This week on medici.tv, our 10th-anniversary programming is reliving moments of musical greatness brought to us by young musicians. Classical music, of course, has a long tradition of child prodigies, both on the stage and behind the staff paper. Let’s look at few of the precocious performer/composer double-threats who have gone down in history…
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (18th century)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may perhaps be one of the most well-known child prodigies of all time, in any discipline. By age five, young Mozart was already working on his first (miniature) compositions and by age six, on tour in Vienna, performing with his older sister Nannerl. By age seven, he was already being referred to as a virtuoso:
“music by several virtuosos, among whom were… the new vice-Kapellmeister’s little son, aged seven, and daughter, aged ten, performing on the harpsichord, the son likewise on the violin, as well one could ever have hoped of him” —the chronicle of the Salzburg court
By the time he composed the first of his violin concertos, he already had over two hundred works to his name. The Mozarts had settled in Salzburg and teenage Wolfgang entered a period of intense productivity, writing several masses, over a dozen symphonies, a host of chamber music, and five of his violin concertos in just a few years. His early mastery of formal structure is already clear in this first concerto, as his the rich lyrical sensibility we associate with his operas.
Mendelssohn carries “the same relation to the little Mozart that the perfect speech of a grown man does to the prattle of a child.” —Goethe
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (19th century)
Felix Mendelssohn was just 17 when he composed one of his most beloved works: the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Felix and his younger sister Fanny first performed it at home, in a version for piano duet, and the public premiere of the fully orchestrated version came a few months later, as Felix was preparing for the University of Berlin’s entrance exams. The Mendelssohn siblings were enamored with Shakespeare’s works from a young age. Fanny wrote of her brother’s overture,
we were entwined in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Felix particularly made it his own. He identified with all of the characters. He recreated them, so to speak, every one of them whom Shakespeare produced in the immensity of his genius.
Written while still a teenager, the overture already demonstrates the sparkle, richness, and nuanced sensitivity that would become hallmarks of Mendelssohn’s style. Nearly two decades later, he would pick up where he left off and compose incidental music for a theatrical production of the play, at the special request of the newly-crowned King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.
SERGEI RACHMANINOV (20th century)
The tail-end of Rachmaninov’s teenage years was tumultuous. At home, his parents separated, and at the conservatory, he was torn between his piano and composition studies. Nevertheless, it was already clear that he was destined for greatness. One composition exam, featuring Tchaikovsky as a guest member of the committee, has become particularly emblematic of the budding young composer’s unmistakable skill:
“When I finished, Tchaikovsky rose and busied himself with the examination journal… he had added three more plus signs to my mark, one on top, one below, and one behind. This five with four plus marks—a unique occurrence in the annals of the Conservatoire—was naturally much discussed, and the story made the round of all Moscow.“—Rachmaninov, in Rachmaninoff’s Recollections
Rachmaninov composed several works before graduating from the conservatory, including the first of his iconic set of piano concertos. He was just 17 when he began working on it at Ivanovka, an idyllic summer home belonging to aristocratic relatives some 500 kilometers away from his city life in Moscow. While he would later count that first concerto among the handful of early works that “frightened him” and eventually ended up revising it considerably, we can still hear the grandeur and sweeping Romantic lines that characterize his style—along with a dash of youthful enthusiasm.
ALMA DEUTSCHER (21st century)
At just twelve years old, Alma Deutscher seems poised to join classical music’s centuries-running list of child prodigies. The young British soloist and composer has already captured the hearts of audiences, critics, and some of today’s leading musicians. As The Daily Telegraph wrote of her second opera—whose American premiere we were thrilled to stream last winter:
“Cinderella proves that Deutscher is an extraordinary talent. That a young girl could have the mental energy to compose a two-hour opera and take credit for its full orchestration is staggering; that the end result is a lively, coherent piece of comic opera is exceptional.” —Daily Telegraph
For more works written while most musicians were still mastering their scales, check out our playlist of pieces composed before their composers turned 20!