January 2003

Late Starters

by John Fosbrook




spnm only works with young composers": that’s the most common mistake people make about the spnm. It's absolutely true to say that we promote composers at the start of their careers, but this doesn't mean they have to be twenty-somethings fresh out of college. In fact, the average age of the spnm shortlist is 35, and rising. An increasing number of composers are starting out later in life, and very successfully too – the 2000 and 2001 winners of the Butterworth Award, Terry Mann (pictured) and Hywel Davies, both started composing seriously after their thirtieth birthdays, having pursued different careers within music.

Why the late start? Some composers have said that when attending higher education establishments in the 1970s and 1980s, they felt they were forced to compose in a certain style, i.e. high modernism. Being decidedly turned off by this they abandoned composition, turning to it again only in recent years, in a different cultural (and educational) climate where it seems more acceptable to write tonal music, to draw on jazz and pop influences.

spnm shortlisted composer Clement Jewitt started composing at the age of 45, having worked as an arranger. He has been collating experiences of composers who began composing in earnest later in life, and has come across a variety of reasons for being a late starter. There are, for example, (mostly female) composers who studied composition at an early age, but put their careers on hold to have a family. (If you would like to contribute, you can email Clement Jewitt at )

What unites the "late starters" is their frustration with the lack of opportunities for older composers, and what they see as the reluctance of the musical establishment to even acknowledge their exist-ence. They are particularly outraged by the fact that there are so many competitions and opportunities that carry an upper age limit, usually in the range of 30 to 35.

One composer writes: "I was 30 years old before I started writing music with any seriousness. Of course by this time I was already too old for many of the competitions and opportunities around… I'm now thirty-nine and was bemused to receive the invitation via e-mail for the second Genesis Prize with new rules and a cut-off age of…thirty-five. I am informed, in the rules, that they are looking for "original, inventive and skilled work that speaks to a contemporary audience".

Obviously I am too old to write anything like that, or perhaps I am too established as a composer now to be eligible to apply; my age of course means that I am more experienced, successful and less in need of an opportunity like this than, say, Thomas Ades. How do the organisers decide that age is a guide to anything? There is a lot of excellent music being created by unknown composers of all ages. If this misguided obsession with "youth culture" is allowed to go too far, perhaps we can look forward to the days of contemporary music being nothing more than a branch of the pop or light entertainment industry that speaks fluently to a contemporary audience in the language of soaps, daytime TV and Pop Idol."

I asked the organisers of composer competitions why they stipulate an age limit. Harriet Capaldi is administrator for the Genesis Opera Project, run by the Genesis Foundation. She writes:

"The Genesis Foundation has chosen to work with a particular sector of the composing (and playwriting and performing) community, i.e. those at the start of their careers. The kind of support it gives - business advice, marketing, press representation - is particularly appropriate for young artists, who need a first leg-up into the professional world…

When Genesis devised the opera project, it acknowledged that 26 (the cut-off age for the Royal Court Young Writer's Festival, also supported by the Foundation) is indeed too young for an opera project and pushed the age limit up to 40. This was partly to acknowledge the later development of opera composers, and partly to ensure as many applications as possible in the inaugural prizes. The first prizes showed the Foundation that most applicants and shortlistees were in the 25-33 age limit and that there were enough of that group applying to justify lowering the limit to 35 and under, an age more consistent with the profile of the rest of the Foundation's activities. The age limit is emphatically not a value judgement about the freshness and originality of the work - it is an attempt to encourage composers to consider seriously the idea of a career as an opera composer right at the beginning of their professional lives."

Rosemary Johnson of the Royal Philharmonic Society gives a different reason for an age limit: "The RPS has very limited resources but has chosen to put as many of these as possible into the support and performance of new music. The RPS Composition Prize is only one of a range of ways we help composers of all ages - we sponsor the Philharmonia Music of Today and the Huddersfield Festival; we commission, and through the RPS Music Awards we bring recognition to the best new works of the year.

The RPS Composition Prize was set up in the 1940s by a gift from Dr Thomas Wood whose original intention was to award two prizes: one to students at the RCM and one to those at the RAM. This was later expanded to include the other major conservatoires. In 1997, after dialogue with the Charity Commission, the Society was able to expand the eligibility for the prize to the limits of the original intention by raising the age limit to 29 and including anyone who had studied at a university or conservatoire. At this point the performance part of the prize was also introduced.

The prize was conceived as a stepping stone from studenthood to a professional career in composition and as such, and in the light of the other opportunities we offer, we feel the parameters are still valid."

Emphasising their commitment to composers of all ages, the Royal Philharmonic Society has also recently announced the launch of the Elgar Bursary. This unique award was set up with the specific intention of supporting the work of mature composers by providing financial support to allow for the creation of a new work. Anthony Payne, who chairs the Elgar Bursary Committee, says: "Life as a composer can be a particularly bumpy ride. At the start of the journey, there are a number of awards and bursaries available which help smooth the way for talented younger composers. However, to a large degree, older composers are left to navigate their own way: a process which I know from experience can be particularly tough, and not always conducive to the creative process. The Elgar Bursary has, therefore, been instituted specifically to offer much needed additional support to mature composers and assist the continuing development of their work."

We're getting older as a society, and this throws up challenges for many sectors of that society to deal with. The pensions "time bomb" is a familiar issue that many governments are aiming to address, but this increasing number of late-starting composers is something for the new music community to take note of. The oldies are coming...

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Previous articles:

October 2002
Internet Audio Experiments

September 2002
Letting Go or Taking Control

July 2002
"He just does education work..."

June 2002
New for Old

April 2002
In Search of Kurtag

March 2002
Back to School

January 2002
spnm in 2002

December 2001
There's no word in Finnish for workshop

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
from start to finish - composing for dance

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
The end of the season

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
The ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
Into the next century...

November 1999
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October 1999
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September 1999
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July 1999
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