Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Symphony Number 38.in D “Prague”

Most people consider Mozart one of the greatest musical geniuses of all times. He was precocious, to boot. Starting at six, he toured all of Europe with his sister, an accomplished harpsichordist, until the age of ten. I believe he wrote his first symphony at the ripe old age of seven, and by the time he died at 35, he had written over 40 more symphonies, five violin concertos, 23 piano concertos, countless choral pieces, and five great operas.

Some people have seen his father as an evil task-master who forced his child into music. And as the movie, Amadeus tried to show, though Mozart created sublime music, he had the social skills of a five year old, (and a highly sexed one at that.) Good thing we moderns know better, right?

Nowadays the hunt for the youngest prodigy has spread to almost every area of human activity—Olympic gymnasts are over the hill at 13; fashion models old hags at 25; 25 year-old actresses have face lifts to look 18; and if you don’t start playing a musical instrument by the age of 4, you’ll never be a Paganini.

Parents, money and greed, I suspect, are mostly behind this. Imagine seeing your child on the silver screen, playing a violin concerto at Carnegie Hall, or getting a gold medal at the summer Olympics. Think of the merchandizing! You’d be set for life!

No one seems to question whether this contributes to the mental stability of the “talent.” Imagine doing one thing to the exclusion of all others. Then, after peaking at a young age, what kind of let-down will they be in for? What skills will they have? A friend of mine once told me about a documentary she once saw about ballerinas. That is a highly competitive profession, and some body types just don’t fit the standards. When asked what kind of job one hopeful might consider should her career as a dancer not pan out, she replied, straight-faced: “A princess, maybe.”

Let’s say that somehow a parent was able to provide proper balance in a prodigy’s life so that the child became a fully functioning human being. Can you say they’re a great artist? That is, could they successfully marry technical virtuosity with a wide-range of feeling? Children were once considered to be closer to God, but would that necessarily give them depth of feeling? True, the hormone-wracked body of an adolescent feels intensely, but only extremes, in my experience. “Sensitive to nuances” is not how I’d typify most teenagers, though they are capable of great feats.

A friend of me told me a story about the pianist Aurthur Rubenstein, who also was a child prodigy. Supposedly when he hit 60, he abruptly retired from performing. When asked why, he said he was going to spend three years practicing. “But you’re the greatest pianist alive,” they said to him. “No,” he said. “I’ve been faking it.” So he spent three years practicing, and when he re-emerged and started performing again, his playing had greatly improved. Then he went on to perform for another 20 years.

Our focus on the cult of the personality and younger and younger performers has something of the freak show about it. Rubenstein’s story is telling, because it meant the concert wasn’t about actually listening to him, it was about seeing him. To see RUBENSTEIN. The cult of youth means that people now view life experiences and accumulated wisdom as worthless. The wise usually say: “Take it slow. It will come. And if it doesn’t, no problem. Be happy.” No one wants to hear that message when you’re young. Everyone wants instant gratification.

That leads me to suspect the real reason child prodigies are so valued. They imply that you don’t have to be patient. You don’t have to peg away and work hard at something to excel in it. A pity, because what if you’re not gifted? What if you’re pre-wired to develop slowly? What if you got to spend your whole life watching the wonders of existence unfold before you? If you peaked at the age of 12, what else is there to do? And if you focused exclusively on one field of endeavor, how can you begin to appreciate all the other things there are to enjoy?

Mozart wrote his 38th Symphony at the age of 30. He had just finished his opera The Marriage of Figaro which was going to be produced in Prague, and he premiered the symphony in that city as well. For that reason, it is called the “Prague” Symphony. Though it has two fine slow movements, what really interested me was the final presto movement, which is joyous and reminiscent of the overture to the Marriage.

By this time in his life, Mozart was almost “channeling” music from the gods. He once wrote three symphonies in six weeks! And the music was getting better and better. One can only imagine what direction his work might have taken had he lived to a ripe old age, although, some of Beethoven’s early works sound a bit like Mozart’s last symphonies. Oddly enough, Mozart’s early, early works are seldom performed. Could it be they are considered immature?

%d bloggers like this: