I can imagine that the story of Richard White has warmed the heart of many a middle-aged (and older) composer. White has just had his 900-page opera selected for a workshop performance at the National Opera Center Recital Hall in Manhattan. The work, entitled Hester and based upon The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne was written in spare moments at home and whilst working as a security guard at Columbia University from 1991. It marks his composing debut. Richard White is 82.
Music-lovers have long been obsessed with precocious talent, constantly on the lookout for the next Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Prokofiev. I agree that young composers should be supported, encouraged and even celebrated. But could we not do a bit more to support older composers too?
I spend hours each month compiling composer opportunities here at Composition:Today. I would say that perhaps a third of these are limited by age. The point at which you are considered too old varies but, basically, by the time you are 40 all of these competitions are off-limits. And the problems don’t end there.
Often a competition rubric will require that a piece must have been written recently, usually within the last five to ten years. My guess is that there are many middle-aged composers who have been through the system, maybe churned out some major works, but have now, essentially, stopped composing because they have lost contact with decent performers and aren’t sure what to do next. It takes a certain type of heroism to continue to write when no-one wants your music any more. Some, like Richard White, manage it. Others just give up.
My worry here is two-fold. Firstly, our competitions are not helping us to unearth these forgotten older works, some of which might even be masterpieces. Secondly, and more obviously, we are not unearthing the talent that went into making them. Like Janáček (pictured), whose premiere of Jenůfa at the age of 62 established his reputation, there must surely be a few older composers worth reanimating before it is too late?