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The authors of this slim book (108 pages of text) have chosen a deeply interesting subject – aging and creativity – and harnessed it to the individual cases of four composers. They write in their conclusion: ‘as we have seen with both Britten and Strauss, some composers have to keep creating, for it is essential to their identities. Others need to extend themselves at the end: Messiaen chose to compose his first opera ….’ Offenbach also is cited – though he is not one of the featured composers – choosing to write his own first serious opera at the end of a life of operetta.

The sheer physical hardships involved are vividly illustrated by Messiaen, re his work on St Francis: ‘I had to write on sheets with 72 staves, thus i could only work standing. The huge sheets were spread out across the table, with me standing before it, the double bass in my stomach and the piccolo at the other side of the table. Half lying on the table, for years; I was literally finished.’

Britten, who died at only 63, was for several years seriously restricted by ill-health and was forced to adapt. As we read on page 107: ‘All four composers, as they aged, remained creative in their own individual ways: no single theory … suffices to characterise their last years and works.’ We may also dispense with the all-purpose cliché ‘autumnal’ – ‘for every somber Four Last Songs there is a joyous Falstaff’.

Another major problem which encumbers many famous but aging composers is public expectation. How was Sibelius – briefly discussed on pages 100-102 – to deal with ‘the commissioner [of his never-completed eighth symphony], the two orchestras that had first-performance rights, but also legions of journalists, music critics, and even ordinary fans from all over the world’? Another aspect covered by this engrossing book is composers’ self-awareness of their individual ‘life narrative’. How do they see their life’s work? Perhaps close to the end, do they intend a summation, or – in the case of Verdi or Messiaen – take a surprising new direction?

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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