A comfortable retirement, free of work and with acres of leisure time available. Something we all aspire to, right? Not quite, it seems, especially if you happen to be a classical musician. Composers have a particularly difficult time packing away their manuscript paper. Rossini and Verdi both tried but failed, the latter returning in his 70s to write Otello and Falstaff. Performers can also find it hard to step away from the ‘garish lights’ (Dickens’s coinage) of the concert platform, and it’s not rare to see sprightly young 70- or 80-somethings stepping onto the stage.

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Some press on even further, still working enthusiastically into their 90s – such as pianist Ruth Slenczynska who, at 97, has just recorded a new album for Deccca. Here, then, are 15 of Slenczynska’s fellow nonagenarians for whom the buzz of creativity is too pleasurable to relinquish.

Which musicians kept playing well into their 90s?

1 Herbert Blomstedt

Who is the most dynamic Beethoven conductor alive today? The New Yorker recently cast its vote for the 94-year-old Herbert Blomstedt, citing a performance of the Seventh Symphony with ‘a frothing energy that bordered on animal joy’. Where does the Swedish musician acquire his vim and vigour? Being teetotal and a lifelong non-smoker possibly helps. But mainly it’s being ‘hopelessly in love with music’ that spurs him on. Chicago, Leipzig, Vienna, Berlin and London are all on his calling-card in the next few months. Quite the lead-in to July’s 95th birthday celebrations.

2 Pablo Casals

Unlike Blomstedt, the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals loved smoking, sometimes playing with a pipe in his mouth. His performing career spanned an incredible 84 years, including recitals for Queen Victoria and in John F Kennedy’s White House. Also a composer and conductor, at 94 years old he led his Himne a les Nacions Unides at the UN General Assembly, and continued playing until shortly before his death two years later. ‘Be young all your life,’ he advised. ‘And say things to the world that are true.’

3 Andrés Segovia

Segovia was also a keen pipe smoker. More importantly, he revolutionised perceptions of the guitar, establishing it as a ‘serious’ classical instrument. The Spaniard performed well into his nineties, although results could be unpredictable. ‘The legendary fingers would obey him only intermittently,’ one reviewer wrote of a 1984 concert. But Segovia carried on until he was 94, defying poor eyesight and increasing physical frailty. Why? ‘I will have an eternity to rest,’ he retorted.

4 Menahem Pressler

Over half a century, Menahem Pressler’s Beaux Arts Trio acquired iconic status, and when it finally disbanded in 2008 the German pianist might easily have slipped quietly into a well-earned retirement. Not a bit of it. At 84, he relaunched his career as a solo pianist. Aged 90, he made a belated debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and recorded CDs of Mozart and Debussy. Even life-saving surgery in 2015 couldn’t stop him. ‘Still I think about what I have done, what I could do,’ he says. ‘And what I will do.’

5 Thea Musgrave

Similar thoughts are in Scottish composer Thea Musgrave’s mind as she approaches her 94th birthday. Not content with ten operas already in the bag, she’s working on an eleventh – Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel. Three hours every morning, seven days a week, is her schedule. ‘During the lockdown it has kept me sane,’ she says. ‘I have my imagination, which can go where it wants.’

6 Elliott Carter

Musgrave has for many years lived in the US, where Mr and Mrs Elliott Carter were frequent dinner companions. A king of compositional longevity, Carter wrote his first opera at 90, and its title – What Next? – was clearly a question he was still asking himself on a daily basis. He went on to publish 60 more pieces before his death in 2012, aged 103. He knew some found his music ‘difficult’, but it kept on drawing admirers. ‘I’ll be damned if I know why I write all that music that people like,’ he said. ‘That some people like, anyhow.’

7 George Walker

‘Keep going’ was the advice given to Carter’s fellow US composer George Walker by his teacher Nadia Boulanger. He needed it. His career as a pianist was seriously impeded ‘because I was black’, and it was difficult to get his own music programmed. Nevertheless he persisted, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for his Lilacs in 1996. ‘I strongly felt if I continued to press for what I hoped to achieve, I would achieve it,’ he once said. He wrote his last work in 2016, aged 94.

