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