In praise of great old composers
Like many other demanding endeavors, classical composing is primarily a young person's game. For every composer who flourished into vigorous old age, I could give you several who did their best work before what we would now regard as middle age. And then there are the all too many examples of composers of brilliance deprived of their later years by premature death.
Today, however, as we mark on WFCR the birth anniversary of one of classical's great old men, let's also celebrate composers who produced masterful music into their eighth, ninth, tenth and, incredibly, eleventh decades. See how many you can identify from their likenesses, starting up top with our birthday composer, who brought the fresh breeze of folksong (along with a whiff of French impressionism) to English music in the early 20th century, and was still composing at 85. The answers, by the way, can be found by clicking on the highlighted text in each composer's description.
Next, a pair of near-namesakes who also qualify as the two greatest Italian opera composers of all time. The one on the left, who entered the world at a time when the renaissance musical style still prevailed, helped usher in the baroque with his madrigals, sacred works and three surviving operas, the last and greatest of them premiered in his 77th and final year. To his right is a hero of the mid-19th century Italian risorgimento who came out of retirement in his late 70s to compose two vigorous Shakespearean masterpieces.
Next we see two members of the exclusive club of composers equally renowned for both operatic and instrumental works. On the left is a one-time provincial minor master who, after a mid-career stylistic shift, and fueled by a late-life sexual infatuation, created from his 50s through his 70s a string of seeringly passionate works that brought him belated international acclaim. On the right is a composer who enjoyed his first successes in his 20s, lived long enough to see the world he knew destroyed by fascism and war, and as an octogenarian, capped off his career with music of rare autumnal beauty.
Finally, two of the eldest statesman of classical composition. To the left, we find the kind of eccentric that the English seem to have patented, an ex-civil servant who in 24 years of retirement, ending with his death at 96, and despite a dearth of performances, composed 27 Symphonies and other major works. To the right, there's the American composer whose dauntingly complex works have attracted the following of many important performers -- and who is still at it as he approaches his 103rd birthday. Doesn't he look like the most youthful of the bunch?
P.S. Did I leave out your favorite golden oldie? Don't despair. Don't rail. Comment! Remember, we're looking for composers who did not just live into old age (e.g., Sibelius), but continued to produce the goods.