Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Live Long and Prosper- Or Compose

As the Principal quartet of the KSO rehearses Beethoven’s op. 95 quartet for its April concerts, I am pondering the term “late Beethoven,” a style period of which his op. 95 is a bellwether. The term conjures up images of an old man sitting at the piano, inspired by ideas that only old age can foster. But then I think about it, and realize that even his last works were composed when he was not much older than me! The quartet we are playing dates from his 40th year.

Then I got to thinking about how tragically short some of the great composers' lives were. Franz Schubert died at 31, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39, Mozart at 35, Bizet at 37, Stephen Foster at 38 and Gershwin at 39. The mind boggles at the thought of 600 works by Mozart written during a 25-year composing career, and 600 songs by Schubert, written in roughly 16 years. The truth is however, according to a JSTOR Population Council report, that average GLOBAL life expectancy around 1800 was actually around 29 years. So as tragic as it sounds, these composers actually beat the odds.

So Beethoven’s death at 57 may only seem premature to us now because we are so used to seeing people thriving and in their prime at that age these days. Many other composers died in their 50s, among them Tchaikovsky (53), Mahler (51), Glinka (53), Respighi (57), Debussy (56), and Borodin (54).

The eldest composers are a mixed bag. Elliott Carter is widely regarded as the longest lived composer ever, having recently died about a month short of his 104th birthday. But to find the next contestant, you have to go back to 1623, when the early baroque keyboard composer Jan Adam Reinken was born, (although there is some controversy about this- some authorities now say it was 1643, although that would mean that he was appointed organist at Bergkherke in Deventer, Germany at age 14. Hmmmmmm...) He lived until 1722; regardless of when he was born, either 99 or 79 was a long life in those days.

Other notable elders were Sibelius (1865-1957, although he wrote very little in the last 30 years of his life), Verdi (1813-1901; his magnificent Requiem will be performed here in April), Stravinsky (1882-1971; I can’t wait for the Rite of Spring to close our Masterworks season!), Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Messaien (1909-1992), Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Kodaly (1882-1967), Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), and Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521). It would appear that the French have the edge as a whole in longevity, although two French composers met untimely and somewhat unusual demises. Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally struck his foot with the staff (used to bang out the beat on the floor) with which he was conducting, dying of gangrene shortly thereafter at age 55, and Ernest Chausson (as you may remember from the Principal quartet concert from last April) was killed in a bicycle accident in 1899 at the age of 44.

Well, if the secret of a long life is to get enough sleep, then it’s time for me to go. Tomorrow I’ll try and find out what Elliott Carter had for breakfast all those years.

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