Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Child Prodigy

When Felix Mendelssohn was 9, he performed a piano concerto at a public concert to considerable acclaim.

His mother had started him with piano lessons when he was 4. When he was 6, he started studying the piano with a man who was one of the most respected pianists and teachers in Berlin at the time. When he was 10, he also began studying composition with a man named Zelter who was the principal of the best music-school in Berlin, called the “Sing-Academy.”

The oldest of the four Mendelssohn children, Fanny, was four years older than her little brother Felix. She had been studying there with the same teachers already and its quite possible whatever his big sister was doing, he wanted to do, too.


It's not uncommon for a child to begin lessons that young – I know I took my first piano lessons shortly after I started first grade – but it is unusual for them to become so good they can be performing in concerts at such an early age (I never did...).

When children exhibit talent you'd expect from an accomplished adult, they're called “prodigies.” There are prodigies in math, chess, science, as well as the arts.

One example: Lorin Maazel, who at 79 has just retired as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, started taking conducting lessons when he was 7, conducted the NBC Orchestra on a radio broadcast concert when he was 11 and the following year, toured the country conducting everal major orchestras. The two pictures included here are a Life Magazine photo taken of him when he was 13 and a publicity photo taken of him during his final season at the New York Philharmonic.

Another prodigy is the well-known violinist Sarah Chang. She made her debut recording when she was 10 (this publicity photo, right, was taken when she was 6) and has gone on to become one of the best violinists in America today. Her hometown is Philadelphia and this December, she turns 29. This more recent photo (see left) was taken when she was 25.

She had recently played with the York Symphony to help celebrate the orchestra's 75th Anniversary season.

Other violin prodigies would include Hilary Hahn from Baltimore who recorded works by Johann Sebastian Bach, some of the most challenging repertoire for solo violin (no piano or orchestra, just the violin) when she was 15. She's also 29 this season and won a Grammy Award last year for one of her most recent concerto recordings.

But not all prodigies become great adult performers. Some times, they “burn out” or fail to realize their potential, not growing beyond the talent they had as children. After a child-prodigy turns 18, it seems people tend to judge them as adults and if they can't compete on that level, careers often just “fold.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy who started composing when he was 5 or 6. There's some argument whether he actually wrote those pieces, since his father actually wrote them down for him (did he 'edit' them to improve them?). But still, he wrote his first symphony for orchestra when he was 8 and wrote his 25th Symphony – which many people heard for the first time when they saw the movie based on a fictional account of his death, “Amadeus” – when he was 17.

Like Mendelssohn, Mozart had an older sister, too. Five years older than her famous little brother, she's known as “Nannerl,” her family nickname though her real name was Anna Maria. She was also a talented pianist and the story goes that when she would be practicing the piano, little Wolfgang started imitating what she was playing: he could play some of the pieces she'd been working on when he was 4 and hadn't had any lessons himself, yet. He made his first public appearance at the age of 5 and shortly after that, his father Leopold took the two children on a tour across Europe where they played before royalty and before public audiences who were amazed at what these children could both play and compose.

This tour makes us think of a trained circus acts – the children trotted out to perform their tricks – but their father was hoping to get his son's career started (as well as earn some money and show off his own ego as the father of these two brilliant children).

Ever since Mozart's tours in the 1760s, any father who saw a son exhibit that kind of talent hoped to make money on “the Next Mozart.” Beethoven's father had tried it, pushing his son Ludwig to practice hours and hours, sometimes after midnight, to perfect a talent which refused to develop into something as awesome as Mozart's.

Mendelssohn never had to go through this “circus act” phase. He performed at home and people came to him to hear him play or listen to the music he composed.


Shortly after his 9th birthday, he composed a piano piece that seems to have been inspired by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, the second oldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. C.P.E. Bach had been an important composer when he worked for King Frederick the Great in Berlin back in the 1740s.

Later that year, Mendelssohn composed 19 more piano pieces (including two sonatas), a violin sonata, a piano trio, a wedding cantata and several songs.

The following year, he started writing a series of short symphonies for string orchestra. His father had agreed to hire an orchestra so they could perform these works on their Sunday afternoon musicales. By the end of the year (1821), the 12-year old composer (see portrait, right) had completed seven of these little symphonies – he had to conduct standing on a chair so the musicians could see him over their music stands. These works all showed his development as he learned the intricacies of form, harmony and other compositional techniques.

