The RPS Composition Prize: Why we draw the line at 29

A youthful Mozart composes at the piano
A youthful Mozart composes at the piano

The deadline for the RPS Composition Prize approaches and at periodic intervals throughout the day young composers, clutching their scores and recordings, find their way down to our basement lair to hand them over in person – it’s surprising how many people don’t trust the mail these days. It’s lovely to see the faces behind the music and we can already predict that the standard this year is going to be high.

It’s an area (one area!) of our work which is significantly underfunded – we are currently able to support four prizes to young composers a year and each commission includes some element of workshop and training attached to them). But given the standard of the applications it would be a piece of cake to choose another four, probably more, and even that might seem a drop in the ocean.

Recently on Facebook we were challenged by an aggrieved composer who suggested that the age limit on the prize (29) is ageist. Certainly in an ideal world we would have plenty of money to give to composers of all ages and nationalities who were any good – but perhaps then we would be charged with being talentist – maybe it should be money for any composer…at all.

Of course that’s stretching the argument too far. The truth is the world we are in is far from ideal. It’s hard for composers for any age to make a living – but is it better to fund four starting out in the profession than none at all? In the end we have to be pragmatic. The RPS relies completely on funding from trusts and individual donors (we have no public funding). It’s a rare donor who makes an unrestricted gift and nearly all our funding comes with stipulations that we have to adhere to. The prize itself was set up under one such legacy and we supplement that money with any we can raise along the way.

To redress the balance the RPS does of course give commissions and awards to composers and none of these are restricted by age or nationality. (With the exception of the Elgar Bursary commissions which only go to composers over the age of 29!).

Since 2000, the statistics stack up:

Composers Over 29 Commissions: 52; RPS Music Awards: 46
Composers Under 29 Commissions: 30; RPS Music Awards: Zilch

That’s of course ignoring the 180+ years of commissioning that went on in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as our current Encore scheme for repeat performances and our Composer in the House residencies – OK. Maybe Mendelssohn hit lucky at a young age, but pretty much everyone else was between the ages of 30 and 100. So, on balance I think we’re doing the best we can.

But here’s a challenge. If you know anyone who’d be interested in leaving their money to support composers without barriers of age or nationality, and who is planning to die soon (or even quite soon) please point them this way … there’s a warm welcome and a lot of composers out there who’d be extraordinarily grateful. We could even commission something for the funeral…

Rosemary Johnson


Biscuits and Boxes

Ivan Fischer scoops the  Conductor Award in 2011 (credit Simon Jay Price)
Ivan Fischer scoops the
Conductor Award in 2011 (credit Simon Jay Price)

Springtime at RPS headquarters: the floor has become a jigsaw puzzle of overflowing cardboard boxes, office life revolves around an excel chart of such intricate tables and colour schemes it is worthy of a place in Tate Modern, and the RPS is single-handedly boosting M&S biscuit sales to record highs. It can only mean one thing: the jury meetings for the prestigious RPS Music Awards are in full flow.

Throughout February and March, leading representatives from all walks of musical life come together to consider the nominations across thirteen different categories. The fiercely coveted awards are the highest recognition for live classical music in the UK, honouring performers, composers, inspirational arts organisations and events. Whilst we don’t underestimate the careful consideration that goes into submitting a nomination, we encourage all proposals which reflect the rich variety of quality music-making across the country. After all, if an artist or organisation isn’t nominated, they can’t win!

So who could be walking away with a silver lyre at this year’s awards ceremony? Sean Rafferty will have the low-down on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune, where the shortlisted nominations will be announced on Tuesday 17 April 2012. And who knows… by then we might just have caught a glimpse of the floor again!

Helen Pearce

Remembering Tony Fell

Tony Fell 1931-2011 (RPS Chairman 1997-2005)
Tony Fell 1931-2011
(RPS Chairman 1997-2005)

In the middle of 1998 I was on maternity leave – I had two very small children: there was NO WAY I was looking for a full time job. Chatting one day to Tony about the intrigues of Robert Kraft and Stravinsky (good gossip), I found myself enquiring idly how on earth he’d got himself involved with the Royal Philharmonic Society – an organisation which, I felt at that time, seemed rather tired.

Tony didn’t waste time. Within 15 minutes his ebullient enthusiasm had convinced me both that the RPS was at heart a radical, progressive organisation with a real potential to make its mark on classical music, and also, somehow, that I would be doing him an extraordinary favour by coming for an interview for the post of Administrator. To my astonishment I found myself agreeing – (albeit rather weakly).

What appealed to me about his approach was his absolute ability to cut through red tape: to know what was important and to see how to make it happen. It was a breath of fresh air for me and for the dusty RPS which he quickly licked in to shape and moved firmly into the 21st century.

We soon established a modus operandi – Tony was my constant sounding board and my ideas were greeted with huge positivity and energy; or alternatively, kindly but firm dissuasion: he was a gentle mentor. I on the other hand learned to respond to random, rapid and unexpected questions from the unfathomability of Microsoft to the best place to buy muslin for culinary purposes.

He believed in the new and the young; and he believed that the RPS could (and should) help and inspire them both. He was endlessly open, curious, excited and appreciative. He was generous and kind (but never wanted to be noticed being so.) He was pragmatic and fearless. If Tony had not thought of selling the RPS archive to the British Library (which both made that valuable resource available to scholars worldwide and bailed the RPS out of a deep financial hole) there simply would not be an RPS now. I for one think that, thanks to Tony, we might have been missed.

The presentation of RPS Honorary Member to Tony last year was an apt and joyful occasion though he himself seemed mildly perplexed by the fuss! From Carl Maria von Weber in 1826 onward, all Honorary Members, whatever their musical role, have in common that they have made a difference to music. Tony made an enormous difference: to music, to the RPS, to me, and to more people in the music world than he can have possibly imagined.

Rosemary Johnson