Child prodigies are often regarded as inborn talent. But there are other things they can mean-- long years of training by starting early; or having a family already in the business. We need to beware of confusing different things: a child who can play piano at 3 years old, or compose something at age 6 or 9, does not necessarily mean that child will become a great composer, or already is one.
If we look at the age when composers first produce a great piece of music, it is surprising how few do it before the age of 20, let alone 16. By a strict criterion, there are a few teen prodigies as composers, but there are no child prodigies at all. We need to avoid going gaga about stories that strike us as amazing, and to make comparisons across the careers of a number of musicians. As we will see, “child prodigies” clump together in a particular period of history, and not before or after.
Here are the things we need to distinguish:
Famous childhoods. Which musicians were famous as children? This particularly means children whose parents took them on tours or had them perform for big public audiences. It does not mean just learning to play an instrument well; the number of children who have done that must number in the hundreds of thousands at least.
Famous adolescents. Which musicians became famous before their late teens? Again we have to distinguish between those who were famous performers, and those who became composers-- being careful to assess whether what they composed entered the permanent repertoire, or merely was taken as another amazing sign of what they could do at their age.
Competent teen musicians. Here we can list those who were professional musicians before they were adults, employed as church organist, instrumentalist in an orchestra, etc. These are not regarded as “prodigies”, but this kind of early start is extremely common among major composers, and is part of what makes them so capable.
Early age of success as composer. Here “success” means composing a piece of music, a song, a symphony, an opera, that is recognized in the music world of its day. It doesn’t have to be a big blow-out success; just stepping firmly into the adult arena.
Early age of outstanding success as composer. This means composing a “great” work, one that enters the long-term musical repertoire. For this category, as well as the previous one, I will list the ages when famous composers had their big break-out and their peak performances. We will see there are early, average, and late-arriving composers: this means early 20s (early), late 20s-early 30s (average), late 30s-40s-50s (late). I will also list such ages for prominent composers of 20th century popular music-- the pattern is surprisingly similar.
Mozart is the paradigm, of course. But for extreme adulation of a child prodigy, we start with Mendelssohn. The concept of a child prodigy now existed. When Leopold Mozart toured his son around the courts of Europe, it was as a freak of nature. No one thought of little Wolfgang as a great composer; that idea was still in the future. The concept of the great composer had not yet been invented in the 1760s-- that would come with Beethoven 1800. When Mendelssohn is born in 1809, Beethoven is still alive, but the following years are clearly an end phase, his greatest compositions mostly behind him. Little Felix is playing the piano at 3 years old, coached by the most expensive tutors his father can hire, and soon starting to become a sensation. In the cultural elite who gather at the famous banker’s salon in Berlin, it is on everyone’s mind who will become the new Beethoven. Or the new Mozart, whose music now epitomizes the newly created concept of a classical repertoire: in England as in Germany, everyone goes around singing airs from Don Giovanni, or playing them on drawing-room pianos. [Peacock] By age 9 Mendelssohn is performing in public; a few years later he is touring Europe; he meets and is admired by Goethe, then at the height of his fame, and everyone else who is anyone.
Coinciding with the early years of Mendelssohn’s life, Germany is in a time of national enthusiasm and liberal reform. The new-style University of Berlin is founded in 1810, on the principles of Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit-- freedom to teach, freedom to learn, with the stated obligation of professors to produce new knowledge. It is the birth of the research university, that would be emulated by other countries through the 19th century. The relics of feudalism are overthrown by legal reforms; Jews are emancipated and become full citizens. The most famous Jew in Germany was Moses Mendelssohn, an Enlightenment philosopher who wrote on the higher unity of all religions in Deism. His son, the banker, converts to Christianity and takes the name Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Adulation for young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is an emblem of the new Germany, now uniting into a powerful entity around Prussia-- at that time Prussians were the liberal leaders of Germany, the conservatives being in the Catholic south.
Charming young Mendelssohn is admired everywhere. He is especially welcome in England (Prussia’s ally in the war against Napoleon), where he is adulated by the liberal intelligensia, the same people who admire Byron and Shelley. Mendelssohn becomes in effect the national composer of England. It is in England that he produces the works that first enter the permanent repertoire and confirm his premature reputation. His works so far are juvenalia (including an opera and a string quarter), but at 17 he composes theatre music to accompany Shakepeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. At age 20, in London he conducts a symphony he had already completed some 5 years earlier. He tours the Scottish islands and writes Fingal’s Cave and sketches a Scottish Symphony. All this is greeted with enthusiasm and acclaim that Mozart never received in his teens-- Mozart only became widely popular in his late 20s.
Mendelssohn goes on to create further works, none more popular than his early triumphs. He also creates a new starring role: the famous conductor. We take it for granted that some conductors are famous, whoever’s music they are conducting; but this concept did not exist before Mendelssohn. Previously, composers conducted their own works. The conductor was usually just the harpsichord player, who cued entrances for instrumentalists and singers. The conducting star system was institutionalized in mid-19th century, exemplified by von Bülow, Wagner’s favorite conductor. In the 1890s, Mahler was famous as a conductor before he was famous as a composer.
Mendelssohn is acutely aware of the new concept of classic music-- a perenniel repertoire-- and he promotes revivals of past composers like Handel (still popular in England but half-forgotten in Germany). He takes the lead in the Bach revival, producing St. Mathew’s Passion and staging Bach festivals. Touring as a famous conductor has another benefit for Mendelssohn: he doesn’t have to produce one boffo, over-the-top triumph after another of his own music like Beethoven did in the 15 years between Sonata Pathetique and his 5th, 6th, and 7th symphonies. Mendelssohn’s music was never that intense, more like easy listening, but he could knock your socks off with the best of Handel and Bach, especially if you had never heard it before. When Schubert’s Great Symphony was rediscovered after his death, it was Mendelssohn who conducted its premiere. To top it off, he is young and good-looking, the matinee idol that rumpled Beethoven never was. He epitomizes the second coming of Mozart, only this time we are aware of it.
Mozart (born 1756): to recall the dates of his first permanent works and his creative peaks: plays piano age 4; tours with father age 6-13. Numerous early compositions, including a symphony at age 8, an opera age 14. His earliest works “to hold a place in the repertory” / “regularly played today” are from age 17-18. First successful symphony No. 31 (“Paris”), age 22; peak symphonies No.38 (“Prague”) through No.41 (“Jupiter”) age 30-32. First popularity, age 28-30, when Vienna audiences flock to his piano concertos. His super-popular Eine kleine Nachtmusik is from age 32. He composes 7 unimportant operas prior to his first success with Idomeneo, age 25. His greatest operas (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti, Magic Flute) are age 30-35.
Who can match his early start? The race is on. Not everyone who tries makes it. Beethoven’s father took him on tour at age 7, but it didn’t work out. Beethoven (born a few days before the end of 1770) became a very competent teen professional musician; he didn’t start winning piano duels in Vienna until age 22, and he was 27 when he had his breakout into immortality.
