There’s a lot of talk of child prodigies in classical music. Perhaps the best-known anecdotes are about Mozart, who famously began composing at age 4 and had 10 symphonies under his belt by 12. But plenty of composers didn’t reach musical maturity or find mainstream success until much later in life.
There’s no denying that practicing a skill since toddlerhood has huge advantages, but there is no age limit on discovering the joy of creating music. So if you’re a full-grown adult and would like to try writing your Opus No. 1, look to these composers for some inspiration:
Though Czech composer Leoš Janáček studied music as a young man, it wasn’t until he was more than 60 years old that he wrote his most meaningful works and found fame as a composer. It was largely a matter of timing: Czechoslovakia’s newfound independence in 1918 and Janáček’s love for Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years younger, resulted in a burst of musical creativity for the composer.
Above is the overture to Káťa Kabanová, which was dedicated to Stösslová and is often considered Janáček’s first mature opera. It debuted in 1921, when Janáček was 67.
Anton Bruckner dedicated his early life to teaching and playing the organ, but he didn’t begin seriously composing until age 37. Widespread recognition as a composer didn’t come until after the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1884, when he was 60.
Following in the footsteps of his attorney father (who did not approve of a career in music for his son), Emmanuel Chabrier studied law in Paris and worked in the Ministry of the Interior for 18 years. He never abandoned his love for music, teaching himself to compose in his spare time. In 1880, at the age of 39, left his job to focus on music full time. He is best known for his orchestral work España (1883), which was inspired by a trip to Spain.
Although American composer Elliott Carter pursued music his whole life (as a teen, he was encouraged to compose by Charles Ives, who sold insurance to the Carter family; as a young man he studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger), he didn’t hit his musical stride until until age 40, with appreciation for his music continuing to grow as he aged. Carter published more than 60 works in the last decade of his life, including Interventions, which was commissioned to celebrate Carter’s 100th birthday. He continued to compose until his death in 2012, about a month shy of his 104th birthday.
A lot got in the way of Iannis Xenakis’s early interest in music: his studies were cut short by the Greco-Italian War in 1940; he fought with the National Liberation Front against the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II; in 1947 he was forced to flee after his involvement with the Democratic Army of Greece during the Greek Civil War resulted in his government-ordered death sentence.
Having managed to earn a degree in civil engineering despite all this, Xenakis found a job in Paris at Le Corbusier’s architectural studio and resumed studying music independently during the evenings. After Nadia Boulanger rejected him as a student (Xenakis wrote that she said “You have a lot of talent but you’re too much of a beginner. I’m too old, I can’t take you on”), Xenakis went on to be a revolutionary of 20th century classical music, gaining recognition in his mid to late thirties with computer-assisted compositions using mathematical probability systems.
Born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1903, Khachaturian moved to Moscow in 1921 and enrolled in the Gnessin Musical Institute without any prior musical training. Khachaturian was 33 before he composed his first major work, and he is best known for ballet music for Gayane (1942) and Spartacus (1954).
If composing isn't your thing, most experts agree that it's never too late to learn an instrument. Former New York Times reporter Ari Goldman wrote a book in 2014 about learning to play cello as an adult and joining and ensemble called The Late Starters Orchestra (their motto: “If you think you can play, you can”). A few years before that, psychologist Gary Marcus picked up the guitar at age 38 to explore how adult brain plasticity can accommodate learning an instrument later in life.