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Update August, 2019

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Classical Connections By Colin Kaye


Prodigious feats


Erich Wolfgang Korngold in 1913.

Browsing through some music videos a couple of days ago, I came across a performance by a violinist of about six years old who was described as a “child prodigy”. He was talented, but he wasn’t a child prodigy. Nowhere near. I think the word “prodigy” is used a bit too generously these days to describe children who are exceptionally talented but certainly not in the prodigy class. A prodigy is usually defined as a child who has reached adult or even professional levels of musical understanding, attitudes and performance before the age of ten. The pianist Van Cliburn, who started playing piano at the age of three, once described child prodigies as “having extraordinary vision and unusual prescience, amazingly aware of the world at an early age.”

Music seems to have more than its fair share of child prodigies and includes the composers Barber, Bizet, Chopin, Menotti, Paganini and Purcell. The most famous perhaps were Mozart and Mendelssohn. Science knows remarkably little about the mental functioning of these extraordinary beings, though there is no shortage of theories. The issue inevitably brings up the time-worn “nature vs. nurture” debate, which is about whether potential high levels of skill are already present when the child is born or whether they’re brought about by the child’s early environment. I’d guess that both nature and nurture have a role to play.  

Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University has estimated that there’s one child prodigy to every five million, or possibly ten million children. The Ohio research has shown that a common denominator is an exceptional working memory. Such children also have an intense, obsessive attention to detail and an elevated general intelligence. Interestingly, they tend to be far more altruistic than most other people. Contrary to popular belief, child prodigies don’t usually fade away in their adult years. Many prodigies have lived into their eighties and nineties and continued performing careers until towards the end of their lives.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Symphony for Strings No.10 in B minor. Amsterdam Sinfonietta (Duration: 10:50; Video: 1080p HD) 

Mendelssohn was fourteen when he completed this sparkling symphony in the spring of 1823. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe considered the young Mendelssohn superior to Mozart at the same age. Even today, some historians regard the quality of his music during his early teens shows a greater sophistication than that of Mozart at a comparable age. Of course, Mendelssohn was writing fifty years later and would have already studied the finest works that Mozart and Haydn produced. So he did, after all, have a slight advantage. Nevertheless, this is wonderful music by any standards and stunningly original in concepts.

Mendelssohn’s previous symphonic works, the Eighth and Ninth string symphonies are expansive four-movement works lasting nearly half an hour each, while this tenth symphony is a short single movement work. Some writers have suggested that it was originally a full-length symphony like the previous two, though no evidence has yet been found. But just listen to the serene opening of this work: for a moment he takes us back in time to the late Baroque. But then a playful theme enters (01:47) with a lovely contrasting lyrical melody. The music is assured, confident and quite brilliant, from the hand of a teenager who was streets ahead of his contemporaries and destined to take his place among the greatest names in music.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957): Sinfonietta Op 5. Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Hannu Lintu (Duration: 44:53; Video: 480p)

Gustav Mahler described Erich Korngold as a musical genius. The boy composed this fine work at the age of fifteen. Four years earlier, he’d written his ballet Der Schneemann (“The Snowman”), first performed by the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra.

The Sinfonietta is an amazingly complex work for one so young. It was his first large-scale orchestral composition and the brilliantly orchestrated work is remarkable in its maturity and really sounds as though it was written by someone with many more years’ experience. There are some wonderful melodies and the beginning of the scherzo (at 11:17) is almost pure Hollywood.

Korngold of course later went to Hollywood and became a prolific composer of film music. It’s sometimes said that he “invented” film music because he treated each movie as an “opera without singing”, writing sumptuous melodies and contrapuntally intricate scores. Although his musical style sounds a bit dated nowadays, he had a significant influence on film music. In 1938 he won an Academy Award for his score to The Adventures of Robin Hood, the first composer to receive one.

For some reason, he eventually became disillusioned with the movie industry and in 1946 stopped writing film scores altogether, turning his attention to writing for the concert hall. But his music remained stylistically in the nineteenth century and one American critic unkindly described Korngold’s Violin Concerto as being “more corn than gold”. Honestly, how bitchy can you get?