César Franck (born 1822) was a child prodigy, admitted to conservatories in Belgium and Paris at an early age. At age 11, encouraged by his father (a banker), he went on tours as a virtuoso pianist. (This was in 1833, in the midst of the Liszt craze and the example of Mendelssohn.) But the rest was a disappointment. His piano trios (age 20-21) were promoted in Germany by Liszt but ignored in France. At age 26 he settled down in Paris as a church organist, and at 50 became organ professor at the Conservatoire. His important works had to wait until age 56 and into his 60s.
Camille Saint-Saëns (born 1835) was the most precocious child prodigy of them all. He could read and write at age 2, composing at 3, performing public recitals at 5, writing music criticism at 7. He had perfect pitch, and like Mozart, he could store music in his head upon hearing it once. He could sight-read and remember anyone’s music no matter how complicated, astounding Wagner when they met. As a soloist in Paris at age 10, he offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore-- from memory. He was a prolific composer, producing symphonies, concertos, and much more from his late teens onward. None of this was particularly successful (perhaps too imitative of the works of others he had internalized in his perfect memory). From age 23 to 42 he made his living as organist of a famous Paris church; and thereafter by touring and writing.
He wrote 12 operas, one of which (Samson et Delila) became popular when he was 42. His first real success, at age 39, was Danse Macabre in the vein of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. What are most remembered are his organ symphony, and his Carnival of the Animals (both age 51). The latter is a parody of the styles of other composers; among the program notes are segments called “Pianists” and “Fossils”, playing conventional exercize-scales at breakneck speed. Saint-Saëns was apparently embarrassed by this piece, written for a student orchestra, since he prohibited publication until after his death. Ironically, Saint-Saëns and Franck, both jumping the gun as child prodigies, lived in relative obscurity as church organists for most of their lives. In the 1880s, when both of them were peaking, younger French composers divided into rival movements over whose style should be followed. Franck, the more avant-garde, won out just before he died. Saint-Saëns, the admirer of Beethoven, became increasingly bitter in the 1890s and onwards, especially towards the new standard-bearer, Debussy. Having tremendous talent at an early age is not enough to reach the top.
Chopin (born 1810) we have already viewed at length. LINK Just to recall a few dates: plays piano by age 5; composes age 7; tours Poland in early teens. At first, he is treated as a kind of mini-Liszt for Polish nationalists; but he is ignored in Vienna. He becomes creative when he meets the avant-garde network in Paris at age 21, and hits his stride about age 25. As we will see, this is still impressively on the early side.
One more child prodigy to mention is Prokofiev (born 1891). By now, Russian music is on the map, coming out of nowhere in the 1870s. None of the founding generation-- Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin-- are child prodigies. They have to work their way up from scratch, learn the new techniques of orchestration, establish music schools and staff them with teachers. But now there is a second generation. Prokofiev is composing at age 5, encouraged by his mother; he writes an opera at age 9. He enters St. Petersburg conservatory, is taught by Rimsky-Korsakov, and goes on to produce important works, starting at age 25 and hitting his stride at 30. No one’s compositions from age 5 or anywhere close to it ever made the repertory.
Liszt (born 1811): his father, an estate manager for the Esterhazy family (Haydn’s old patrons),* took him to Vienna, where he gave his first concert at age 10. The father gave up his post to promote his son’s career. Liszt was touring as a virtuoso pianist, from 10 to 36, with some interruptions while he pursued his love affairs. In Paris in 1823, he was “Le petit Litz”; in 1824 he gave a command performance in London for George IV. In the 1830s and 40s he was mobbed in the streets, greeted by processions of nobles, and even told the Czar to stop talking while he was playing. He made piano-playing a ripple of sounds, accompanied by expressions of face and posture ranging from agony to beatific joy that threw his sentimental audiences into ecstacy. Women cut snippets from his hair and clothes as keepsakes. His compositions dated from age 13 or earlier, but his innovative work did not take off until 22-6. He also improvized fantasias on themes from popular operas, and piano transcriptions of orchestral works by classics from Beethoven to Schubert as well as new stars like Berlioz and Wagner. Always a performer and promoter, he made elite music accessible to anyone with a piano. From his early teens, his fame dominated the music world for almost half a century, more as an emblem of the new phase after Beethoven than for his own compositions.
* Liszt’s father had even played in the Esterhazy orchestra.
Clara Wieck (Schumann) (born 1819): her father, a famous piano teacher, trained her from an early age, and took her touring from 11 onwards. By 16, she was creating a furor at her concerts. Her marriage at age 21 to Robert Schumann boosted his career, but she eclipsed him in performance so much he gave up touring with her. She had 8 children by age 35, returning to her concert career when she could, and when her husband sickened and died, to support her family. Her musical compositions were created before age 20, but performed after her marriage. How good she could have been on her own is a matter for conjecture.
Richard Strauss (born 1864): played piano age 4; composed from age 6. By his teens, he had composed in all genres, chamber music, concertos, symphonies. He never attended a conservatory, learning directly from players in the orchestra where his father was a leading instrumentalist; at age 16, he writes cheeky letters to publishers to promote his own music. At age 20, his new symphony wins Brahms’ approval, indeed he is “recognized as a budding Brahms.” Two years later he converts to the Wagner camp, and begins a series of tone poems from age 26 onwards that push the envelope of the avant-garde. He dominates the years between 1890 and 1911, when Strauss is the most famous living composer in Germany and perhaps in the world.
Rachmaninoff (born 1873) enters the St. Petersburg conservatory at age 9. At 19, he composes the ever-popular piano Prelude in C-sharp minor. After a long gap, at age 28 he launches into a series of piano concertos and other works that were enormous public favorites through the first half of the 20th century, fueling his career as celebrity pianist. Rachmaninoff makes the list of teen stars, but just barely; he hits his stride in his late 20s, about average age for important composers.
Great composers in their early 20s
Bach (born 1685): by age 15, he has a career as choir singer, orchestra violinist, and town organist. In the late 1600s, the organ had evolved from the medieval instrument with a dozen or so pipes set on a small table, to the massive multi-layer keyboard with pipes of all sizes (hence an enormous range from low rumbling bass to reedy high notes), taking up the entire wall of a church. Bach is the first to take full advantage of the big organ; his earliest compositions are for that instrument. His Tocatta and Fugue in D minor is composed in his 20s (the dates are obscure): the grandest and most impressive of all organ music, it is the first in Bach’s string of all-time favorites, extending through age 65.
Rossini (born 1792): father a trumpeter, mother an opera singer of secondary parts. Teenage singer in minor opera roles; attended Bologna conservatory age 14-18; harpsichord player and opera conductor at age 17; composes a long string of successful operas from age 19 onwards. His one big international hit, The Barber of Seville, is age 24. He retires from opera composing age 37, rich and famous.
Schubert (born 1797): performer, conductor and composer for his choir school orchestra, age 11-16; local Viennese reputation for coffee-house art-song evenings in his early 20s, with some subsequently famous songs composed in his teens (Gretchen am Spinnrad, 17; Erlkönig, 18-- both based on literary sources). * “Unfinished” Symphony is composed age 25; “Great” Symphony, finished age 27.
