Fifteen composers at 30
What were the great composers getting up to as they reached three decades? Jeremy Pound looks at some notable examples
At some point over the next couple of weeks, we will be heading to somewhere in Bristol that serves nice beer and raising a pint or two to 30 years of BBC Music Magazine. That’s 378 issues, 46,872 pages (or thereabouts) and Lord-knows-how-many words and pictures in the can. But before we go slapping ourselves on the collective backs, maybe we should put our achievement into context with a look back over history. By the time of their 30th birthdays, where along life’s path had some of the best known composers got to? Here are 15 notable examples…
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
By the time he reached his 30th birthday on 27 January 1786, Mozart had already racked up, among many other works, 37 symphonies, 22 piano concertos, 19 string quartets and a fistful of operas. And for his 31st year, he had something special up his sleeve: The Marriage of Figaro. The opera was widely appreciated at its first performance in Vienna, with Haydn declaring himself a major fan and the Wiener Realzeitung’s reviewer enthusing that ‘It contains so many beauties, and such a wealth of ideas, as can be drawn only from the source of innate genius’. Today, many would still deem it the greatest opera of all time.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven spent much of his time as a 30 year-old bathed in the glow of C sharp minor, as he worked on his Moonlight Sonata. C sharp? No problem. Hear sharply? This, alas, was proving more of a problem. While it would be a year later (1802) that he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament outlining his despair at the onset of deafness, other correspondence shows that he had started to notice it from his late twenties. With his First Symphony only recently completed and the other eight yet to be begun, it’s safe to assume he heard none of them in crystal clarity.
At least Beethoven still had more than 26 years of life to go. For Schubert, his 30th birthday in January 1827 was his penultimate one. Living under the shadow of syphilis, he composed his doom-laden Winterreise for voice and piano, in which a young man departs from outside the house of his former love and trudges away through the snow and, it would seem, towards oblivion. The bleakest of journeys, masterfully related.
It wasn’t until March 1839, more than a decade after his death, that Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, ‘the Great’, enjoyed its first performance. That it did so was thanks to Robert Schumann and the 30-year-old Felix Mendelssohn – after the former had discovered the score in Vienna, the latter took on the major task of rehearsing it and conducting in Leipzig. By now, mind, Mendelssohn was already an old hand at reviving and championing other composers’ masterpieces, famously having conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion ten years earlier.
Was Liszt given a map of Europe, a hairbrush and bottle of scent for his 30th birthday in October 1841? If so, he put them to good use as, two months later, he played the first solo piano recital in a series that would lead to the phenomenon of ‘Lisztomania’. Berlin was his first port of call in a succession of dazzling concerts across the continent that would have listeners astounded by his lightning-speed skills and admirers fainting at the handsome devil’s sheer charisma.
Causing a stir in a different way in May 1913 was the 30-year-old Igor Stravinsky, when the premiere of his Rite of Spring in Paris led to fisticuffs. A clever PR stunt, perhaps? If so, it was a mighty effective one as, with more than 50 years as a composer still ahead of him, the Russian was by now a household name. Not a rich household name, however. Penury would remain his unwanted companion for some years, with significant wealth joining him only later in life.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges
The French capital was also the city in which Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges made his mark in the 1770s. Born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy French plantation owner and an African slave woman, he cut a dash in Parisian society as a young man, impressing with his skills as a swordsman, violinist and composer. In 1776, at the age of 30, he should have reached the peak of his career when he was on the cusp of becoming the new director of the Paris Opéra… but three influential singers had other ideas. Refusing to work for someone of mixed race, the three wrote a letter of complaint to Marie Antoinette, and the Chevalier resigned himself to a life of composing, rather than directing, operas.
Shostakovich was probably quite glad to make it to his 30th birthday on 25 September 1936. This had by no means looked a certainty earlier in the year when Stalin – no lover of discordant music – headed out of the composer’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk before the end. Shostakovich’s equally abrasive Symphony No. 4 was in fact scheduled for its premiere that December but, hoping to reach the grand old age of 31, he wisely tucked it away in a draw and moved onto his more Stalin-friendly Fifth.
Keeping one eye firmly Sovietwards in 1935 was Michael Tippett, who marked turning 30 by joining the British Communist Party. Tippett’s membership would prove to be shortlived, however – twigging that the party’s Stalinist line didn’t match his own Trotskyist ideals, he soon turned his thoughts to the Labour Party instead. A bit of a late starter as a composer, his first published works also date from this year.
We named Tippett one of the best English composers ever
Blessed with a mid-July birthday, Butterworth had probably envisaged holding his 30th party in 1915 on a rolling English lawn, clinking glasses with friends such as Vaughan Williams and conductor Adrian Boult. As it was, he was in northern France, wearing the uniform of a British army officer. On 5 August the following year, a German sniper at the Battle of the Somme ensured that a career that had begun so promisingly with works such as The Banks of Green Willow and the A Shropshire Lad song settings would progress no further.
The years leading up to Alma Mahler’s 30th birthday in August 1909 show little evidence of her putting pen to paper as a composer. This might possibly have something to do with husband Gustav Mahler who, in 1902, wrote to her that ‘The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me; yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner…’ But then, in 1910, Alma’s notes started flowing again. What caused Gustav’s change of heart? Could it have been discovering that she was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and that he might soon be facing the heave-ho? Surely not…
When, in the late-1930s, the artist Xenia Cage saw her twenty-something husband John Cage arrive home from the hardware store with a large box of bolts and screws, she may have hoped he was about to do something useful around the house at last. Some chance. Instead, the composer headed straight for the piano, where he experimented with sticking his new purchases between the strings. By the time he’d reached 30 in September 1942, he had written several compositions for ‘prepared piano’, with many yet to come. Several were written for the dancer Merce Cunningham, with whom John and Xenia would become involved in a ménage à trois. Xenia, though, soon lost patience with the pair of them, and divorced John in 1945.
We named John Cage one of the best American composers of all time
Borodin was another of music’s great experimenters, though of a very different type. At the time of his 30th birthday, the Russian was already a professor of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St Petersburg and a highly respected authority on aldehydes. Composing would always take a bit of a back seat, but a meeting with Balakirev the year before had at least helped to light his creative Bunsen burner. By the time Borodin blew out his 30 candles in November 1863, work on his First Symphony was well under way.
Today, Bruckner’s symphonies have earned him a devoted following, while a further legion of fans will gladly rhapsodise about his lesser-known but equally accomplished masses and other choral works. It all took a long time coming, mind – on reaching 30 in September 1854, the Austrian wielded a portfolio that contained not a single symphony and not a single mass. In fact, he only got round to writing his Symphony No. 1 in his 41st year, and even then would self-critically return to works again and again, significantly revising them. Oh, for the confidence of youth.
Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga
Arriaga would have loved to have celebrated his 30th birthday on 27 January 1836. Even reaching 20 might have been nice. Sadly, the Basque composer’s diary got no further than 17 January 1826. Do the maths. His nickname of ‘the Spanish Mozart’ was, admittedly, stretching it a little – based more on their shared birthday than comparison of talent, one suspects – but works such as his three radiant string quartets suggest that there really was a lot more to come. If only…
BBC Music Magazine's 30th anniversary September 2022 issue – in which our critics choose their favourite 30 recordings of the past 30 years – is on sale now.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.