Merrie Melodies


Mikhail Glinka’s image on a USSR postage stamp (1957).

Can you remember the famous Merrie Melodies cartoons? They were made between 1931 and 1969 and three of them even won Academy Awards. The name sprung to mind as I recalled an occasion some years ago when I once became intensely irritated on hearing a well-meaning but ill-informed elementary music teacher talking to her class about “happy sounds” and “sad sounds”. She was trying to convince the children that the notes C and E played together sounded “happy” and that the notes C and E flat sounded “sad”. Of course, all this was complete and total nonsense and with as much tact and diplomacy as I could muster, I told her so.

It was unfortunate that the teacher was feeding her class the hopelessly na´ve notion that music is either “happy” or “sad”. The other day I found an article in which someone had foolishly listed examples of “music that makes you happy”. A further Internet search revealed lists of music “which makes you sad.” It’s just far too superficial. Perhaps it’s too subjective to warrant such a list because an individual’s reaction to music is informed by their frames of reference, not to mention cultural background or personal taste and experience. Anyway, the important thing is that there are countless shades of meaning and emotion between and outside the simplistic notions of “happy” and sad”.

Some music can be so full of radiant joy and elation that it makes your spirits soar and you find yourself weeping. Now why is that, I wonder? Well, my knowledge of psychology is such that I’d prefer to leave that for you to ponder. You may recall that Hans Christian Andersen once wrote, “Where words fail, music speaks”.

Even so, I can think of many pieces that uplift the spirits and brighten the day. Perhaps they even evoke a sense of merriment - for at least part of the time. But with the possible exception of Swiss accordion players, most musicians know that unrelenting jollity can become wearisome. In Gustav Holst’s The Planets the fourth movement is entitled Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity but the jovial mood soon gives way to one of his noblest melodies. Dvorak’s effervescent and sprightly Carnival Overture includes a beautiful middle section of almost heart-breaking nostalgia. And talking of overtures, here are two that might lift your spirits, assuming of course that you feel the need to have them lifted.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990): Overture to Candide. Symphony Orchestra of Galicia cond. Leonard Slatkin (Duration: 04:41; Video: 480p) 

In case you’d forgotten (or possibly never knew) Galicia is an autonomous community in Spain which lies in the far north-west corner of the country just north of Portugal. Go any further north-west and you’d be sloshing about in the Atlantic. Their local orchestra gives a superb performance of this Bernstein classic and I enjoyed it more than that the performance by Bernstein himself with the London Symphony.

Bernstein’s operetta Candide was first performed in 1956 and based on the novella of the same name written almost exactly two hundred years earlier by the French writer, historian and philosopher Franšois-Marie Arouet, better known by his pseudonym Voltaire.

The overture is a lively and engaging work with a catchy opening theme which gives way to a passionate melody (01:24) that recurs triumphantly later in the work. This theme has a wonderfully fluid quality produced by using alternate bars of two and three beats. The overture combines energy, delight, passion and vulgarity and the exciting Rossini-style crescendo (04:57) drives this heart-warming work to a satisfying conclusion.

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857): Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, cond. Valery Gergiev (Duration 04:33, Video 1440p HD)

This is a sizzling overture, which I first came across at the age of fourteen. It’s remarkable that the music sounds so modern for something written in 1840. The overture is taken from Glinka’s opera of the same name which was based on an epic fairy-tale poem by Alexander Pushkin. In case you’re wondering, Ludmilla is the daughter of a prince and the damsel in distress who is rescued from the clutches of a wicked wizard by the brave knight Ruslan. Of course, there’s more to it, but that’s the gist of the plot.

Glinka is considered the father of Russian classical music and although he was a tremendously prolific composer, today he’s known in the West for only a handful of works. He’s highly regarded in Russia where three different music conservatories are named after him.

Conductor Valery Gergiev takes the overture at a hair-raising speed, revealing the competence of this superb Russian orchestra. A lesser band would probably disintegrate at this frenetic tempo. As he so often does, Gergiev appears to be conducting with the aid of a toothpick. You’d have thought with the fees he demands, he could afford to buy a decent baton.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Prodigious feats

Merrie Melodies