* An American equivalent would be Stephen Foster (born 1826), composing sentimental favorites Old Folks at Home and My Old Kentucky Home at age 25 and 27.
Arthur Sullivan (born 1842), son of a military bandleader; soloist in boys choir at the Chapel Royal; published a church anthem age 14; attended Leipzig Conservatory. Incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest made him famous at age 20. His In Memorium overture, age 24 put him “in the first rank of contemporary British composers.” Produced many cantatas, Shakespeare music, and hymns (Onward Christian Soldiers, age 29). His serious music did not last: it was “...at best, highly watered Mendelssohn. It is not surprising that an England whose musical god was Mendelssohn should have been enthusiastic over his disciple.” [Deems Taylor] Worked as a church organist, until collaborating on light operas with W.S. Gilbert from age 33, building to peak creativity when Sullivan was 36-43. Sullivan starts as a teen prodigy, is lionized in his early 20s; but is remembered for music composed in the late-success bracket.
The early-20s bracket is the real baseline for youthful success in the big leagues. Mozart, whose important work is from 22 onwards, belongs here; so does Rossini at 24; Chopin (about age 25); and arguably Liszt (from 22-26). Bach’s great organ works are in this neighbourhood. The only earlier great creations are from Schubert and Mendelssohn at 17, and Rachmaninoff at 19.
We will take up the question below why ultra-talented youths can keep getting better, with their best works 10-15 years or more after their first breakthroughs. Neither “talent” nor “inspiration” explains the timing; what does?
Typical Age of Success: Late 20s--early 30s
This is the normal or average age for first great musical success, containing more composers than any other bracket.
Berlioz (born 1803) has no musical background and never learns to play the piano. About age 12 he reads Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony (written a century earlier) and decides to compose music, a purely intellectual approach. His father sends him to Paris to study medicine, but he drops out after two years, and eventually gets into the Conservatoire at age 23. This provided great advantages, since conservatory students formed their own orchestra, playing the new music imported from Germany as well as their own.* At age 27 Berlioz produces Symphonie Fantastique, a symphony in name only; in fact a series of melodramatic scenes, explained in a long printed program to be distributed to the audience -- hence, “program music”. For its first performance (in the Conservatoire concert hall), Berlioz assembled a huge, very loud orchestra, ridiculed by critics. Liszt and Wagner supported him, and Berlioz gained recognition as the avant-garde of French music by his late 30s, although initially in Germany.
* This was also the set-up at Schubert’s choir school in Vienna that launched his career as a symphony composer.
Stravinsky (born 1882): son of an opera singer; after a long apprenticeship, becomes famous at 28 for The Firebird, Petrushka (29), and above all Rite of Spring (31).
Mussorgsky (born 1839) writes Night on Bald Mountain at 28 (but first performed in 1886, 5 years after his death); finishes Boris Godunov at 35; and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition at 35 (made famous by Ravel’s orchestration in 1922).
Wagner (born 1813) breaks through with his third opera, Rienzi, at age 29; finds his own style with The Flying Dutchman (30), and Tannhauser (32).
Verdi (born 1813) starts producing operas at age 25; has his first hit, Nabucco, at 29; and his peak fame with Rigoletto and La Traviata (38), and Il Trovatore (41).
Schumann (born 1810) son of a book-seller and music publisher, is better known as a music journalist from age 24; begins publishing songs in his late 20s, and produces important symphonies age 31-35.
Handel (born 1685) son of a court surgeon; studies with the cathedral organist, substituting for him at age 17; plays violin and harpsichord in the Hamburg opera at 18, composing several operas at 20. By 24 he is a famous keyboard player, acquiring patrons in Italy, Germany, and England, giving him a choice of positions. He produces successful operas since 26 (though subsequently forgotten); his famous Water Music is age 32; his great organ concertos are from age 50 onwards; The Messiah age 57.
Grieg (born 1843) attended Leipzing conservatory; has his first important composition age 25; theatre music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt makes him famous age 32.
Dvorak (born 1841) attends Prague organ school; is a violin player in the Prague theatre orchestra from age 22 until success with his Third Symphony at 33; international recognition for Slavonic Dances (37); and peak success with New World Symphony (51).
Debussy (born 1862), spends 12 years at the Paris Conservatoire (from age 10); his first important work is L’apres-midi d’une faune (32), becoming famous for his opera Pelléas et Mélisande (40), and above all La mer (43).
Donizetti (born 1797), studied at Bologna Conservatory. Begins writing operas at age 18 -- a very rapid worker, he can turn out an opera in a few weeks (similar to Rossini in both respects). His first success is age 25; his big hits are Anna Bolena (33), L’elisir d’amor (35), La fille du régiment (43), and Don Pasquale (46).
Vivaldi (born 1678): son of violinist at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice. From age 26 he is a prolific composer with his own built-in orchestra at a Venice orphanage for girls (having become a priest primarily for access to this kind of church position). His notable compositions are the collection L’estro armonico [harmonic inspiration or fantasy] age 34 and The Four Seasons (47).
Mahler (born 1860): attends Vienna Conservatory; a flamboyant conductor in his early 20s, he produces a series of notable symphonies from age 33 onwards, famous for unprecedented length (over an hour) and big sounds of a huge orchestra, sometimes with chorus.
Siberlius (born 1865) attended Finnish music academy, then studied in Berlin and Vienna. Became successful locally at age 27 with a choral symphony on the Finnish national epic; world-famous with Finlandia at age 34.
John Philip Sousa (born 1854) was son of a musician in the U.S. Marine Band. Played violin in his father’s band age 13-18, eventually became bandmaster age 26-38; in between he played in theatre orchestras, including operettas under visiting Offenbach. Marches were becoming the most popular musical entertainment, and Sousa had his first hit at 32, followed by Semper Fidelis (34), The Washington Post (35), and The Stars and Stripes Forever (43). At 38, he formed his own band, as famous in its day as the jazz bands that succeeded it in the 1920s: played by similar instruments (horns and drums), band marches preceded jazz in lively syncopated music.
To this group we could add composers already notable in their teens or early twenties but whose most famous compositions begin later:
Richard Strauss age 26, Death and Transfiguration.
Beethoven age 27, Sonata Pathetique.
Rachmaninoff age 28, Second Piano Concerto.
Prokofiev age 30, opera Love of Three Oranges.
For all their fame, their age of hitting peak productivity is typical.
Harder to place is Arnold Schoenberg (born 1874). Learned violin as a child; worked as a bank clerk in Vienna until 21; played string quartets with friends and had a composition performed professionally at 24. Moved to Berlin at 27, arranging and conducting cabaret songs and operettas until Richard Strauss got him a post teaching at a conservatory. At age 30-31 several works were performed, Verklärte Nacht (still conventional in form, with Wagnerian chromaticism) and the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. He began to abandon tonality in 1908; by 1910 his work was so controversial that a concert by Schoenberg and his pupils Berg and Webern was halted by the outraged audience. He now had patrons, a Europe-wide reputation, and his own school of followers; the twelve-tone system was exhibited in the early 1920s, at age 46. We can put his success as dating from age 30-36.