8 Havergal Brian

In 1927, Havergal Brian added the final touches to his vast Symphony No. 1, ‘The Gothic’. So huge were its demands, however, that the work did not receive its professional debut until 1966, eight months after the English composer had celebrated his 90th birthday. Even at that age, he had by no means finished writing symphonies – of his total of 32, seven were yet to be written. An often cantankerous type, his doggedness nonetheless attracted fervent followers. Not many composers, one writer commented, could claim to have been writing ‘at the same time as both Brahms and Elton John’.

9 Leopold Stokowski

When Stokowski conducted the premiere of Brian’s 28th Symphony in 1973, it was probably the first ever example of ‘a 91-year-old conductor learning a new work by a 91-year-old composer’, as one observer put it. The London-born Stokowski had sealed his fame in the US, conducting the soundtrack for Disney’s Fantasia. Aged 90, he returned to England, showing an undimmed appetite for performing and, as The Guardian reported, ‘conveying his fire, his authority with the urgency of a man half a century younger’.

10 Neville Marriner

Like Stokowski, Neville Marriner conducted a best-selling movie soundtrack (1984’s Amadeus), and performed into his nineties. As an orchestral violinist he played under legendary maestros such as Furtwängler, Monteux and Toscanini before he started ‘twitching around’ on the podium himself. In his trademark turtleneck pullover, he proved a hugely successful ‘twitcher’, making more records with his Academy of St Martin in the Fields than any other conductor-orchestra partnership. He disliked high-falutin descriptions of conducting, describing it as ‘not very difficult’. No wonder, then, that ‘Follow the beat’ was his chosen epitaph.

11 Fanny Waterman

Fanny Waterman, by contrast, was more used to people following her beat. An acclaimed pianist in early life, in 1961 she founded the Leeds International Piano Competition, building it into one of classical music’s most prestigious competitions. Her energy and can-do attitude were legendary. ‘They call me Field Marshal Fanny,’ she said. ‘I am a busy breeches.’ Waterman left ‘The Leeds’ aged 95, later claiming she’d been forced out by management: ‘I didn’t think it was the right time. I wanted to be there forever.’

12 Mieczysław Horszowski

In 1972, the Polish pianist Mieczysław Horszowski phoned Fanny Waterman to tell her that his pupil Murray Perahia would win that year’s Leeds competition. Perahia did. Horszowski himself spent an incredible nine decades performing in public, being ‘one of the outstanding cases where a child prodigy grew unflaggingly into a great musician’, as Pablo Casals put it. Aged nine, Horszowski played Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in Warsaw, and 90 years later gave his final recital in Philadelphia. ‘Age to me is but a relative thing,’ he said. ‘It is nothing so profound.’

13 Ivry Gitlis

‘According to the rules I should be dead by now,’ said Ivry Gitlis on turning 90. ‘But I don’t feel like it!’ The Israeli violinist was a free spirit, as happy collaborating with Yoko Ono, Stéphane Grappelli and François Truffaut as he was on a conventional recital platform. Even confinement to a wheelchair couldn’t stop him playing. Aged 96, he was pushed onstage in Tel Aviv by conductor Zubin Mehta and performed for half an hour with pianist Martha Argerich. It was one of his last appearances.

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14 Al Gallodoro

Saxophonist and clarinettist Al Gallodoro was a kindred crossover spirit. He started as a jazzman in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and claimed he’d performed the famous clarinet glissando launching Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue over 10,000 times in his career. He also had classical chops aplenty, playing bass clarinet in Toscanini’s famed NBC Symphony Orchestra. Described by bandleader Jimmy Dorsey as ‘the best sax player who ever lived’, Gallodoro gave his last concert just two weeks before he died, aged 95, in 2008.

15 Earl Wild

Pianist Earl Wild had Gershwin connections too. He played Rhapsody in Blue under Toscanini, and composed elaborate keyboard pieces based on his fellow American’s music. But it’s as a ‘super-virtuoso in the Horowitz class’ that he is best remembered, excelling in Liszt and Rachmaninov. Quadruple-bypass surgery threatened to end his career in 2004, but a year later he bounced back in an acclaimed Carnegie Hall recital three days after his 90th birthday. ‘After I had my operation I decided I wasn’t going to stop playing,’ he said. ‘Why live if you can’t play when you’ve done it all your life?’

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Illustration: David Lyttleton

Authors

Terry BlainJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Terry Blain is a classical music journalist and broadcaster, writing for BBC Music Magazine, Opera magazine, Star Tribune, Culture NI et al.