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Mendelssohn wrote a sextet for piano and strings in May of 1824, not long after his 15th birthday. It's an impressive work for a 15-year-old but if you compare it to his mature works, it's not as good – a modern critic describes it with words like pleasant and conventional but complains the last movement is “still more vapid.”

His next pieces included a concerto for two pianos, a few sonatas and another piano quartet (dedicated to Goethe). None of these are especially distinguished beyond being “okay for a teen-ager.” No one can explain, then, how the next work he wrote – his Octet for Strings which we'll hear the members of the West Branch Music Festival play on September 16th (I'll write more about the music itself, later) – was so much better, it's considered a masterpiece for a composer of any age!

It's one of the great works in classical music and one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire. It is finely crafted and assured as a work by any adult master. It has the vitality of youth, but the accomplishment of maturity.

The 3rd Movement, the Scherzo, became one of his most successful “excerpts” - inspired by the “fairy scene” in Goethe's Faust – the Walpurgis Night Dream sequence (vaal-PURR-ghiss, the German equivalent of Halloween though it occurs at the end of April) – you can hear the Scherzo in this video clip.

What were the next compositions like? He wrote another comic opera, “The Wedding of Camacho,” taking its story from a chapter of Don Quixote (see below for an up-date on its belated public premiere). Then the next year, he added a piano quintet, a piano sonata, a brief work for piano and orchestra and an orchestral concert overture (called the “Trumpet” Overture) to his catalogue.

In July, he wrote to his sister that he was sitting in the garden reading Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (in English) and “today or tomorrow” would begin composing an overture based on it (as he added, “I have a lot of nerve!”). By August 6th, he had finished it, complete with more sprite-music like the Octet's Scherzo (this kind of “elfin” texture – all lightness and air – became a signature sound of Mendelssohn's), and ideas that sound suitable for the different types of characters in the play. The score is remarkably free of corrections and rewrites which is astonishing for a composer of any age with a work like this.

Again, like the Octet, the inspiration is spontaneous, the craftsmanship assured. Though it doesn't intend to be a scene-by-scene retelling of the story, it fits all the elements of the play into its fairly strict classical structure. It would become one of Mendelssohn's most highly regarded and frequently performed works.

Seventeen years later, the King of Prussia would ask him to write incidental music for the play itself – since he'd already written the overture to it. So at the age of 34 he set about writing new music – including the famous Wedding March, a standard war-horse for weddings ever since – which sounds just as fresh and vibrant as the music he'd composed when he was a teen-ager.

After these two masterpieces it must have come as a surprise when the first public performance of an opera of his, “The Wedding of Camacho,” took place in a Berlin opera-house the next year. Now 18, Mendelssohn had his first major public appearance as a composer among the wider public but the work was a failure. When one of the lead singers became ill and a second performance was canceled, he never bothered to have it performed again – ever.

Perhaps it took some wind out of his sails, but he wrote less that year. One of these pieces was his first mature string quartet (it would end up being published as No. 2, though), patterned after one of Beethoven's last quartets. Beethoven had just died in March and Mendelssohn completed this striking quartet by late October. While it might seem derivative in spots and less self-assured in others, it is a considerably more serious work than either the Octet or the “Midsummer Night's Dream” Overture and shows considerable skill for someone only 18 years old.

By now, he was less of a prodigy and more of an adult. He finished his studies at the Berlin University. The only major work he completed in 1829 was an orchestral overture that combined two favorite poems by Goethe – “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage.”

He was also planning a performance of something unusual. In an age when most concerts focused on new music or at least music by still-living composers, the Berlin Sing-Academy performed music often heard no where else: old music by long-dead composers like Bach and his sons and their contemporaries.

Mendelssohn had in mind the first public performance of a nearly-forgotten piece by Johann Sebastian Bach which had not been heard since his death in 1750. Mendelssohn would conduct Bach's “St. Matthew Passion” in 1829, the year he turned 20. While Bach was not exactly forgotten, just not as widely performed or as highly regarded as his is now, Mendelssohn is still credited with starting the revival of interest in Bach's music.

By now, he was no longer a prodigy.

- Dr. Dick