Another one hard to date is Henry Purcell (born 1659). He was a child singer in the Chapel Royal; in charge of repairing royal instruments at 14; organ tuner and organist at Westminster Abbey at 20; organ maker and keeper of the King’s instruments age 26. He produced numerous court songs, church anthems, theatre music and semi-operas (the latter from age 30). Unfamed during his lifetime, in retrospect elevated to England’s greatest composer.
Late bloomers: 30s-40s-50s
Carl Maria von Weber (born 1786) sang and acted bit parts in his parents’ troupe; wrote an unproduced opera age 14, and conducted orchestras at 20. He is a professional musician early, but finds fame only at age 35 with Der Freischutz.
Johann Strauss, Jr. (born 1825), son of Johann Strauss, Sr. (who himself started as a violinist in his father’s saloon and became leader and composer for a successful dance orchestra). Johann Sr. wanted Jr. to go into business, but he took secret lessons from a violinist in his father’s orchestra; and at 19 (father having left the family for another woman) started his own dance orchestra, which combined with his father’s after the elder’s death. By 28 he was conducting at court balls in Vienna; by 35 he had published over 200 dance tunes. His most famous orchestral waltzes date from the 1860s (age 35-45), shifting thereafter to composing operettas, his most famous (out of 15), Die Fledermaus, is at age 49.
Brahms (born 1833) son of a cafe musician; played piano in red-light saloons from age 10; at 20, toured as accompanist to a famous violinist. Scraped by in a series of minor positions until fame at age 35 for German Requiem. His famous symphonies, piano and violin concertos date from age 43-54.
Tchaikovsky (born 1840): early compositions age 26; first success at age 36 with Swan Lake ballet; Eugene Onegin (his 5th opera of an eventual 11) age 38; and great popularity with 1812 Overture age 40.
Leoncavallo (born 1857) attended Naples conservatory age 9-17, then took a degree in literature at Bologna University; free-lanced for years as a cafe musician until producing I pagliacci at age 35.
Puccini (born 1858) in a family of choirmasters and organists; had a late start at Milan Conservatory age 22. First big hit Manon Lescaut age 35; followed by La Bohème (38); Tosca and Madama Butterfly (42).
Franz Lehar (born 1870): father was a military bandmaster who sent his son to study violin at the Prague Conservatory at age 12. From age 20 young Lehar was a military bandmaster, composing popular waltzes and marches, eventually moving to Vienna. An early opera and several operettas were unsuccessful, but The Merry Widow (35) became a perennial favourite.
Bizet (born 1838) was the son of a singing teacher. Entered the Paris Conservatory age 10. Wrote a series of unsuccessful operas; on his 9th try, Carmen is performed in 1875, just before Bizet dies of an illness at age 37. Tchaikovsky traveled to Paris to hear it; Nietzsche rated its exciting music above Wagner.
Ravel (born 1874) studied at the Paris Conservatory from 14 to 24, finally gaining recognition for his brief Pavane pour une infante défunte. A meticulous orchestrator, he spent 3 years composing the music of Daphnis et Chloê for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, making him famous at age 37. His biggest hits were his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (48), and Bolero (54). In the 1930s he wrote: “I have failed all my life. I was not one of the great composers.” [Goulding 385]
We can insert here Saint-Saëns, whose first successes were age 39 and 42.
Also in this bracket belongs Arthur Sullivan (born 1842), famous when young for ephemeral works, but remembered for Gilbert and Sullivan operas H.M.S. Pinafore (36), Pirates of Penzance (37), and The Mikado (43). Even in their collaboration, success did not come automatically; these were their 4th, 5th, and 9th collaborations respectively. Outside the Gilbert and Sullivan series of 14, another 8 collaborations with different librettists were unsuccessful; Sullivan’s one grand opera (age 49) was an initial success but a financial failure, and subsequently forgotten.
Monteverdi (born 1567) in a musical family. A violinist, cathedral and court musician, he published books of secular madrigals from age 20; composed the first notable opera, Orfeo at age 40 while employed by the Duke of Mantua. Became music master at St. Mark’s cathedral, and after public opera houses opened in Venice in 1637, composed several more operas including another classic at age 71.
Rimsky-Korsakov (born 1844). Trained as a naval officer in St. Petersburg, active in the circle of young nationalist composers; became professor of orchestration at the Conservatory at 27, and Inspector of Naval Bands, a post newly created for him. Composed 13 operas, none very successful; but re-orchestrated and produced Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov after his death, as well as completing Khovanshchina; and after Borodin’s death in 1887, his Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsokov was responsible for the success of most of the other Russian composers (except Tchaikovsky), including the first performance of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. His own compositions were famous mainly for the symphonic suite Scheherazade (44) and Russian Easter Overture (45). Rimsky-Korsakov was the ultimate team player, rarely in the spot-light, but moving Russian technique of orchestration to the forefront of Europe. It was his style that set the tone for Hollywood background music, carried by foreign-born composers since the 1930s.
Gluck (born 1714) wrote about 50 operas, but his one famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, was at age 48. Why so late? He was the servant (and son of a servant) of several Princes and Queens; had a youthful stint as choir singer, violinist at village fairs, and opera singer; traveled with a patron to Italy where he began composing; knocked about the capitals of Europe; settled in Vienna in the orchestra of his original employer at age 34 (resembling the early career of Haydn). At 40 he is Court Composer, writing conventional operas for an Italian librettist (the Court Poet), costly productions with lavish scenery, costumes and plots of complicated intrigue and disguise. But the finances of Austrian court theatre are precarious and fluctuating, official sponsorship alternates with leased commercial companies, and shifting among Italian, French, and German lyricists, actors and singers. In an economy phase, Gluck is instructed to compose for a thinned-down French-style drama, matching the emotional intonation of the actors. Orfeo (1762) sets a new style, with fewer and shorter arias, more compelling plot and more recitatives to carry it, plus more orchestration than typical French theatre ensembles. He takes the new style to Paris in the 1770s when he follows Marie Antoinette who has married young Louis XIV. In Vienna he paved the way for Mozart; in France he has the fortune of dying in 1787, before his patroness is beheaded.
Haydn (born 1732) was a child choir-singer; then street-musician, accompanist to a famous singing teacher, and at age 30 violinist and then leader of Prince Esterhazy’s private orchestra. His first notable composition is age 49, with increasing fame into his 50s and 60s.
Domenico Scarlatti (born 1685), trained by his father Alessandro Scarlatti (a court composer of over 120 operas, none famous); first opera at age 24; choirmaster for the Pope at age 29-35. He became royal music master in Portugal and Spain for the rest of his life, entertaining the royal family by composing 550 sonatas for harpsichord, the earliest published when he was 53. His stunning rhythms, sudden chord changes, and abrupt phrase endings imitate guitar strumming and castanets of Spanish dancers. Though isolated, his change from the Italian milieu provided the ingredients for his success.
Would-be child prodigy César Franck (born 1822) comes in last, with his first serious notice at age 56, 60, and his famous Symphony in D minor at age 65.
