Something that Has Always Perplexed Me

Every professor of composition knows, and will tell you, that you can’t predict, from a 20-year-old composer’s output, his or her eventual success. People mature creatively at different rates. Some composers bloom in their 30s, others, grappling with an array of original ideas, may not achieve an integrated aesthetic until their 40s. Others may seem to follow the crowd for the first half of their career, then undergo a startling change of direction around 45 or 50. Only in retrospect do their compelling late works reveal the germs of genius inherent in their eccentric early works. Among the 20- to 25-year olds, the ones who initially produce the most professional-sounding music will often be the least original – their technical polish may be evidence more of a mimetic ability than an original vision. The more “out there” a composer’s personal vision is, the more awkward his or her early works will probably sound, and the longer it will take his or her compositional language to crystallize into something eloquent and communicative.

The early idioms of many composers testify to this. For instance, Nancarrow didn’t discover his instrument until age 36, and took another 8 or 10 years to master it. Partch, having an even wider range of unconventional elements to integrate, was nearly 50 when his style started to feel compelling. Varése wrote romantic music that he later abandoned, and struggled to bring his style into focus at just shy of 40. Feldman’s music seemed like a cute adjunct to Cage’s philosophy until his ambitions suddenly blossomed at age 44. Elliott Carter wrote an undistinguished neoclassicism into his 40s, and didn’t find what we recognize as a Carterian idiom until age 43. Rzewski wrote some charming minimalist works in his early 30s, but didn’t create his own style until he was 37, with The People United. Robert Ashley was involved in the avant-garde all along, but didn’t begin to stand out until he wrote Perfect Lives at 48. Giacinto Scelsi was 54 when he found what he had been looking for in his 4 pezzi su una nota sola. Other composers have bloomed earlier. Charles Ives wrote Thanksgiving, one of his greatest works, at 30. Cage entered into his first-period maturity in his late 20s. And La Monte Young made his life’s monolinear path clear at 25. There really is no universal pattern.

As I say, every composer knows this. Oddly enough, however, music critics, conductors, orchestra managements, and some record labels operate on a strikingly different theory of creative development. Convinced that compositional talent is similar to that for dancing or mathematics and thus inevitably manifests itself by age 25, they are on the constant lookout for the brilliant young composer. Giddy with the thrill of discovery, they pick the next Beethoven out of a crowd of grad students, shower him with commissions and recording contracts, spend a bundle promoting his name to the public. He is groomed to take an elevated position in musical society, much the way Hollywood positions young actresses to become stars. (For some reason Great Britain is especially attached to this habit.) The youngster becomes famous, is watched and listened to, taken seriously because “the authorities” have staked their reputations on him. The youngster’s music may develop, may not; it doesn’t matter, because he will continue to be lionized, performed, recorded regardless of whether his music lives up to its early promise. Only in the rarest occasions will there be a general admission that enthusiasm was premature; George Benjamin is the only such case I can name. By law of averages, these lionized composers will most often be the imitative ones whose early music seemed highly polished because it wasn’t encumbered by a need to integrate new insights.

And so, among famous composers, we have two career paradigms: the composer discovered before age 30 by the classical music establishment, and the composer discovered after 65 by younger composers. What about the composer who achieves public success at age 40 or 50, due to the dawning realization that his or her work has reached a remarkable maturity? This almost never happens. In Rzewski’s case I think it helped that he was such a persuasive pianist for his own works – the orchestra world has still not embraced him. Carter’s career I’ve never figured out, but I imagine inherited wealth didn’t hurt. But I am moved to these recurring reflections once again by writing program notes for yet another batch of competent, but not-yet-terribly-distinctive, 20-something composers that the orchestra world, with its critical entourage, has confidently declared will be the geniuses of the future.


  1. George says

    Carter’s family was upper middle class, well-off but not rich. His parents were against his career choice and limited their support to $500/year. (Carter jokes that his poverty is visible in the condition of his teeth). Carter earned his living as a teacher, and not only of music, notably at St. John’s College in Annapolis.

