Music Post: The prodigal composers of classical music

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Classical music history is replete with cases where children showed composing and performing talent and were put before the public before reaching their teens. Sometimes, as with Mozart, a parent saw a meal ticket in prodigal talent; sometimes, as with Bach, instruction began early because music was the family business; and sometimes it was a little of both.

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Mozart, age 7.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), the son of a well-known composer and teacher in his day, was a child prodigy, and so was his older sister Nannerl. They concertized together across Europe. A composer from the age of five, and a Salzburg, Austria, court musician by 17, he had composed 600 works and achieved fame in Vienna and elsewhere as an opera and symphony composer by his death at 35.

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Beethoven at 13.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the son and grandson of professional musicians in Bonn, had lessons in piano, organ, violin and viola from the age of five, and performed in public at seven, though his father claimed he was six to make his skill more amazing. When he was a teen his mother died and his father drank, until the younger Beethoven got a court order attaching his father’s wages to support himself and his two younger brothers. His grandfather lived to 51; his father made it to 52; Beethoven died at 56.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was raised to be a prodigy by his violinist father. Weber studied piano, violin and guitar. Haydn’s brother Michael was a tutor. His first compositions, for piano, came out when he was 12. By 1801, the year of Beethoven’s First Symphony, Weber was making a living as a music critic. He composed a successful opera while still a teen. Weber was the first European composer to use an Asian melody, and a pioneer of opera in German. He died of tuberculosis at 39.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) grew up in a musical family but not one in the musical professional. His father was a schoolmaster. Schubert played viola in the family string quartet and took piano lessons from age six. He concertized from age nine. By age 18 he had composed his first three symphonies. Schubert died at 31 without ever having married or held a real job, but he composed hundreds of songs along with symphonies and quartets and sonatas that are revered to this day.

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Mendelssohn at 12.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his sister Fanny were raised in a wealthy, cultured family, both were composed and played piano as children. His piano lessons began at six, his composition lessons at 10. By his late teens he had written a dozen string symphonies that he tried to suppress but which are performed and beloved to this day. The Octet, one of the greatest chamber works of all time, came from his mid-teens. He died of a stroke at 38, six months after Fanny died.

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Saint-Saens as a youth.

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) may have been the greatest musical prodigy of all time. Born in Paris, he played piano from age three, gave small performances at five, concertized at 10. His father died a few weeks after he was born and Saint-Saens was raised by his mother and an aunt. His mother slowed rather than hastened his advance to public performance, and in another break from traditional handling of prodigies she allowed him to study subjects other than music. He spoke Latin and Greek and wrote learned articles on archeology and astronomy. The youngest prodigy became one of the oldest composers, giving an acclaimed recital only a month before his death at 86.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), whose mother had studied piano, composed his own first piano piece at five, his first opera at nine, and a symphony at 11. At 13 he was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory on the recommendation of Alexander Glazunov. His father died when he was 19 but by then he was well-known in Russia and could support himself. The rest of Prokofiev’s story is well known: the years spent abroad as a concert pianist and composer of operas and ballets; the return to the Soviet Union, where he was sometimes lauded and sometimes condemned; his death at 61 on the same day Stalin died.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), whose father worked for Dmitri Mendeleyev, played piano as a child – playing pieces from memory while pretending to read different music in front of him – and he, too, was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory on Glazunov’s say-so. Shostakovich composed his First Symphony as a graduation piece. A heavy smoker and drinker, Shostakovich was suffering from heart disease and cirrhosis when he died of lung cancer at 68.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was exposed to music as a child. His father was a doctor but his mother was a pianist, an aunt sang at the Met, and her husband was a composer. Barber had piano lessons from six, composed a piano piece at seven, and wrote his mother a letter at nine declaring his intention to be a composer. He entered the Curtis Institute at 14. He died of cancer at 70.

Jay Greenberg (1991- ) is a living composer prodigy. He entered Juilliard at age 10 and in 2005 the Sony record label issued a recording of his Fifth Symphony by the London. Greenberg says he hears completed music in his heads and writes it down using a computer composition program.

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