Notice that composers whose success is earliest typically wrote short pieces -- songs, piano preludes and nocturnes, etc. Late arrivals are concentrated among opera composers-- the most difficult genre in which to make a success. As I have noted elsewhere LINK, even the greatest opera composers, with rare exceptions, had far more failures than successes. A lot of planets have to align for a great opera to happen.
Age of success in popular music
We see this pattern again in the careers of 20th century popular composers and musicians. Hit songs come earliest; Broadway musicals later.
Irving Berlin (born 1888): a newspaper vender and street singer at age 8, then singing waiter, he has a long apprenticeship learning all the popular songs before becoming a lyricist at 21. His first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, is at age 23. It is 1911, just when music records are starting to be sold, a popular industry that would eclipse creativity in classical music in the 1920s, at least in America. Berlin writes over 1500 songs in 40 years (about 1 per week); composing for numerous musicals and films, the most successful are in his 40s and 50s-- Top Hat (1935, age 47); Holiday Inn (1942, age 54); Annie Get Your Gun (1946, age 58); Call Me Madam (1950, age 62).
Jerome Kern (born 1885): wrote European-style operettas; first show 1912 (age 27); first big hit Showboat (with Ol Man River) (1927, age 42). Film hits Swing Time (1936, age 51, including The Way You Look Tonight) through 1944 (age 59).
Cole Porter (1891) writes the Yale Fight Song (“Bulldog, bulldog, bow-wow-wow, Ee-lyy Yale!”) while an undergraduate at age 20. After some classical music training, he starts writing songs for musicals at 24. His first Broadway success is not until age 38 (1929); his most popular songs are from the 1930s; his most successful musicals Anything Goes (43), Kiss Me, Kate (57), and Can-Can (62).
George Gershwin (1898): at age 18 he works for a Tin Pan Alley publisher of sheet music, singing new releases for shop customers (like Berlin, learning the competition by performing it). At 20, he is a Broadway rehearsal pianist. His first hit song is age 22 (for Al Jolson, who 5 years later would sing in the first “talkie”). Next year he is accompanying an opera soprano in concert hall performances of both pop and art songs. In 1924 (age 26) he composes Rhapsody in Blue, a fusion of jazz blue-notes with classical orchestra; at age 38, Porgy and Bess, the first and most enduring jazz opera.
Frederick Loewe (born 1901): son of a German opera singer, immigrated to New York 1924. His first broadway hit is Brigadoon (1947, age 46) and My Fair Lady (1956, age 55).
Richard Rodgers (born 1902): collaborates in college with lyricist Lorenz Hart from 1918 (age 16); first Broadway hit age 25. Writes film scores in early 1930s; plus intermittent, but unsuccessful symphonies. After Hart’s death, collaborates with Oscar Hammerstein in a string of big hits: Oklahoma (1943); South Pacific (1949); The King and I (1951); The Sound of Music (1959). His big hits are from age 41 to 57.
Frank Loesser (born 1910): big hit Guys and Dolls (1950, age 40).
Leonard Bernstein (born 1918): from age 25, wrote symphonies, ballet, and musicals, none very notable until West Side Story (1957, age 39).
On the jazz, pop and rock side:
Scott Joplin (born 1868): African-American, developed ragtime piano; famous since 1899 Maple Leaf Rag (age 31).
Louis Armstrong (born 1901): jazz trumpeter and singer; first big hits 1926-29 (age 25-28).
Bing Crosby (born 1901): sang in Paul Whiteman orchestra, 1926-30, one of first bands to broadcast nation-wide on radio. (This is the same band that premiered Rhapsody in Blue in 1924.) Film actor from 1930 to early 1960s, with his most famous songs from musical comedies in the early 1940s (age 40-plus). Crosby was among the first to adapt his voice to singing into a microphone, shifting from the loud operatic style to mellow crooning.
Frank Sinatra (born 1915): sang in clubs and on radio; first hits are band recordings age 25-27, making him a teen idol in the 1940s; biggest song hits were night-club style in the 1950s and 60s (age 40s-50s).
Bill Haley (born 1925): began as country/ western singer. Recorded the first rock-and-roll hits, Shake, Rattle, and Roll, and Rock Around the Clock, 1954 (age 29) (hence the term, rock-and-roll).
Chuck Berry (born 1926): big hits age 29-32; Maybelline (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Johnny B. Goode (1958) were the first rock-and-roll songs to top the pop, country, and rhythm-and-blues sales charts simultaneously.
Fats Domino (born 1928): began as barrelhouse pianist in rhythm-and-blues and jazz bands; after changing styles, rock-and-roll hits 1955-56 (age 27-28).
Carl Perkins (born 1932): country/rock cross-over 1956, Blue Suede Shoes (age 24); toured with Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash (born 1932): country music with rock backup; big hit I Walk the Line, 1956 (24).
From here on, the age of success becomes lower, dipping to the early 20s and occasionally the late teens.
Jerry Lee Lewis (born 1935): country and gospel background; hyper piano-playing hits 1956-7 (age 21-2).
Elvis Presley (born 1935): religious family, choir boy; first record 1953 (age 18); first big hits Heartbreak Hotel; Love Me Tender, both 1956 (21).
Everly Brothers, Don and Phil (born 1937, 1939): began in parents’ country music shows in Iowa; big hits singing duets with country-style guitars with electric amplifiers and rock-and-roll beat 1957-60 (ages 18-21, 20-23).
The Beatles: John Lennon (born 1940), Ringo Star (1940), Paul McCartney (1942), George Harrison (1943). Band formed 1960 (when they were age 20, 20, 18, and 17) playing American rock-and-roll. Began composing their own songs and developed their own style (backed by sophisticated studio electronics)* 1963 (at age 23, 23, 21, and 20).
* We could add George Martin (born 1926), the Beatles’ record producer and sound engineer. His background was in classical orchestration; he had never recorded rock-and-roll, but supplied string quartet segments for Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby. When Beatlemania hit in 1964, Martin was slowing down some taped tracks and combining them with others speeded up, using techniques he had previously experimented with in avant-garde music. The 38-year-old was creating studio effects for Beatles records that could not be heard in their live concerts.
The Rolling Stones: Bill Wyman (born 1941), Charlie Watts (1941), Mick Jagger (1943), Keith Richard (1943). The band formed 1962 (ages 21, 21, 19 and 19) and became famous 1965 (ages 24, 24, 22, and 22), also with heavily engineered electronic effects.
Bob Dylan (born 1941): conventional folk-song acoustical guitar player until 1963-5, when his music morphed into political protests (A Hard Rain Gonna Fall; Times They are a-Changing) in electrically amplified rock (age 22-24).
In the rock-and-roll era and into electric rock, the musicians became younger, but remained about 5-to-8 years older than their core teen fans. The most successful -- Elvis, the Beatles-- are baby-faced, looking younger than they are. Expensive electronic studios were not available to the very young.
