Methuselah Musical Prodigies Change the Paradigm

Elliott Carter turns 99 in a little over a month, having added substantial new works in just the last five years to his 70-year catalog. But remarkable as Mr. Carter’s productive longevity is, he is far from the only composer who has given the lie to the Mozartean mythology that composing genius traces an early trajectory. Paul le Flem wrote a symphony in his early 90s (he lived to 103); Gian Francesco Malipiero composed several operas after age 85. Milton Babbitt (b. 1916), like Carter, has been astonishingly productive in his advanced years, his Concerto for Orchestra appearing in 2004; and Henry Brant and Norman Dello Joio continue to compose in their 90s. (And an honorary nod to music’s pansophist extraordinaire, Nicolas Slonimsky, who won a Guggenheim in his 90s.)

Even more remarkably, Havergal Brian (1876-1972) composed four operas and 27 symphonies after the age of 72 (nine of the symphonies after age 90). Leo Ornstein wrote muscular piano sonatas into his late 90s; at 100 he wrote Vivian Perlis, “I still try to work, but on a much-reduced schedule.” Ornstein may have been the oldest noted musician who ever lived. Among artists his astonishing life span of 108 years is surpassed only by the American painter Alphaeus Cole, a longtime resident of the Chelsea Hotel, who died in 1988 at the age of 112, the oldest male in the world at the time. (Cole’s work is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in London. At age 86, he married his second wife.) The oldest living noted musician in the world now is the tenor Hugues Cuénod, who turned 105 in June, and who made his Met debut 20 years ago as a kid of 84. Cuénod has lived long enough to see social changes enable him to legalize a civil union, at age 104, with his longtime partner this past January in Switzerland.

Musical prodigies have long been thought to bloom early, not late as architects are wont to do. Verdi in the 19th century was considered a Methuselah for composing Falstaff at 80. Why? Because composing isn’t shuffleboard, it’s mental (and even physical) heavy lifting. To create a mere five minutes of music for full orchestra, a composer routinely fills thousands of dots and jots into hundreds of boxes on paper (i.e. notes and other markings into measures). Composing a longer work is like a 15-round mental prizefight. Even in our age of computer-assistance, writing an opera or symphony requires monumental sitzfleisch, not a small measure of physical stamina and strength, and the instantaneous file-cabinet memory of an air traffic controller. (Unless you’re Darius Milhaud; Milhaud had crippling arthritis in his hands but he continued to compose as facilely as I write my laundry lists.) Shostakovitch, according to Solomon Volkov, claimed he was training his nondominant hand to use the pen in case of age-related disability. The brain is the primary organ for a composer. A composer is a musician who sings with his brain. When that goes, as with Aaron Copland, that’s the end of the output.

And these hardy geronto-brainiacs seem to be suggesting that our notions of the trajectory of the creative brain are flawed. Maybe most mathematicians and physicists peak early, but maybe composers don’t, despite appearances to the contrary. Historically, as many composers have picked up steam in their 50s or 60s (Rameau, Janacek) as those that have sloughed off (Rossini, Sibelius). Virgil Thomson told me personally in 1977 not to wait beyond age 26 to study counterpoint or the brain would atherosclerose and it would be too late to absorb canonic and fugal writing techniques. Yet he himself went back to study with Boulanger at 29, as did Vaughan Williams with Ravel at almost 40. In October 1990 I visited with Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994) in his Carnegie Hill apartment on Madison Avenue. He was not only still composing but still regularly traveling by himself to Rome, where he knew all the bus routes.

Haydn was able to write 104 symphonies in part because he had 40 more years of earthly time than Mozart. (A Schubert living and writing till 90? The mind reels….) As we age better and longer, all the benchmarks change, including the length and peaks of composing careers. There are going to be many more Babbitts and Brants.

So, with Carter and Ornstein as pin-up models, as I nurse my nascent, unwelcome quinquagenarian arthritis, I say to myself, relax, pal—you’re just getting started!

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2 thoughts on “Methuselah Musical Prodigies Change the Paradigm

  1. rtanaka

    Nice to know I have some years ahead of me. It used to worry me that I started composing sooooo late in my life, like 19. I felt like I was way behind my collegues who were writing music since they were like 6 or 7, had perfect pitch, who had already won awards and toured the country and whatnot. Maybe it was a good thing, though, since it made me work really really hard.

    The prodigy phenomenon is pretty interesting in itself though. Turns out that a lot of it is just a matter of age perception — one person I talked to said it was like watching a donkey talking…you’re not particularly interested in what it has to say, but you’re just amazed at the fact that it’s talking in itself. Yeah, they’re good, for their age, anyway.

    Being a prodigy definitely isn’t a drawback (course lots of great musicians were prodigies, including Mozart), but a lot of it gets normalized as you get older, and a lot of them do get burnt out as the attention they used to recieve gradually disappears. Maybe people are appealed by the idea of potentiality, who knows…

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  2. Colin Holter

    I used to feel the same way–I started composing when I was about 16, and I knew people who’d had piano lessons since they were toddlers and knew the entire standard rep and all the rest, so I worried that I might be hopelessly behind right out of the gate. That disparity has receded as the years passed, though, so it doesn’t really bother me anymore.

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