Fifteen composers at 30 | Classical music
At some point in the next couple of weeks we’ll be heading to a place in Bristol that serves good beer and raises a pint or two to 30s of BBC Music Magazine. It’s 378 issues, 46,872 pages (or thereabouts) and God knows how many words and pictures in the box. But before we go slapping ourselves collectively on the back, perhaps we should put our success in context with a look back at history. At the time of their 30th birthday, where have some of the best-known composers reached in their life journey? Here are 15 notable examples…
By the time he reached his 30th birthday on January 27, 1786, Mozart had already accumulated, among many other works, 37 symphonies, 22 piano concertos, 19 string quartets and a handful of operas. And for his 31st year, he had something special up his sleeve: Figaro’s wedding. The opera was widely appreciated when first performed in Vienna, with Haydn declaring himself a big fan and the Wiener Realzeitungenthused that “It contains so much beauty, and such a wealth of ideas, that one can only draw from the source of innate genius”. Today, many would still consider it the greatest opera of all time.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven spent much of his time at age 30 bathed in the glow of C sharp minor, as he worked on his Moonlight Sonata. C sharp? No problem. Can you hear loud? This, alas, turned out to be more problematic. While it will be a year later (1802) that he will write his Heiligenstadt Testament exposing his despair at the onset of deafness, another correspondence shows that he had begun to notice it as early as his late twenties. With his first symphony just completed and the other eight yet to begin, it’s safe to assume he didn’t hear any of them with crystal clarity.
At least Beethoven still had over 26 years to live. For Schubert, his 30th birthday in January 1827 was his penultimate. Living in the shadow of syphilis, he composed his fatal work Winterreise for voice and piano, in which a young man sets out from outside his former love’s house and plods away through the snow and, it seems, into oblivion. The darkest of journeys, masterfully narrated.
It was not until March 1839, more than a decade after his death, that Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, “the Great”, had its first performance. It was thanks to Robert Schumann and Felix, 30, that he did it. Mendelssohn – after the former had discovered the score in Vienna, the latter undertook to rehearse it and conduct it in Leipzig. By now, remember, Mendelssohn was already a regular at reviving and promoting the masterpieces of other composers, having notably conducted Bach Passion according to Saint Matthew ten years earlier.
Has been Liszt given a map of Europe, a hairbrush and a bottle of perfume for his 30th birthday in October 1841? If so, he put them to good use since, two months later, he gave the first solo piano recital in a series that would lead to the phenomenon of “Lisztomania”. Berlin was his first stop in a succession of dazzling gigs across the continent that would have stunned listeners with his lightning-fast skills and swooned admirers at the handsome devil’s sheer charisma.
Igor, 30, caused a stir in a different way in May 1913. Stravinskyat the premiere of his Rite of Spring in Paris resulted in punches. A clever publicity stunt, perhaps? If so, it was very effective because, with over 50 years as a composer ahead of him, the Russian was now a household name. Not a wealthy household name, though. Scarcity would remain his unwanted companion for a few years, with significant wealth not joining him until later in life.
Knight of St. George
The French capital was also the city in which Joseph Bologna, Knight of St. George made his mark in the 1770s. Born in Guadeloupe to a wealthy French plantation owner and an African slave, he established himself in Parisian society as a young man, impressing with his skills as a swordsman, violinist and composer. In 1776, at age 30, he should have reached the peak of his career as he was about to become the new director of the Paris Opera… but three influential singers had other ideas. Refusing to work for someone of mixed race, the three write a letter of complaint to Marie Antoinette, and the knight resigns himself to a life of composing rather than conducting operas.
Shostakovich was probably very happy to celebrate his 30th birthday on September 25, 1936. That had by no means seemed a certainty earlier in the year when Stalin – not a lover of discordant music – left the composer. Lady Macbeth of Mzensk before the end. Shostakovich’s equally abrasive Symphony No. 4 was actually slated for its premiere in December but, hoping to reach the age of 31, he wisely put it away in a raffle and moved on to its fifth plus. favorable to Stalin.
Keeping an eye firmly on the USSR in 1935, Michael Tippet, who marked his 30th birthday by joining the British Communist Party. However, Tippett’s membership was to prove short-lived – perceiving that the party’s Stalinist line did not match his own Trotskyist ideals, he quickly turned his thoughts to the Labor Party instead. A little late as a composer, his first published works also date from this year.
Blessed with a mid-July birthday, Butterworth had probably considered throwing his 30th party in 1915 on a rolling English lawn, toasting with friends such as Vaughan Williams and bandleader Adrian Boult. In fact, he was in northern France, wearing the uniform of a British Army officer. On August 5 of the following year, a German sniper at the Battle of the Somme assures that a career that began so promisingly with works such as The banks of the green willow and the A boy from Shropshire the song settings would not progress any further.
The years before Alma MahlerHer 30th birthday in August 1909 shows little evidence that she put pen to paper as a composer. This may have something to do with her husband Gustav who, in 1902, wrote to her: “The role of the composer, the role of the worker, falls to me; yours is that of a loving companion and an understanding partner…” But then, in 1910, Alma’s notes began circulating again. What caused Gustav to change his mind? Could he have discovered that she was having an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and that he could soon face an uprising? Surely not…
When, in the late 1930s, artist Xenia Cage saw her twentysomething husband John Cage came home from the hardware store with a large box of bolts and screws, maybe she was hoping he was about to finally do something useful around the house. A chance. Instead, the composer headed straight for the piano, where he experimented by sticking his new purchases between the strings. By the time he had turned 30 in September 1942, he had written several compositions for “prepared piano”, with many still to come. Several were written for the dancer Merce Cunningham, with whom John and Xenia will become involved in a threesome. Xenia, however, soon lost patience with them and divorced John in 1945.
Borodin was another of the great experimenters in music, though of a very different type. By the time of his 30th birthday, the Russian was already a professor of chemistry at the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg and a highly respected authority on aldehydes. Composing was always a little behind, but a meeting with Balakirev the previous year had at least helped to ignite his creative Bunsen burner. By the time Borodin celebrated his 30th birthday in November 1863, work on his First Symphony was well advanced.
Today, brucknerHis symphonies have won a devoted following, while another legion of fans will happily rejoice in his lesser-known but equally accomplished Masses and other choral works. All this was a long time coming, remember – when he turned 30 in September 1854, the Austrian brandished a portfolio that contained not a single symphony or a single mass. In fact, he did not begin writing his Symphony No. 1 until his 41st year, and even then he would self-critically return to the works again and again, revising them significantly. Oh, for the confidence of young people.
Juan Crisostomo Arriaga
Arriaga would have loved to turn 30 on January 27, 1836. Even turning 20 might have been nice. Unfortunately, the Basque composer’s diary went no further than January 17, 1826. Do the math. His moniker “Spanish Mozart” was, admittedly, a stretch – based more on their joint anniversary than comparison of talents, one suspects – but works such as his three radiant string quartets suggest that there really was many more to come. If only…
BBC Music Magazine 30th Anniversary September 2022 issue – in which our critics choose their 30 favorite recordings from the past 30 years – is on sale now.