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Open Features: Childhood Prodigies

Peter Wintersgill surveys the lives of childhood musical prodigies.

Composers who showed premature musical development in childhood fall into two categories: firstly those whose musical ability continues into adult life, and who become notable composers, their works enjoying popularity for many years; secondly those whose abilities tail off as maturity approaches. They may become academic musicians or merely minor composers.

Let us consider the First Category.

W.A. Mozart (1756-1791)

Of all the composers who developed early in childhood, nobody can fail to agree that Mozart was an infant prodigy. Thus he began picking out tunes during his sister's harpsichord lessons at the age of three, when he could hardly reach the keyboard.
At four he started harpsichord lessons with his father, a court musician at Salzburg, and started composing minuets at five. Not long after this he showed his father a series of blobs on some manuscript paper; saying he had written a concerto. His father, scornful at first, realised after further scrutiny that it was indeed a concerto.

It soon became obvious to all the nobles to whom he played during the extensive tours his father arranged for him, that here indeed was a genius. His composing ability, far from fading out as he grew up, grew and advanced until his early death at the age of 35.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Though not another Mozart, Beethoven nevertheless showed signs of childhood brilliance. His father, though a court musician, was not another Leopold. He also had the disadvantage of over-indulgence in alcohol. Thus he would arrive home late at night in a drunken state, drag the boy from his bed and make him practise the piano. In addition he would falsify the boy's age, to make him appear a greater prodigy than he really was.

As a result the boy was never quite sure how old he really was. Though no Mozart he certainly was an early developer, playing the piano and organ at exhibitions from 8 to 10 years old, and composing by the age of 13. Like Mozart he continued to compose throughout his adult life.

F.P. Schubert (1797 -1828)

Like Mozart and Beethoven, Schubert showed premature musical ability in childhood, playing the violin, viola and piano throughout his childhood, and developing his composing ability during his teens. His father was a teacher by profession, also a keen amateur cellist, and several elder brothers played the violin. Between them they formed quite a competent string quartet, so there was always the sound of music around the house. It soon became obvious that young Franz was in a class of his own.

F. Chopin (1810 -1849)

Again no Mozart, this child nevertheless developed his musical ability very early. He had no lessons in theory and no formal piano lessons, but somehow managed to teach himself the piano. Having no musical parents, his sisters provided the necessary musical background.

He started composing about the age of eight, and as we all know, grew up to be a wonderful pianist and a great composer, mainly of piano music.

Those in the Second Category

There are also those whose early promise is not sustained.T hey may become minor composers, whose works fail to stand the test of time, or they may take to the academic life. Into this category come Crotch, the Wesley brothers, Lord Mornington and Robert Stolz.

William Crotch (1775 -1847)

He started picking out tunes at two-and-a-half, rather like young Mozart. By three-and-a-half he was playing the piano with some skill - undoubtedly an infant prodigy.

He became an organist at Oxford at 15 and started to compose about the same time. He later took to the academic life, becoming a professor at 22, but was only a minor composer. He was also a gifted painter.

Charles Wesley (1757-1834)

The son of Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, was also picking out tunes at three, and started to compose at six. He was also an organist and composer of church music, but never achieved greatness.

Samuel Wesley (1766 -1837)

Samuel would listen to his brother playing the violin and beat out the rhythm. He learnt to play the organ at seven and was composing at the age of eight. He wrote a book "Lessons for the harpsichord" at the age of 12.

He suffered a head injury at 21, and later had phases of depression. He has left one well known anthem (In Exitu Israel) but otherwise failed to achieve greatness.

Lord Mornington (1735 -1781)

When but a babe in arms, this noble lord would enjoy listening to violin music, and soon afterwards learnt to beat time to it. He again took to the academic life, but apart from a single chant (Mornington in Eb) nothing he wrote has survived.

Robert Stolz (1880 -1975)

This more recent prodigy learnt the piano at an early age, and played to Brahms at the age of 10; he started to compose a year later. He took to writing operettas later in life, but only one (The White Horse Inn) has survived. He was quite a competent conductor.

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