Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Amazingly Young Mozart

We all know, at least I talk about it a lot, how remarkable Mozart was. He was able to write the hundreds and hundreds of pieces he did because, even though the died at the very young age of thirty-five, he still had a thirty year composing career. Yes, he began composing at age five. Probably just weeks after he first climbed up on the piano bench. Sure, the early pieces are just little minuets, but pretty good little minuets.

At that age most of us are still trying to master the proper use of the fork. His first symphony came at age eight:

When the rest of us were learning how to ride a bike. When Mozart and his father embarked on an extended tour of Europe for three years, when Mozart was between seven and ten years old, one of the things that they did was give public exhibitions of Mozart's uncanny skills. He would show up, sit down at the piano and offer to sight read any piece of music. In London he was reported to have sight sung an Italian aria while simultaneously reducing the orchestral score and playing it on piano. At eight years of age. Without seeing it with your own eyes it is hard to imagine the impact of this. But we can try. Watch this clip from Amadeus:

First of all, the characters are all rendered a bit stereotypical for the sake of creating an entertaining farce. The Emperor was likely a rather more formidable person than is depicted here: he was after all the absolute ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also, all the musicians, including Salieri, were highly skilled professionals, not the bumblers depicted. Another misstep is Mozart's reaction to anything having to do with Italy. He spent a lot of his formative years there and spoke Italian very well. I'm sure that, when greeting Italian maestros of music, he would have responded in Italian and he certainly loved Italian opera! He wrote a lot of it! But where this clip really falls down is in the levels of skill it displays. In reality, Salieri's march would have been a far more accomplished one. But the supposed demonstration of musical memory and compositional skills Mozart shows here are far too rudimentary. Imagine him doing something a hundred times more skilled. And now, imagine him doing it at nine or ten years old!

All that Mozart's character does in this scene is correct a clumsy 6/4 harmony (I think he replaces it with a vi chord?) and then just adds some rudimentary melodic decoration which he repeats in octaves. Then he adds some Alberti bass and turns it into a different piece. I'm sure that Mozart age eight could have done better!! Here is the Andante K. 15, written when Mozart was eight and a much better piece than Salieri's march:

So, now, replay that whole scene from the movie in your mind, but instead of Mozart being a fully-grown man of perhaps thirty years, imagine he is eight years old.

That is what is so remarkable about Mozart. He seems to have been a fully mature musician from his earliest years.

When he was ten years old he wrote a quodlibet in seventeen movements, the last of which is a fugue for orchestra:

As his father wrote to him once, "Wolfgang, you can imitate anything."


Rickard Dahl said...

It's incredible when you think about it. I wonder though why we don't have many more "Mozarts" as in highly musically talented children composers. Theoretically there should be many more Mozarts given the much larger population today. Is the population today less musically gifted (i.e. in terms of genetics)? It could be possible but I doubt it, simply because humans have evolved over more than 100000 years and a few 100 years shouldn't make such a big difference generally. Genetics themselves don't result in greatness. Mozart had kids after all and one became a composer, specifically Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart. Franz was however far less accomplished in terms of music. One can ask what went wrong. The same could be said for J.S. Bach's kids. Sure, W.F. Bach, C.P.E. Bach and J.C. Bach were great composers but none of them came close to J.S. Bach himself. Of course, it's possible that the mothers in both cases were pretty unmusical and thus didn't contribute any "musical genes" to the equation.

The second factor to take into account is luck. Sure, someone can be very musically gifted but live in a 3rd World country with very little resources. Basically, it looks bleak in terms of being able to develop the skills needed if you barely have enough money for the necessities of life. The other big aspect to take into consideration when it comes to luck is that the musical ability can be discovered later than it could have been, maybe even discovered as an adult. It's clear that the best skill development comes when young. The younger the better. Of course, I suspect that most parents don't push their kids into finding what they're good at and in general care enough about having their kids follow their passions and in general gain knowledge and be the best they can be. Most parents seem to just focus on the daily routines when it comes to raising their kids. The result is kids that grow up to be average.

The third and final big factor is practice, persistence etc. Sure, you can be best in the World at composing great music but you need to practice. Pretty much any major skill requires countless hours of practice. What talent does is give a better starting point and quicker learning but anyone can improve a whole lot by lots of practice. It's possible that a significant number of talented people give up or significantly reduce their ambitions and practice time with regards to their passions because they aim for things like the American dream rather than focusing on their passions. It becomes about money and about social status rather than their happiness. Classical music does not give that type of money and status in most cases nowadays. Of course, it's possible that a significant number of talented people are talented in things they aren't really interested in and thus lose interest eventually.

Either way: talent, luck and practice are the three basic elements for achieving greatness in something. There is however another explanation to why we see so few "Mozarts" nowadays, namely: There are many "Mozarts" but they haven't been discovered (yet) and this may be partially due to the general societal interest in pop music rather than classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are a lot of puzzles here. Yes, why aren't there more Mozarts? On the other hand, given the astonishing concentration of ability in, say, 5th and 4th century BC Athens, why hasn't that happened again? It is partly a question of innate ability combined with a very fertile, welcoming environment, I suspect. I think that there are times in human history when a very fertile environment encourages a few people who spark creativity in other people. There are these nexuses of brilliance: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes or Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. There was another for physicists in the first half of the 20th century with Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, et al. At certain times in human history a surge of brilliance is sparked and those who happen to be on the scene and have the necessary ability join the wave. But most of the time, one suspects, an occasional brilliant individual comes into an uncongenial environment and their efforts are ignored and die out. That is probably the norm. Sometimes we just get lucky.

But Mozart was really unique in human history. Like Athena he seems to have sprung from the forehead of Zeus, fully formed. The complete edition of Mozart is 170 discs of amazing music. If you look at the collected efforts of more modern composers, even ones as great as Stravinsky, you could put the really outstanding works on relatively few discs. And Mozart died when he was 35.