Altogether, it is rare to become a pop star before age 21 or 22, or to produce a great musical before 40. Fastest to the top was Gerschwin; if we take Rhapsody in Blue as an orchestral suite, age 24 is impressively early for an all-time classic. Timing has a lot to do with it. In the 1920s, blue-note jazz was just starting to reach a mass audience as yet mostly familiar with classical music. Aaron Copland (born 1900), an American trained in the European avant-garde, was approaching the same blend of jazz and classical from the other side and at the same time. Working out of the same mix, Duke Ellington (born 1899) in a prosperous black family in Washington D.C., composed smooth chromatic harmonies for his big band; since he wrote for the 3-minute span of 78-rpm records, his larger classical compositions had to wait until later in life.
In the 1920s, the atonal music of the classical avant-garde would leave most listeners behind. Jazz was poised to fill the gap: it opened up new rhythms and chord sequences, while remaining understandable in its conventional sonata-like repetitions, variations and resolutions to the tonic key. As classical composers shifted increasingly from light operetta to musicals, jazz musicians created most of their sounds by improvising on a repertoire of Broadway show tunes, the jazzier music using more conventional songs as a platform. The equivalent of Schoenberg and his followers’ atonal music did not hit jazz until late 1940s be-bop. This also became too esoteric for most listeners, leaving the field open for the simplified, hard-driving mini-sonatas of rock-and-roll in the 1950s and its electronic successors in the 60s. *
* The sonata form that became standard for orchestra and piano music in the 1700s had three movements in related keys (typically fast-slow-fast or major-minor-major); within each movement consisting of a first theme, second theme, and return. Twentieth century popular songs used a short version of this form, repeating the principal melody phrase of a few bars twice, varying it the third time, and returning to the original phrase the fourth time; sometimes embedded in a repeated chorus-and-verse form with related melodies. There is nothing in rock-and-roll that Beethoven would have found unfamiliar except the instruments and some of the rhythm.
Classical music now became “classic” in the additional sense of “great music from the past.” The divide from popular music opened up as never before. The field was left for youthful musicians to become successful song-writers; but long complex compositions no longer commanded attention. The excited audiences essential to the phonomenon of touring child prodigies had other things to enthuse about. The era of musical child prodigies was over.
It is genes?
Genetic talent may exist, but it is not the over-riding influence on creative success. The examples of Franck and Saint-Saëns show an abundance of early talent but their success came late. The eidetic memory of Saint-Saëns for music he had heard inhibited him from composing music that was more than imitative. This implies that Mozart’s similar capacity for storing music in his head was not the factor that made him so successful as an innovator.
If musical talent is hereditary, we would expect a high correlation between parent and child creativity. But there are very few cases where both generations were well-known musicians, and the levels of creativity from one generation to the next are not closely matched. Johann Sebastian Bach far eclipsed his journeyman ancestors; of his 11 children, 3 became well-known as performers; a 4th, C.P.E. Bach, was temporarily a notable composer but of the second rank, his works no longer heard. Those closest in level of success were Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, but Domenico became famous while his father is forgotten; and Domenico’s talent did not blossom until very late, after he moved out of his father’s milieu. The pattern is similar with Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr., except that the younger effectively takes over his father’s enterprise and composes much more memorable music. Since heredity comes from both father and mother, we would expect the children of Robert and Clara Schumann would be eminent; but none of the eight were heard of since. Genes must be been good for the children of Wagner and Liszt’s daughter Cosima; but at best they become curators of the Bayreuth shrine. Among pop musicians, Bob Dylan had 6 children but none of them famous musicians. There are some brother pairs; Franz Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Michael Haydn was a well-known music teacher, but nowhere close in creativity.
In sum, among the 78 high-creativity careers analyzed here, including both classical and popular, there are only 3 parent-child links: J.S. Bach-C.P.E. Bach; the Scarlattis; and J. Strauss Sr. and Jr.; nowhere does truly high creativity get transmitted by heredity.*
* We could add Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli, uncle and nephew (1500s), both composers and organists at St. Mark’s, Venice. The pattern is similar among famous artists. Among hundreds of important artists in the lst 600 years, the only well-known family connections are: the brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini (late 1400s), the latter far more famous and influential, plus their father Jacobo, a minor painter; the Breughel family (mid-1500s-early 1600s, Pieter (the most famous), and his sons Pieter and Jan (the latter also well known, the other less so). Child prodigies in the musical sense are unheard of among famous artists.
Following the family music trade
Nevertheless, a large proportion of top composers had parents who were professional musicians. Mostly these parents were unremarkable, but they did provide exposure to professional life from an early age; and a head start on the first 15 years or so of training in the craft. Also the network contacts they provided, that steered their children towards the centers of musical production.
Father and/or mother were musicians: (listed in chronological order and age of first success)
1600s: Monteverdi, Vivaldi
1700s: Bach, D. Scarlatti, Mozart, Beethoven
1800s-early1900s: Rossini, von Weber, Schumann, Liszt, Clara Wieck, Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr, Brahms, Bizet, Sullivan, Sousa, Lehar, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Stravinsky
This group includes most of the leading composers, with the exception of the first generation of Russia composers (Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov), who were building a music industry from scratch. They did have the advantage of being a strongly linked network, acting as a self-conscious social movement.
Other kinds of family head-start:
Four important creators were launched by family connections: Liszt, whose father was employed by the same noble family that supported Haydn, and which gave young Franz an enthusiastic send-off at age 8 to study in its music network in Vienna. Mendelssohn, whose family was famous in cultural circles, and aggressively used them to promote his reputation as a child prodigy. Chopin, whose father’s connections as French tutor in a wealthy exile family in Poland promoted young Frederic as a child prodigy. All these families hired expensive music tutors, providing professional training at an early age. Wagner, whose mother, sisters and brothers were actresses and theatre managers, providing connections to institutions that were simultaneously venues for musical productions. Wagner began as a theatre manager, a job that included producing and directing operas; he learned the scores for all the instruments by directing them in rehearsals and performances.
Child choir singers:*
1700s: Gluck, Haydn (also Bach)
1800s: Schubert (also Sullivan)
This was an alternative to having a family in the music business. Boy sopranos could start as young as 8, and remain until their voice broke at 14 or 15. Since these establishments were residential and provided practical training in other instruments and ensembles, it was the equivalent of an early start as a professional.
* (parentheses) indicate overlap with list of musician parents
Formal conservatory education:*
1800s: (Rossini), Donizetti, Berlioz, Franck, Saint-Saëns, (Bizet), Grieg, Dvorak, (Sullivan), Leoncavallo, (Puccini), Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, (Stravinsky), Prokofiev
No one before 1800 attends a conservatory. The earliest conservatories are in Italy (Bologna, Naples, Milan). The Paris conservatory dates from 1795; thereafter all the French musicians (except those who are foreigners) go that route. Germany starts establishing conservatories in 1843 (Leipzig; later Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere)-- it doesn’t need them earlier, since its networks are so creative already. Scandinavian, central European, and English composers (Grieg, Dvorak, Sibelius, Sullivan) go to Germany to train; so do Russians who establish the St. Petersburg and later Moscow conservatories in the 1860s. They are all in the business of catching up. American composers (Aaron Copland, Cole Porter) do the same thing in the early 1900s.
