The lessons of child prodigies.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
June 1 2005 7:22 AM

Mozart and Us

What the ur-prodigy has to teach his successors.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel. Click on image to enlarge.

A young composer named Jay Greenberg, busy producing symphonies at Juilliard, was recently heralded with the headline "Prodigy, 12, Compared to Mozart." As we near the 250th anniversary of his birth, Mozart still presides as the patron saint of modern child prodigies—and as a talismanic figure in the more mundane realm of bound-for-the-top "organization kids," too. Parents park their infants and toddlers in front of Baby Mozart videos (the best seller in the Baby Einstein line of educational audio-visual fare) so they won't miss out on the "Mozart effect." Scientists have yet to prove that a dose of the master actually boosts young brains, but who cares? It's surely good karma for kids to cozy up to the composer who was called "the greatest Prodigy that Europe, or that even Human Nature has to boast of" by his own father.

Leopold Mozart was determined to awe the world with his wunderkind, and he succeeded perhaps all too well. In striving to present a public emblem of harmonious perfection, Mozart's father bequeathed us a misleading mystique of prodigious childhood achievement. "The little man with his wig and sword"—as Goethe once described the boy wonder—has become an archetypal image of early promise, all but instantaneously realized; those calm eyes betray no sign of developmental struggle. But the recent discovery of a new symphony that may or may not be the work of the 8- or 9-year-old Mozart serves as a useful corrective, complicating the mythic vision of him as a divine marvel born at just the right musical moment. To be a prodigy swept up in the popular cultural currents of one's time—as Mozart was, unlike Jay Greenberg, child of our iTunes era—can present problems, not just opportunities, for youthful creativity.

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The story of the mystery symphony is basically this: Scholars in Vienna recently stumbled on a symphony in D that bears Mozart's name—but it's a discovery with a twist. A nearly identical symphony has been unearthed in a library in Zagreb bearing the name of David Westermayer, a compatriot of Mozart's who has long since sunk into obscurity. So, who really wrote it? The puzzle has sparked some notable musicological detective work. However scholars end up resolving the question of authorship, it highlights a side of Wolfgang his father preferred to gloss over and popular legend tends to ignore: The boy genius, for all his originality, was also an impressionable imitator. Either he availed himself of a score by an elder and rearranged it somewhat (as he did with some early concertos), or, if the work is shown to be his, he was composing derivative music that experts could mistake for that of a mediocre adult contemporary. In other words, young Mozart was not simply a little boy who was visited by inspirational bolts from the blue. He was an industrious student inundated by contemporaneous influences.

His father was his conduit to the larger musical culture and saw to it that Mozart was very much in the swim. As Maynard Solomon emphasizes in his acute biography, the Mozarts were embarked on a family business, and Leopold was an avid marketer attuned to popular musical culture. He steered his son toward pleasing the crowd, not toward climbing Parnassus; early on, he had Mozart emulating the most fashionable figures, such as Johann Christian Bach and, it's perfectly possible, a run-of-the-mill composer named Westermayer. Leopold also took charge of getting the results transcribed (Mozart evidently heard his compositions all but whole in his head)—and felt free to make corrections and improvements. "Oh what a lot of things I have to do," he wrote privately to a friend about all the symphonic copying he faced before a big concert in London in the mid-1760s, the period scholars have pinpointed as the likely origin of the symphony in D, if Mozart is the author. During this 15-month interlude, the boy turned out three other symphonies, too.

There is no question that Mozart's youthful creativity was an amazing feat—a feat spurred on in part by his receptive cultural surroundings and, as Solomon points out, by his own avid receptivity to influence. But the wonder, certainly to a modern sensibility, is also that young Mozart thrived despite an early bombardment of demands and deadlines that sound as though they could well have waylaid, or worn out, a lesser genius. Being too plugged in to dominant cultural forces, of course, is a problem that contemporary classical music prodigies can only dream about having, as The New Yorker's astute music critic Alex Ross noted in a wistful blog entry not long after Jay Greenberg (who calls himself Bluejay) enjoyed a rare taste of the pop spotlight on 60 Minutes last fall. Cautioning that "the social and cultural pressures for a modern American classical prodigy are so unlike those faced by Mozart that no comparison is possible," Ross ventured a grim verdict anyway: "Then the market demanded such a talent; now, the market is hostile."

But perhaps it's worth considering whether there might be an upside to the pessimistic portrait of prodigies marginalized in a crass culture. It's true enough that a reward-filled market can be a great goad to achievement. But public demand and the clamor of competition can also be a distraction, eroding the near obsessive concentration that prodigious achievement of any kind seems to require. Creative isolation and independence are the truly rare commodities in our era of instant communication and information overload, and it may be that there's no need to pity boys like Bluejay, cut off from their "emo-listening, hip-hop-dancing, ironically 'American Idol'-analyzing classmates," as Ross put it in a New Yorker column. On the contrary, what is crucial is to find distance from an e-world of indiscriminate input. You might say young classical prodigies are liberated to listen to the voices of past musical heroes in their own heads. Meanwhile, Greenberg has harnessed the information age for his purposes: With a computer, he's his own transcriber, master not just of melodies but of the means of production.

Such self-reliance does not mean that mentors and models are irrelevant in a prodigy's emergence. For youthful gifts to flower, research has shown, intensive adult attention is as important as powers of concentration. Here, too, the career of Mozart doesn't necessarily beckon as an ideal. Where little Wolfgang was paraded around Europe, getting endlessly praised and prodded (and rarely paid as much as his father hoped), a prodigy like Bluejay has come in for what seems like kid-glove treatment by comparison. He has Juilliard's staff custom-tailoring his studies and linking him up with fellow phenoms. The Davidson Institute for Talent Development, dedicated to saluting and generously supporting "prodigious" achievements, awarded him an honorable mention. His work has been featured on From the Top, the weekly radio broadcast of young classical talent (where you can hear his "Overture to 9/11"); the Pittsburgh Symphony performed that piece, and other orchestras have played other works. Bluejay has enjoyed the thrill of being praised to the skies; he has also benefited from the care of critics like Ross, who took pains to keep his "comments to a minimum in order not to overhype an extraordinary young man who has yet to make the hazardous transition to maturity."

Who could ask for more respectful solicitude? Which may, ironically, prove to be a problem itself: If Mozart is actually proof of anything, it may be that resilience cultivated in the face of overbearing influence and enforced dependence is one important secret to fulfilling rare genius.

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