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Youthful Prodigy or Late Developer? By Arthur Butterworth


At one time a universal saying was that "children should be seen and not heard", the implication being, of course, that children, and indeed all young people, naturally dependent on their elders for material support and essential well-being, should know their modest and subservient place in society; not have opinions nor expect to dictate what should or should not be.

There have always been prodigies of one kind or another: sports-people, athletes, mathematicians, chess-players, authors, and not least musicians both performers and composers. The most familiar and long-remembered are perhaps young composers whose names live on long after the celebrity of an outstanding executant musician has passed into history. The most obvious example hardly needs mentioning: Mozart, who began to compose music of lasting significance when but a child. There have been numerous others who composed, even if not exactly in childhood, certainly when no more than in youth. The irony in many cases, however, being that lamentably so many of them died while still young, or at least what we in modern times would regard as tragically young, although probably in the times in which they lived would not then have been regarded as unusual to die young: Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Weber, Schumann, Bizet, (and even Beethoven, less than sixty).

To have achieved universal and lasting fame they all needed to have made a lasting mark on the art of music in their earliest years. As far as Beethoven is concerned it has been the notion of academics, musical historians and other intellectuals arbitrarily to divide his works into three distinct periods of creation; although there has perhaps never been total agreement as to fine dividing lines between one period and another, nor perhaps does this matter all that much although it is interesting to note how he evolved from an early style to a later - perhaps more profound - manner of communicating. The comparison between - say - the earliest piano sonatas and the last string quartets, certainly demonstrates how far his creative powers had developed. He was not quite alone in the degree to which such evolution is noticeable, but his is probably one of the most self-evident situations.

On the other hand some of the earlier composers lived long lives, or at least by the standards of their time: Handel until the age of seventy-four (1685-1759) which must have been a good span for those days and even Bach, born in the same year, until the age of sixty-five in 1750.

Despite what might be thought a ‘good age’ or a tragically ‘short span’ the thing that matters to later generations when considering the present-day significance of earlier composers is largely a matter of whether the quality of the music had anything to do with the age of the composer when the particular piece of music was actually created. Did composers - do they still, for that matter - tend to write the best music early or late?

There is no universally agreed opinion about this, of some composers, Mozart for instance, it can hardly be said to have counted for much to consider this when his life was so short anyway, and so with Schubert and Mendelssohn, although, as already remarked, with Beethoven perhaps there can be said to be a marked evolution in style as he got older. But other composers, especially those who lived quite long lives, it is not always possible to be sure, or agree. Some commentators prefer a composer’s more youthful works, while others recognise the evolution in style, and hence the profundity of the music’s significance which comes from a longer and deeper experience.

A case in point is Richard Strauss, aged 85 (1862-1949) whose early works - for example "Don Juan" - might interestingly be compared with the "Four Last Songs", so the question might be asked: which is the more characteristic, or perhaps more compelling aspect of Strauss? Similarly with Verdi who lived almost to the age of 88 (1813-1901) and who was still writing music well into his latter years. In contrast to such long-lived composers who continued to write was Sibelius who lived until the age of almost 92 (1865-1957) but who for the last thirty years of his life perplexed his admirers by not writing anything new after "Tapiola" in 1926.

The tantalising question is whether it was a good thing for aged composers - Strauss and Verdi being quoted - to have continued to create into their old age; was the music they produced as good as that of their comparative youth when creative powers were at the height; or does the much later music show signs of decline in some way? a lack of originality or that magic spark of exuberant creation? is it repetitive of something already more effectively invented in the distant past? What of Vaughan Williams? How do the later works, - the 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, for example - compare with "A London Symphony" the "Pastoral Symphony", or the 4th and 5th symphonies of twenty and thirty years before?

Was it perhaps a good idea on balance - for we are never now to know - that the long-promised 8th Symphony of Sibelius never appeared at all. An even more tantalising situation arose with the surprising appearance of a version of Elgar’s Third Symphony, realised so splendidly by Anthony Payne. General opinion is that this was a revelation and a most welcome addition to the Elgar canon; for which we are immensely grateful, but what might Elgar himself have thought?

Another British composer, for a long time, some would say "unaccountably" neglected, has in recent times come to be re-evaluated, and this has given us the opportunity to compare the early works - such as the ubiquitous "Tintagel" with the later symphonies. Did Bax (1883-1953) himself hint at the notion that probably he had, towards the end of his life, already said all he wanted to say and did not wish to create more? Is it sometimes a matter of the realisation that not only has a creative artist long since said all he has to and simply has no more to add, or that there is a feeling of being out of touch with the present times in which, after a long life, he now feels himself to be marooned?

These are questions listeners can ask of almost every kind of music they are interested in, but the answers are elusive.

Arthur Butterworth, © 2007


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