  2. says

    I think this phenomenon has a lot to do with the “Mozart Myth” you discussed a few months back. The model established in that myth is that the greatest composers are impressive from a young age, and our desire to live in a world populated by geniuses drives us to seek out impressive young composers and shower them with attention.
    Exacerbating the problem is the fact that in pop music, which still retains may of the trappings its origins as the music of youth culture, demands that new stars be young. The only major middle aged pop musicians are the ones who managed to survive youthful stardom without burning out or becoming boring.
    And our foolish belief in the fairness of the world leads us to suspect that it’s impossible to discover great artists when they are middle aged because if they were truly great they would already have been discovered.
    Altogether an unfortunate situation.

  3. Drea says

    Isn’t it really just a sad attempt to jump on the same bandwagon that subjects the world to emotionally immature soloists in their late teens and early twenties? Those people make money and news, but are incredibly uninteresting (for the most part) as musicians. Their compositional counterparts can’t be any more prepared to present an articulated musical vision.

  4. says

    You hit home with this one!! You’ve caught me presently taking a look back in time at my Opus 1, my Sonata in D minor in 4 movements; composed at age 22. It’s quite original and daring but very tonal in a Prokoviefesgue way! It was overlooked by my teachers(MSM) for being too derivitive, neo conservative and too lyrical!! They did not “see” the emerging composer before them. One could actually hum the themes. More recently I composed my first piano concerto 2002, a commissioned work btw, that is truly a “Third Stream Music”. (Thank you Schuller). However, only I can see the connective compostional thread to my Opus 1. I don’t have a monthly stipend from family fortunes to produce cds of my work. I did spend a few hard earned $$$ to release 9 cds over a span of 30 years. All of them I consider “Third Stream Music”. Record execs hate that label because it demands customers who can THINK for themselves and not be bludgened to death with journalistic hype just to sell the artist(?)and of course convince the buyer that they’re getting the real deal!! “Crossover” is the jive jargon of this past decade!!
    I’ll be 74 years young in 2 weeks(01/01/06),and have yet to be discovered by the classical world as a “serious” composer.. Being a jazz pianist of note doesn’t help. Jazz musicians aren’t serious composers to the classical record monguls. And I don’t have an Angel except in Carol Lian a classical pianist, who has recorded my Opus 2( composed at age 25),”La-No-Tib Suite” in 3 movements w/improvisation, for the Unichrom label). Who will play/record my music for a major label? I have to do the premieres and recordings myself. Please,I’m not so naive to expect to make money from my recordings or to support my self and family nor do I expect record companies to pay me what I deserve for such recordings; think hours in the “Woodshed”. They’re in the business of making a profit for themselves. period. I know that. My recordings are my legacy.
    I do think it’s naivtee of the highest order to think that Carter doesn’t “use’ the family fortunes to record, promote, and have the free time to compose all day and night. His music for all its presence on the musical scene, does not connect to the heart of this listener. Who wants to think when listening to music? It should lift you up by your bootstraps into a higher leval of consciousness; ecstacy is a good descriptive word for that state…..It’s a state that cannot be defined; you only know it when it “hits you”.
    I’m also sick of getting mailings from orchestras, societies, looking for scores for readings and then saying, were more interested in “Emerging” composers. Or ensembles looking to commission an “emerging” Composer. For God’s sake I’m just emerging at 74!!!!!!!!
    Where’s the justice? Perhaps there’s no answer in this greed driven world we live in.
    May I close by saying there was one teacher, Hall Overton, the first, true “Third Streamer”, who recognized me as a true composer and taught me for nothing for one full year because I did not have the bread for lessons. Hall went out of his way to help me get readings. Yes,I’m happy to be alive, married, 37 years to a musician, composing, playing and above all practicing in relative peaceful surroundings and to be able to freely speak my mind. Happy New Year.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Jack Reilly