Monday, 23 March 2020

The greatest piece of music ever written by a child

There are many child prodigies in music - usually performers, but some composers as well. The most famous - Mozart - did not write any of his canonical works while a child, and indeed his early works are merely curiosities.

The fact is that compositional ability (like the related ability to do creative mathematics) apparently requires an adult brain, adult experience - or some-thing that takes a while to ripen.

But the exception is Mendelssohn; who wrote the above Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream shortly before he was eighteen, and this is recognised as first rate of its kind. To my ear, it is indeed the best thing Mendelssohn ever did.

The only other child-written music which is in the Western canon, and fairly often performed, are Rossini's String Sonatas done when he was just twelve years old!

These are merely light, entertaining trifles; and nothing like as good as the composer's later work; but they are very pleasant, and good enough that people still voluntarily listen-to and play them, two hundred years later!


Epimetheus said...

I wrote this piece between ages 17-18. It's immature, and the reverb is washed out, but it was an impressive piece at the time. I wrote it by ear on Finale with no musical theory training or knowledge.

a_probst said...

Ouch! (That's not a response to Epimetheus, he just beat me to the comments, that's all.) I've probably been ruined by period instrument recordings, in this case that of Charles Mackerras directing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, but the one you selected is just too high-pitched for me. The 1988 Mackerras recording includes the Op. 21 overture and the Op. 61 incidental music (eight excerpts) that Mendelssohn composed when he was 2 X 17. There's an ophicleide rather than a tuba.

Bayan Northcott's notes to the recording include an indirect quote from Hans Keller to the effect that "the magnitude of Mendelssohn's genius has been continually underrated because he solved his compositional problems so perfectly that it is difficult to realize there were any in the first place."

He was not a bad draughtsman either, but you probably knew that. I didn't:
--an important talent for a traveler like him before the age of photography.

The Rossini is higher than I remember. In fact I tend to render most pieces of music when I play them in my head in a slightly lower key. My sister thinks it's because the family turntable was running a little slow during my childhood and early adolescence, but I don't know. She had musical training, I didn't.

Mentioning Rossini reminds me of a quote by a Chinese artist whose name I can't recall who said that he wanted to master drawing so well that artistry would show in even a single line. Rossini seems to me to achieve that difficult simplicity in the overture to La scala di seta, "The Silken Ladder".

So, in one instance I could name, does Elgar. I wish I could reach back in time and twist his arm until he agrees to make a full march, A-B-A form, of the first three minutes of his Symphony No. 1. I would like to see it used once in a while in place of the No. 2 P&C March.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - Surely it is the conductor and interpretation that matters, not the pitch and instrumentation? However, Mackerras was ceryainly a superb conductor, and it is quite possible his version is better than Abbado, which I just picked as being acceptable and available.

But it sounds as if you are afficted by that malady termed 'perfect pitch' - when the reality is that musical pitch is not and never has been 'perfect'. My sympathies!

I'm afraid I totally disagree with Keller's estimate of Mend. as one of the greats - I'd place him as a third rater!

But then I disagree with most of Keller's evaluations (I know Keller's work pretty well) - such as his high estimate of the Haydn String Quartets. I agree they are very pleasing and enjoyable - but I do not regard them as great music.