From Mozart to Orson Welles: The creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary

Spare a thought for the one-hit wonder; the early achiever; the Infant Phenomenon; the enfant terrible who never quite became an adulte terrible.

Offer your sympathy to the creative artists whom the Muse visited when they were 25 or 30, but never came near again. Shed a tear for the men or women who spent most of their lives not living up to the promise they showed with a work of genius when they were barely out of their teens. Open your hearts, ladies and gentlemen, to the Early Peaker.

Sandy Wilson, who died this week, was a classic of the species. A precocious talent, he produced a musical of The Birds by Aristophanes while still at Harrow. At Oxford, he devoted his days to writing revue sketches alongside Kenneth Tynan and Donald Swann. At the Old Vic Theatre School, he wrote songs and sketches for Hermione Gingold. He was the very model of an old-style vaudevillian; a composer of witty 1920s-style froth.

The only trouble was, the 1920s had long gone when he started out. In 1952, aged 28, he was commissioned (for £50) to write a divertissement and came up with The Boy Friend, a tuneful pastiche of 1920s musicals, set in Madame Dubonnet's School for Young Ladies on the French Riviera, with flappers singing "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love" and "A Room in Bloomsbury".

Pure escapist frou-frou, it delighted London audiences mired in post-war austerity and ran for five years from 1954 to 1959. But after Look Back in Anger in 1956, the theatre started to embrace gritty kitchen-sink drama and Wilson's kitsch sweetness suddenly seemed ridiculously dated. A sequel, Divorce Me, Darling!, in 1964, failed to inspire audiences.

Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter (Rex Features)
Wilson's star waned. His last show was an uninspired pantomime in 1979. To sum up, then: he peaked at 30 ("There are really only three witty lyric writers now," Noël Coward told him, to his delight, after seeing The Boy Friend. "There's Cole Porter. There's me. And there's you."), spent 25 years trying to match his success, and 35 years wondering where it all went wrong. In old age, according to one obituarist, "Wilson seemed a forlorn, rather gloomy figure, obstinately refusing to come to terms with modern life. His recreations included 'reminiscing'."

Read more: Sandy Wilson obit: Lyricist and composer

It's amazing how many creative geniuses followed a similar trajectory, of wild early success and a long decline. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, regularly held up as the best film ever made, at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter, growing morbidly obese in frustration. Mozart knocked off his sublime, groundbreaking Piano Concerto No 9 at 21. Joseph Heller started writing his debut novel, Catch-22, at 30, published it at 38 and never wrote anything as good ever again (but then, as he often said, nor did anybody else).

Mike Oldfield composed his 'musical thinking aloud' masterpiece Tubular Bells when he was 16 and recorded it at 19 Mike Oldfield composed his 'musical thinking aloud' masterpiece Tubular Bells when he was 16 and recorded it at 19 (Rex Features)
Herman Melville wrote a novel a year in his twenties and, climactically, published Moby-Dick at 32. Arthur Rimbaud changed the face of modern poetry in his teens and stopped writing before he was 21. Mike Oldfield composed his "musical thinking aloud" masterpiece Tubular Bells when he was 16 and recorded it at 19; he followed it up with the hollow and underpowered Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, then went quiet. EM Forster published four novels between 1905 and 1910, after a 14-year pause produced A Passage to India in 1924, and lapsed into near-silence, apart from essays and stories, until his death, 46 years later, when he was 91.

One reason for Forster's silence was the impossibility of his publishing anything with a homosexual theme (his explicit novel Maurice came out, so to speak, posthumously). Other Early Peakers had to face the ghastly fact that, having wowed the world with one lightning bolt, they had nothing to offer thereafter but Roman candles. Or they were too rich and well-tended to be inspired. Or they ceased to be slightly ahead of the times, as they once were. Or they simply grew up and lost the sense of infinite possibility with which they once took on the world.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role will cover all areas ...

Day In a Page

Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

The US is getting frayed at the edges

Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

Celebrating 100 years of Leica

A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world