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