Over two hundred years since his death, Mozart is remembered as – among other things – the greatest child prodigy the world has ever seen. According to David Shenk:
Of course, the legend of the mystifying boy genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stands above all others. He was said to be an instant master performer at the age of three and a brilliant composer at the age of five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the ‘miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.
But was Mozart’s genius a divine gift or the result of pure chance? Or was it the result of the efforts of a hardworking musician father and a musically inclined son?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The truth about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early accomplishments, while impressive, actually make sense in light of his extraordinary upbringing. awed by the fact that you are not able to understand the world. Mozart was immersed in music from the moment he was born, and his childhood was unlike any other. Leopold Mozart, his father, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had achieved widespread acclaim with the publication of the instruction book… Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a time, Leopold wished to be a great composer himself.
But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was vice-kapellmeister (assistant music director); the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.
Then there was Wolfgang. The tiny boy, four and a half years younger than his sister, received everything Nannerl received, only much earlier and more intensely. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. He sat beside her at the harpsichord as soon as he could and mimicked the notes she played. Wolfgang’s initial pings and plucks were exactly that.
He was able to accelerate his development, however, thanks to a rapidly developing ear, deep curiosity, and a tidal wave of family know-how.
Wolfgang’s Musical Success
As Wolfgang became interested in playing music, his father became interested in his toddler son’s interest — and soon found himself instructing him with an intensity that far surpassed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was no frivolous adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made financial sense… Because of his youth, Wolfgang was a potentially lucrative attraction.
Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel from the age of three, with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the family’s pride and financial engine, and he delivered. Between the ages of six and eight, he performed from London to Mannheim, earning good reviews and praise from noble patrons. …
Nonetheless, like his sister, the young Mozart was never a truly great adult-level instrumentalist. He was highly advanced for his age, but not when compared to skilled adult performers. Mozart dazzled royalty and was unusual for his early abilities at the time.
Within the world of these intensive, child-centered programs, such accomplishments are now recognized as what they are: the combined result of early exposure, exceptional instruction, consistent practice, family nurturing, and a child’s intense desire to learn. All of these ingredients, like a brilliant soufflé, must be present in just the right amount and mixed with just the right timing and flair. Almost anything is possible to go wrong. The process is unpredictable and never completely under anyone’s control.
Child musical prodigies certainly aren’t unheard of these days and people are quick to drool over a “new Mozart”. We must remember, however, that these children frequently demonstrate extraordinary talent as performers that we will never be able to match. They are almost certainly better players than the Austrian legend, but we will never know because he died before the advent of audio recording. What we do know is that he was a prolific composer who poured out countless pieces before reaching maturity and, after that, did not slow down but rather pushed the development of music. While many children can play like Mozart, few, if any, have Mozart’s innate ability to compose.