What Age Did Famous Composers Write Their Most Famous Pieces?
Age is just a number…In the fast paced modern world we live in, we frequenetly find that more and more musicians are putting themselves under unnecessary pressure and holding themselves to obnoxiously high standards. If you’re not a master of something by the time you’re 20, or if you haven’t reached 100,000 instagram followers by now, you’re a failure…Well guess what?
You’re not – And we believe anyone can (and should!) start and master an instrument at any age.
That being said, we thought it would be interesting today to demonstrate the different ages that different composers from across the ages were when they wrote their most ‘famous’ pieces and give you a little more insight on how they were first received…A few might just surprise you!
1) Johann Sebastian Bach – 33 – Cello Suites No.1 (1717)
Instantly recognisable and a beautiful treat for the ear, Bach’s Cello Suites remain some of the most frequently performed and recognizable solo compositions ever written for the cello. Interestingly though, the suites were not widely known before the 1900s (over 150 years AFTER Bach’s death) and for a long time it was generally thought that the pieces were intended to just be studies.
Bach was always destined to be a musical prodigy, his great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. At least 5 of his 20 children at least five became professional composers…it definitely seems like musical prowess ran in the family, so it’s no wonder his music has continued to stand the test of time!
2) Igor Stravinski – 31 – The Rite of Spring (1913)
Every so often, instant hits come about and Russian-born composer Stravinski’s The Rite Of Spring was once such example. When first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on 29 May 1913, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation throughout the city. Many have called the first-night reaction a “riot” or “near-riot”, it was even reported: “Never … has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”.
Unlike Bach however, Stravinski was destined to be a musical prodigy from birth. He actually studied law and philosophy at St. Petersburg University, and only gradually did he become aware of his vocation for musical composition. It wasn’t until 1902 when he showed some of his early pieces to the composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who was sufficiently impressed to agree to take Stravinsky as a private pupil. The rest, as they say, was history!
3) Ludwig van Beethoven – 31 – Piano Sonata No.14 (1801)
Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his 32 Piano Sonatas between 1795 and 1822. Although originally not intended to be a meaningful whole, as a set, they comprise one of the most important collections of works in the history of music. Hans von Bülow called them “The New Testament” of the piano literature. That’s a lot of live up to! During this period however, it was not all smooth sailing for Beethoven, who continued to suffer with his developing deafness. Despite his hearing becoming progressively impaired, he still played in the houses of the nobility, and continued to perform in public until he was 44 or 45 when he became totally deaf and was unable to converse unless he passed written notes back and forth to his colleagues, visitors and friends.
4) Wolfgang Armadeus Mozart – 35 – Requiem, K.626 (1791)
Perhaps the most tragic of all. Mozart’s Requiem actually remained unfinished at his death at the young age of just 35 following a case of severe miliary fever. The piece remains one of his most popular to this day.
Mozart’s early talent for music was remarkable. At three it was said he was picking out chords on the harpsichord, at four playing short pieces, at five composing. There are anecdotes about his precise memory of pitch, about his scribbling a concerto at the age of just five. (Fun fact, he was also afraid of the trumpet at this age!). By 13 Mozart had acquired considerable fluency in the musical language of his time, and he was especially adept at imitating the musical equivalent of local dialects.
5) Claude Debussy – 43 – Suite Bergamasque (1905)
A great example of how things only get sweeter with age, Debussy’s career was long and extensive but his piece de resistance, Suite Bermasque was not written until he was 43. Interestingly though, he actually began composing it around 1890, at the age of 28, but significantly revised it just before its 1905 publication. Sometimes perfection only comes over time, in this case 15 years worth!
6) Gustav Mahler – 42 – Symphony No. 5 (1902)
Mahler was an Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer, and one of the leading conductors of his generation. His Symphony No.5 stands as a great example of how things are not always instantly received well. Upon the first premier of Symphony No. 5, Mahler is reported to have said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.” The peice now remains one of the most well received of his entire composition discography.
7) György Ligeti – 28 – Musica Ricercata No.7 (1953)
Described as “One of the most important avant-garde composers in the latter half of the twentieth century” and “One of the most innovative and influential among progressive figures of his time”, Ligeti continued to amaze audiences with his experimental projects Musica Ricercata being his most prestiged. The piece marks a renewal of Ligeti’s musical thinking primarily on terms of the compositional technique and remains an incredible important piece for composers and pianists the world over.
8) Richard Wagner – 43 – Ride of The Valkyries (1856)
Instantly recognisable, the Ride of the Valkyries or Walkürenritt or Ritt der Walküren as it’s known in German refers to the beginning of act 3 of Die Walküre, the second of the four operas constituting Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The piece was an instant hit and Wagner frequently receive drequests for separate performances of the song during his other performances. He himself conducted it in London on 12 May 1877, repeating it as an encore. After hearing the first few notes, it’s easy to see why the piece is still so iconic to this day!
9) Maurice Ravel – 24 – Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte (1899)
Now we return the territory of the young prodigy. Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte being written at the age of just 24 does tie far closer in with the standards of today’s ‘pop star’ movement. But as we can see, he is the minority. However, once again, the piece actually little impact initially: Pavane pour une infante défunte had a mixed reception, with boos mingling with applause from the audience, and unflattering reviews from the critics. One report described the piece as “Ajolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School” and that ravelcalled Ravel was “mediocrely gifted debutant … who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard”
Ravel remained unmoved by these criticisms however and the only opinion of his music that he truly valued was his own, perfectionist and severely self-critical. Even the greatest musicians of all time are self critical!
10) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – 36 – Swan Lake (1876)
Our final stop is a great one. You think ballet, you think Tchaikovsky. The Russian composer was the 19th century’s true master of dance music. It’s remarkable, then, that when Swan Lake was premiered in 1877, the reception it garnered was ‘lukewarm at best’. During early performances, many considered it to be far too complicated for ballet and it was labelled “too noisy, too ‘Wagnerian’ and too symphonic.” The critics also thought Reisinger’s choreography was “unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.” Yikes!
…But if anything, this only helps prove that just because a piece may not be recieved well at initial launch, it can still stand the test of time and become one of the most famous Ballets and compositions of all time!
Of course there are countless other musical masters of composition that we haven’t touched on here, but we hope this is a varied enough list to show our view that age remains just a number. If your passion is there, we want to help you find it. So whether you’re a young musician just beginning your musical journey, or a seasoned veteran who is still looking to inspire the masses, don’t hold yourself to such pressure. As you can see, many of these musicians didn’t write their best pieces until the end of their lives, or even after their life came to an end!
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