The main effect of conservatories is that it slows down creativity; it takes longer to get through the requirements, and in general it seems to inhibit early success. The main exception here is Rossini, who spent only a few years at the Bologna conservatory, and he was already experienced in all aspects of opera.
None of the above:
This leaves us with a short list of major composers who had neither musical families, child choir, nor conservatory education.
Handel is from the era before music schools. His father was a distinguished court physician (his memorial portrait has the ceremonial trappings of an honored member of the elite), and he opposed his son’s interest in music as too low-status. But a palace aristocrat intervened, allowing Handel to learn music by apprenticeship and as a teen professional musician. The early 1700s are when aristocrats are beginning to compete for prestige through the musicians in their palaces. Handel is sponsored by a series of patrons who take him on the grand tour (much as Mozart was taken by his father 50 years later), where he encounters the leading network and launches his own creativity. In personal style, Handel is always the grand gentleman, and his connections in England-- even his business ventures-- are among the high aristocracy.
Verdi is rejected from the Milan conservatory; nevertheless he uses the visit to take private lessons from a La Scala musician, and makes connections with the Ricordi music publishing house (literally next door), which signs up a stable of budding opera composers. Verdi manages to get into the Milan conservatory network without actually attending officially.
Schoenberg is the most-outside outsider of any influential composer. He is also the most radical. He does have the advantage of growing up in Vienna, where musical networks were plentiful; and to work in Berlin (in low-level commercial music, to be sure), when Richard Strauss was director of the court opera and supportive leader of the avant-garde.
American and English pop composers and jazz musicians are like Schoenberg in this respect: rarely from musical families, often without formal training, but getting a start in the commercial music industries.
If not hereditary genius, how about the flash of genius that music journalists like to talk about in explaining musicians who pop up anywhere? This begs two questions.
Why do flashes of genius cluster at particular times and places? (Vienna; Paris; Milan; St. Petersburg; New York music theatres and Tin Pan Alley record companies) And why is there a pattern of individual careers, such that inspiration strikes at a particular age?
The surprising thing is that composers don’t use up their best ideas, their best melodies first. If genius is self-contained, why is it that Mozart has better tunes at age 32 than he does at 18? That Verdi is better at 38 than at 25? That Puccini is at his peak at 42, and Sullivan at 43? Haydn at 60 and Franck at 65?
This points to another use for our lists of creativity at different ages and career paths. It allows us to zoom in on what kind of skill is musical creativity? Partly, it is discovering what are the innovative possibilities in the field, how to tweak existing work, or recombine materials, or take a drastically new direction; and this requires familiarity with the leading edge of the network. In world philosophy, science, and art, this is done almost without exception by personal contact, either with the previous generation of creators, or with a contemporaneous network of rebellious “Young Turks” [Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies]. In music, it is possible (and indeed essential) to get this familiarity by reading the scores of other publishers’ music; by experiencing how they play out in practice by conducting them; even through grunt-work like Wagner performed in Paris copying out instrument scores of his operatic competitors. American pop composers largely got it by demonstrating songs in record stores and playing accompanyments at rehearsals. Part of the skill is internalizing the existing techniques of the field.
And partly it is the skill of connecting what you hear with what you can do with your body and its instruments: whether it be voice, fingers on a violin or piano, mouth on a horn; and also-- eyes reading a score and fingers writing out the notes, connected by a brain that hears the sounds on paper and their rhythms and harmonies and tensions that move the music along or bring it to an expected climax. This is a skill that all composers develop, even if Mozart stands out for his easy facility and Beethoven for being able to do it when deaf. The age of creativity in a musical career depends on how long it takes to read music in your head; and on where the best places are to get these skills, and turn them loose of making high-speed recombinations of the music already internalized.
There is currently a lot of publicity about “muscle memory” and taking 10,000 hours of repetition to become good at anything. Whatever the number is, getting an early start from the family business, or its various substitutes, is how this skill at musical creativity builds up. The striking thing in music (though perhaps not among athletes) is that the skill keeps on getting better over time, even after what seem to be the most obvious musical combinations have already been tried. This is not just a matter of a certain number of hours of individual brain-and-muscle training; it is the hours engaging with the advanced network that counts.
Being a musician shifts from low status to high status career
And one must want to innovate. Many composers-- all the lesser ones, and some of the major ones in early career-- are satisfied to use the same professional techniques that already exist; this is how individual opera composers in the 1600s and 1700s could turn out hundreds of operas, all in the same mold, and generally to be forgotten. Creativity-- the search for innovations-- is a collective mood of the musical networks at a particular period in history. It was at its peak when the craze for child prodigies happened.
One major obstacle was that for centuries musicians were regarded as servants, carrying out the wishes of their masters, entirely ruled by their audiences. There was considerable opposition to innovation. Traditionalists were particularly strong in the church, the major employer of musicians. There was even some controversy over whether music should be allowed at all in church services, lest it be too beautiful and distracting. Music outside the church was widely regarded as evil, the work of the devil, or at least of drunkenness and debauchery.
In the centuries of Western art up through the 1400s, musicians were depicted only as angels.
|1450 Fouquet, angel choir|
Around 1500, we start seeing paintings of music in secular settings, but the connotation is strongly negative. Hieronymous Bosch, in his famous tryptich The Garden of Earthly Delights (about 1500), has a section depicting Hell: it is full of devils tormenting naked sinners with the musical instruments they had enjoyed in taverns and brothels.
|1500 Bosch, Hell|
|1470 German bathhouse|
This attitude persisted during the struggles between Protestants and Catholics down through the 1600s:
|1620 Buytewech, carousers|
The fiddle in particular had a bad reputation. In the era when musicians often played alone or in very small ensembles, the “strolling fiddler” was synonymous with a wandering vagrant and low-life. The term “violinist” did not replace it until orchestral music (which required much bigger funding) developed and concert soloists like Paganini became famous in the 1820s.
There also existed wealthy and high-status supporters of music, chiefly in the aristocratic courts:
|1710 Pelligrini, court musicians|
But courts also had the reputation of being scandalously secular, even atheist, and for low sexual morality among courtiers with their dancing and affairs. The development of theatres, performing plays and operas, created another profession of actors, ballet dancers and musicians, sometimes admired on stage, but always suspect for immorality. Thus the growth of venues for musical creativity went along with widespread opposition from moralists and traditionalists; professional musicians were tainted with low status. It was not a career for a gentleman, or even a serious artisan.
