Age: Does It Matter?

Perhaps the real secret to a long life is not vitamins or exercise, but composing. After all, there are at least a dozen composers over 80 in the U.S. at present who continue to be active while many of their contemporaries in other fields have long since retired. (Leo Ornstein [b. 1892], the eldest of these “elder statesmen,” stopped composing in his 80s, but continues to thrive in other ways at the ripe old age of 108.)

All these composers except Ornstein came of age during the late 1920s and early 1930s, when a number of significant groups and publications devoted to new music, such as the International League of Composers and Henry Cowell‘s journal New Music, were appearing. Radio and recordings were making all types of music more accessible to the public for the first time. And during the 1930s a number of significant European composers including Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Krenek and Bartók settled in the U.S.

One thing all these men have in common is that each has mapped out an individual path and established a distinct style of his own. (Sadly, Vivian Fine, the only composer qualified to be an elder stateswoman, died in a car accident last March at the age of 86.) Sometimes these paths have resulted in a respected career in academia, and sometimes a style that adheres strictly to an established tradition. Other times it’s resulted in a maverick.

Leon Kirchner (b. 1919) is one composer that fits the first category. Although his style has never adhered to one particular musical fashion, he has always placed great importance on basing a piece on a sound musical idea and adhering to equally sound principles of structural development. David Diamond (b. 1915), who taught at Juilliard for over 25 years, also stressed the importance of a solid theoretical background, both in his and his students’ music. Ironically, although Elliott Carter (b. 1908) also enjoyed a long career at Juilliard and has won two Pulitzer Prizes to date, his teachers during his undergraduate years at Harvard were less than enthusiastic about his radical, uncompromising music–possibly influenced by his friendship with Charles Ives, who he met at age 16–eventually sending him to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. The trip resulted in a brief fling with neoclassicism, but soon Carter returned to his old style, characterized by metric modulation, pitch organization, partitioning of various musical aspects and the concept of mathematical vs. psychological time, feeling that it provided a more appropriate way to depict the atmosphere of post-World War II America.

A number of these elder statesmen are primarily associated with the use and development of serialism. The 3 Compositions for Piano (1947) of Milton Babbitt (b. 1916) was one of the earliest examples of total serialism with regard to pitches, durations and dynamics, and the work which immediately followed it, Composition for 12 Instruments, serialized timbre as well. Despite the fact that he has also written electronic music and influences from other music, such as jazz, are evident in pieces like All Set, Babbitt continues to espouse the importance of serialism. George Perle (b. 1915) also continues to write in the 12-tone style, although he describes his music as “twelve-tone tonality” rather than serialism per se.

George Rochberg (b. 1918), on the other hand, switched from strict serialism to a neo-romantic style after his son’s death in the 1960s, a move which generated a great deal of hostility from some of his colleagues and was welcomed by others. In fact, although Rochberg himself discounts it, he is often considered the founder of the post-modernist movement. However, although he may be modest about his influence on younger composers, he is far from hesitant about criticizing them. For instance, in his 1972 essay “Reflections on the Renewal of Music,” he put down what he described as “the gross, generalized, nonspecific principles of today’s avant-gardists,” adding “There can be no justification for music, ultimately, if it does not convey eloquently and elegantly the passions of the human heart.”

In contrast to these, Henry Brant (b. 1913), while he did teach briefly at such August institutions as Columbia and Juilliard, has been a radical since he began writing music for pots and pans as a child. Most of his music is scored for huge, unusual ensembles–one example is Orbits, for 80 trombones and organ–in equally huge and unusual spatial arrangements. At age 80, he went even further afield and invented a Tenor Cello and Mezzo-Violin, for which he has written several ensemble pieces. The highly eclectic style of Portland-born Lou Harrison (b. 1917), who early on abandoned the New York scene for California and was especially influenced by a 1962 trip to the Far East on a Rockefeller grant, has included everything from music for gamelan to a symphony featuring vocals by pop singer Al Jarreau and texts in the universal language Esperanto. Harrison is also highly unusual for this generation regarding his personal life; not only did he come out openly as a gay man but, starting in the 1970s, began to publicly support the gay rights movement.

Even more interesting is the case of Gian-Carlo Menotti (b. 1911), who has been criticized in some circles for music that is too accessible and tonal. His output, which consists almost entirely of operas–for which he writes the librettos, another factor that has earned him criticism–was disparaged in conservatory circles for years. Recently, however, although his production of new works has slowed down considerably, a number of his earlier operas have been revived successfully and have been taken more seriously. The Consul, for example, in which a woman in a nameless Communist-like country repeatedly tries and fails to get her husband released from prison, seems far more relevant to recent political events than it may have been when it premiered in 1950. And it’s a rare city where at least one performance of his 1951 Christmas opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, isn’t held every year.

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