The Music of Youth and Age


Which is more miraculous: Great music by a precocious pre-teen, or great music by a master well into his 80s? That's tough to answer, since a charming minuet by a 7-year-old Mozart is as difficult to fathom as a glorious Psalm composed by 86-year-old Heinrich Schűtz back in 1671. In this inspiring Active Minds presentation, we'll sample mature-sounding works penned by Beethoven, Rossini, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others before they were old enough to shave, and we'll bask in the serene beauty of autumnal masterworks by such octogenarians as Verdi, Vaughan Williams and Strauss. As baseball great Satchel Paige observed, "Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter."


To put into perspective the amazing music by youthful composers from centuries past, consider that lifespans then weren't what they are these days. A sense of urgency occupied every creative person. Did Mozart, Schubert and so many others realize they'd never make it to 40? Of course not -- but it seems that way, considering the huge amount of music they hurriedly set down during their tragically short lives. But then, how to explain a mature-sounding Mozart symphony written at age 8? You can't -- unless you remember that childhood back in the old days did not consist of sitting in classrooms, bored to distraction while waiting for recess at school, and then running through the sprinklers, playing with friends and watching TV the rest of the time. Back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, male children were prepared for life in the real world from an early age (young girls meanwhile were prepared for life as mothers and homemakers): For musically promising boys, there were daily studies at home in Latin and mathematics, Biblical readings, music lessons with a parent or relative and the prospect of being sent off for serious lessons if a major talent was evident. The American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk left New Orleans alone for studies in Paris when he was 13. Beethoven set out for Vienna, alone, at 17, hoping to study with Mozart. For most untalented young boys, apprenticeship with Dad in his business, or with a nearby merchant, was the usual course. Mozart, as is well-known, was born to a musically talented father and equally gifted sister -- but even there, young Wolfgang quickly displayed abilities far beyond anyone's expectations. Most composers-to-be were not so lucky. Beethoven's father was a middling professional singer, Brahms' papa played several instruments but none very well. Schubert's father, too, played a little piano, but young Franz was blessed with a lovely singing voice, which sent him off into a musical career at age 11. Those composers had to struggle learning their art, facing early indifference from audiences and critics. Still, their early works brim with mind-boggling flashes of genius. On the other hand, a composer who was lucky enough to live into old age -- and who could see and hear and think with clarity -- seems far easier to comprehend. American composer Elliot Carter passed away in 2012 at age 103, having written 14 works after he turned 100! It's no great shock to learn that Verdi, Strauss and Vaughan Williams (who all lived into the 20th Century) wrote music in their 80s. But it's astonishing to hear their later, richly complex works and to feel a sense of worldliness that crept into these autumnal masterpieces. Equally amazing is the music of 17th-Century composers Heinrich Schűtz and Claudio Monteverdi, who not only beat the odds by living long lives, but who were able to create consistently glorious music when their contemporaries, who mostly became feeble "senior citizens" since their 50s and 60s, battled the ever-present threat of illness, disease and plague. Music of the young and not-so-young will continue to astonish, as those compositions inspire us to examine our own lives: how most of us wasted our childhood, and how we can best use the time given in our sunset years.

Exploration Questions

  • Which youthful composers already found their "sound" in early works?
  • Are there works by young composers that do sound childlike or immature?
  • Similarly, can you recognize in compositions by music's elder statesman an air of worldliness, serenity or resignation?

Reflective Questions

  • What would music by an old-age Mozart or Schubert sound like? Would they have changed their styles to match the changes in 19th-Century music?
  • Which do you enjoy more: music by young composers, or by veteran music-makers?
  • Do you identify more with works by older composers, if you happen to be getting up there yourself?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Schonberg, Harold C. The Lives of the Great Composers. W.W. Norton & Co. 1997. 653 pages. Individual chapters on music's masters combine with groupings divided by nationality or musical style, combined with highly readable prose, make this a must-read.
    Click here to order