Late-blooming composers

In our June issue prodigies take centre stage as we name the ten best child composers. But who were the composers who bided their time and produced their masterpieces in later life? Rebecca Franks finds out
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Leos Janáček (1854-1928)
An organist and schoolteacher by trade, Janáček’s first piece Exaudi was published when he was 22. But it wasn’t until the Prague premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1916 that Janáček, then 62, began to establish his reputation.

In the final decade of his life the Moravian-born composer penned some of his most enduring and inventive masterpieces, including the Sinfonietta and the Glagolitic Mass.

Crucial to Janáček's late burst of creativity was his passionate but unrequited love for Kamila Stosslova, a married woman 35 years his junior. Janáček's infatuation with Stosslova, whom he met in 1917, found its expression in the strong female characters in his final three operas.

Late masterpiece:
Sinfonietta (1926)

 


Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Like Janáček, Bruckner began his career as an organist and schoolteacher. One of Europe’s finest organists, he held a post at the renowned St Florian Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where as a church composer he wrote his first works.

From the start of his working life, Bruckner studied theory and composition alongside his professional duties.

But it wasn’t until he heard a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1863 that he felt liberated from the compositional rules he had studied so laboriously. Bruckner began to write symphonies on a Wagnerian scale and his massive orchestral edifices, rooted in his devout Catholicism, remain masterpieces in the canon.

Late masterpieces:
Symphonies Nos 1-9

 

Emmanuel Chabrier (1841-1894)
Another composer who took wing after hearing Wagner was Emmanuel Chabrier. Though a gifted amateur pianist, as a young man Chabrier didn’t consider the idea of becoming a professional musician.

Instead he took a post in the civil service and surrounded himself with a circle of artistic friends that included many Impressionist painters.

Then in 1879 his friend the composer Henri Duparc took him to hear Tristan und Isolde in Munich. Chabrier, profoundly moved, quit his job and turned to full-time composing. His Dix pièces pittoresques, hugely admired by Ravel and Poulenc, and his ever-popular orchestral rhapsody España, date from this first flush of inspiration.

Late masterpieces:
Dix pièces pittoresques (1881); España (1883)

 

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
When his opera Aida was premiered in 1871, Verdi was 58. With 26 operas behind him he at that point lay down his operatic pen and turned his attention to revising earlier works and composing the Requiem.

But eight years later Verdi’s thoughts turned back to opera and he began sketching ideas for Otello. He finished the work, based on Shakespeare’s play, when he was 73 and it was an instant success.

Verdi soon began to compose another Shakespearian-inspired work, Falstaff and in his 80th year, his final, comic masterpiece was first heard.

Late masterpieces:
Otello (1886); Falstaff (1893)

 

Elliott CarterElliott Carter (1908-)
With his 101st birthday at the end of the year, this American composer lays claim to being one of the world’s oldest working composers. Carter initially studied English and maths at Harvard before the encouragement of the composer Charles Ives convinced him to head to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger.

On his return to America, Carter began to make his mark, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for his Second String Quartet, and writing the Double Concerto – hailed by Stravinsky as an American masterpiece.

Carter’s last decade has been exceptionally fruitful. Premieres include Interventions, Dialogues for piano and large ensemble, Three Illusions for Orchestra; in 2007 alone he wrote seven new pieces. And after his 90th birthday Carter wrote his first opera – a work called What Next?

 

Late masterpieces:
Interventions (2008); Dialogues for piano and large ensemble (2003); Three Illusions for Orchestra (2004); What Next? (1999)
 

To find out which composers were the greatest child prodigies, take a look at our June issue. And let us know your thoughts by voting in our poll.

Audio clip: Janáček: Sinfonietta – Fanfares (BBC Music Magazine Cover Disc, February 2009)