|Queen Elizabeth dancing with courtier|
We see this in the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, who became a famous goldsmith in Italy in the early 1500s. His father was an architect and engineer in Florence; he also was an amateur musician, who loved to play the flute for his own enjoyment. There was apparently a growing number of such private amateurs among the respectable classes. The elder Cellini belonged to a town band of fifers composed of members of important guilds; but the Medici family who ruled the city forced him to resign because he was spending too much time on music instead of his own craft. The father wanted young Benvenuto to become one of the palace musicians, and refused to teach him any other craft: “I don’t want him to learn anything except playing and composing, because if God lets him live I hope to turn him into the greatest musician in the whole world.” But the town officials warned him off: “Will he never be anything other than a good musician?” “Your Benvenuto will get much more honor and profit if he studies how to be a goldsmith than he will out of all this fifing nonsense.” [pp. 18-27]
|1650 Steen, amateur musician|
The same attitudes persist in the mid-1700s. Casanova’s Memoirs says his parents were actors in a Venice theatre. After they died, he attended a school run by a Catholic priest who taught him the violin. Trained as a priest, he became secretary to various officials, then soldier and adventurer. In 1745 (age 20), he returned to Venice, making a living “scraping my violin in the orchestra of a theatre for one crown (about $10) a day... I grant that my profession was not a brilliant one, but I did not mind it for I was not long in sharing all the habits of my degraded companions. When the play was over, I went with them to the drinking booth, which we often left, intoxicated, to spend the night in houses of ill-fame. Or we rambled about the city, inventing the most impertinent practical jokes... unmooring the patricians’ gondolas, letting them float at random among the canals, enjoying the curses of the gondoliers...” Playing fiddle at a noble’s wedding, he rescued a Senator from an apoplectic stroke using amateur medicine, and was rewarded by “taking me from the vile profession of a fiddler, raised me to the rank of a grandee.” [pp. 86-91]
Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a similar peripatetic life in Switzerland, Italy, and southern France by charming patrons and acting as servant and secretary. Many of them were amateur musicians playing for the own enjoyment, or promoting little concerts in their homes where Rousseau played the flute; he picked up a knowledge of music at a Catholic choir school, and supplemented his livelihood giving music lessons to daughters of wealthy families. Musicians of his acquaintance were generally poor, and their private concerts were “protested by the ultra-devout”, but Rousseau with his usual enthusiasm took the lead in “collecting the music, the performers, the instruments, writing out the parts, and conducting with a baton.” [pp. 178-79] He read Rameau’s Treatise on Harmony and decided to emulate him in a career as opera composer. At age 29 (1741) he went to Paris, carrying his theatre piece and “counting on my system of musical notation as a sure means to fortune” [p.263] -- he had invented a system of writing down music quickly by means of numbers instead of labouriously drawing notes on a 5-line stave. In Paris, his notation was rejected as impractical, but he found enough interest in music theory to be asked to write articles on it for the Encyclopédie. By charming aristocrats and impressing literary circles, Rousseau managed to get a hearing for some of his opera work, but never was able to overcome financial obstacles to a full production. He eked out a living by secretarial work and copying music, until 1750 (age 38) his essays in social philosophy won him fame in another direction.
Altogether, the keyholes of Rousseau’s and Casanova’s experiences show that by the 1740s-50s music had become fashionable among cosmopolitan aristocrats and the intellectual avant-garde, while plenty of traditionalist opposition still existed. Musicians were starting to be noticed, but were treated as servants unless they acquired intellectual fame as writers (hence advancing composers over performers) or had particularly powerful patrons. Attending theatre or opera (usually in the same building) was the nightly entertainment in urban centers like Vienna, Paris and Venice; while musicians themselves were of ambiguous respectability.
As the business of printing musical scores spread, composer’s names were becoming well-known. Ladies of the house are now portrayed at their keyboard.
|1762 Nattier, lady pianist|
And taking music out of the realm of feminine domesticity, we see in 1800 a portrait of a Spanish nobleman, standing beside his piano, holding up a Haydn score.
|1795 Goya, Spanish marquis|
The age of the big star-- the performer/composer-- Beethoven! was about to arrive.
The when and where of child prodigies
Child prodigies are not a biological phenomenon, but an historical one. They are not a sudden outburst of genetically-determined talent.
Look at the dates when parents tout their children as geniuses of the keyboard and tour them around as would-be celebrities:
First wave: Mozart and Beethoven in the 1760s-70s.
Second wave: Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Clara Wieck/Schumann, Franck in the 1820s-30s. (We could add young Schubert in the 1810s, although he is never toured or touted; but learns music in the midst of the Beethoven adulation in Vienna.)
Why the gap between the first two waves? In network terms, the launching of Mozart and Beethoven are the same phenomenon. Mozart’s father in the household orchestra of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, and Beethoven’s father in the household orchestra of the Elector of Cologne are in satellites to the Emperor’s court at Vienna. Travel to the center was common, so was musical gossip from there, and both Mozart and Beethoven made several trips to Vienna before settling there. (When they arrived, both had the same musical patron, Baron von Swieten.) Beethoven’s father touring young Ludwig as a prodigy in 1778 is a direct imitation of Mozart’s tours between 1762 and 1775.
But Mozart was too early to be adulated as a great musician, and Beethoven did not become the first of that status until the early 1800s. The best-connected musical patronage network of the late 1700s energized its most promising youths, but the cultural concept of a child prodigy who was a living Greatest-of-All-Time was not created until they were mature.
The second wave in the 1820s and 30s is the peak era the child prodigy phenomenon. Crowds now adulate great musicians, even above the level of aristocracy-on-its-way-down; matching and exceeding the fame that Renaissance artists achieved around 1500 in the generation of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michaelangelo. It fact, much bigger and more widespread crowds, since paintings hardly traveled; but now concerts halls were spreading beyond the courts to cities all over Europe. Touring music stars became the normal practice in this era. Given the enormous success of Liszt, and the considerable fame of Mendelssohn and Chopin, there was a huge emotional attraction (and financial as well) for parents to launch their piano-playing children as early as possible. Indeed, they overloaded the market; there were undoubtably more failed child-tours than the ones we know about because they later became successful composers.
Not quite a third wave, but a couple of notable stragglers are: Saint-Saëns in the mid-1840s, Sullivan in the late 1850s. By this time, conservatory education had taken over from tutors and apprenticeship networks; and formal education always lengthens rather than shortens the career take-off. What Saint-Saëns and Sullivan can do at an early age is no longer quite so amazing (now that it had been done many times). England has the last famous child-composer, probably because it was dominated by imported continental musicians for so long that it made too much over its first home-grown one. (And not really that home-grown, since Sullivan is sent to study at Leipzig.) England would get its music schools and its notable composers (Elgar, Holst, Vaughn Williams) by the end of the century, but they would no longer be child prodigies.
Our take-away message is not merely negative. Creativity requires both learning advanced professional skills and strong motivation for fame as an innovator. These come from networks, and the child prodigy phase of history points up two ways these ingredients are generated: either through families or formal institutions. Child prodigies belong to the first type, since it is parents who launch a child prodigy career. This happened at the tail end of an era when musicians learned their trade from parents and relatives from an early age. Being a good young musician means getting an early start; in that period almost all great musicians began as child musicians, but were not singled out as child prodigies.
The second type, formal institutions such as music conservatories, became substitutes for musical parents. They also provided steady employment for mature composers, and a reliable way to pass sophisticated skills to the next generation. But institutional training starts later and lasts longer. That is the significance of the passing away of child prodigies.
The popular German cartoonist Wilhelm Busch depicted the star performer and his audience in the 1840s: