), coalescing like a tornado out of chaos, it is stated by the whole orchestra fortissimo, in unison. No such theme had ever existed before. There is also the powerful unison opening of the Opus 95 String Quartet, or the sudden surge (a huge wave crashing over the decks) of the first four bars of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Opus 106, or the maestoso (“majestic”) start of the Opus 127 String Quartet—a passage so powerful that no serious performer can keep his seat while he plays it.
Alongside these forged-steel themes are the fugue themes, which occur unaccompanied at the start of the fugue; and late Beethoven is obsessed by the fugue as completely as Bach had been. In these late fugues, the theme is laid out plain as a diamond bracelet against the black velvet of the cosmos. The greatest of all concludes the Credo in the Missa Solemnis, in which Beethoven struggles to make the world understand, at a time when the steady rusting-away of faith has already begun, that he is devoutly Christian. But his deepest discovery of all goes beyond thematic material and its development. Beethoven, and Beethoven alone, discovered how to make an end. In the middle period, he had already invented the colossal coda, in which the opening theme returns finally to loom over the whole movement like a Saturn rocket trembling with power: Thus, the close of the first movements of the Eroica and the Fifth Symphonies, or the incomparable Opus 74 Quartet.
But then, as the end approaches, something new happens. In the Opus 95 and Opus 127 Quartets, the first movements reach no conclusions. The music simply withdraws into a silence that is tangible. And at the close of the Grosse Fugue (for string quartet), the fugue breaks off at the end into a wild sprint, faster and faster, until it takes off in lunatic ecstasy. The most moving discoveries are in the last piano sonatas: The scherzo of Opus 110, the second to last sonata and Beethoven’s most miraculous feat of sheer compression, trails off into a boundless gentle mist; in the scant 15 bars of the coda we hear the whole mystery of the universe. And in the last piano sonata, Opus 111, the first of the two movements ends in floral garlands (memorials to the dead) floating on a gently heaving sea. The last, a theme and variations, closes on what can only be described as a still, small voice: The music bears the tragedy of mankind on its shoulders as it walks upright through the last open door, and is gone.
I return to Matisse by way of two of the greatest of modern novelists: Henry James, born a generation before Matisse, and Marcel Proust, James’s soulmate and Matisse’s countryman and near-contemporary. James and Proust resemble each other in that each produced his masterpieces at the end of his career. James’s three greatest novels, the work of his “major phase,” are The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Except for the less successful The Outcry (1911), they are his last completed novels, exploring the subtlest, most allusive of psychological shadings in prose tuned down to an intimate whisper.
In the last of the three, a golden bowl (only it is gilt over glass, not gold) has a flaw and a secret, and James—slowly turning over this small thing in his vast imagination, as if it were crystal flashing colored gleams in a thousand directions—finds his main symbols, and several of his key moments, in the enigmatic bowl. It is a symbol of beauty combined with frailty and phoniness; it causes an initial revelation, a crucial shift in power from deceiver to deceived, makes plain the saving power of truth and grace, and reveals, even in the manner of its being gathered up after having been dropped to the floor and broken, important aspects of the heroine.
James is often said to have prepared the ground for Proust, and Proust’s fellow great modernist, James Joyce. But Proust’s prose is far more James than Joyce’s. It, too, is hushed and candlelit. Proust, like James in his later work, moves in long sinuous sentences, the trailing tails of lazy mermaids. One hears long, nuanced, whispered revelation, then a deep breath—and the cycle repeats. Proust only lived to be 51, but he waited until he was in his forties to begin his great novel, which appeared as a whole (its last sections not quite finished) after his death. À la recherche du temps perdu, “in search of lost time,” is an immense achievement made of seven subnovels. Proust called the second À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, “In the shadow of young ladies in bloom.” Listen to the whisperous l’ombre, the softly mellifluous jeunes filles en fleurs. It is the greatest title ever invented.
An artist’s job is to fashion beautiful things—with a master goldsmith’s delicate touch—out of the raw, red shrieking rage and pain and joy of human life. Beethoven’s almost-last great masterpiece was the A Minor String Quartet, Opus 132, of 1825. He had been too sick to work, and he wrote the A Minor Quartet while recuperating. Its middle movement of five is the famous “Sacred thanks-giving--song from a healed man to God, in the Lydian mode.” He was feeling better, but he could see death on its way. And so one of his last, greatest creations was this thanksgiving song. As his life ended, what he wanted to say was thank you.
Matisse finished his career with the spectacular cutouts of the short book called Jazz, and his other master-pieces in this medium. Among his last works was one he called “the crowning achievement of my life”—the decoration, specifically the stained glass, for the chapel of the Dominican nuns at Vence. He stripped his palette to translucent lemon, cool brilliant green, and vivid green-blue. This artist, capable of unmatched subtlety in the invention of colors in combination, retreated, in the end, to one sublimely basic, powerful triad and to simple forms of matchless grace. He always said he was an atheist, but in the presence of his own creation at Vence, he was seen to hesitate.
David Gelernter, whose show "Sh'ma/Listen: The Art of David Gelernter" just closed at Yeshiva University Museum, is chief scientist at Lifestreams.com and a professor of computer science at Yale.