Friday, December 13, 2013

The young genius at home: kittens, ponies, and the keyboard mastery of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Even though he feared he "should become too strongly his panegyrist," the Honourable Daines Barrington had trouble suppressing his astonishment at the staggering gifts of one Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, age eight. In a letter preserved in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, Barrington described putting the young wunderkind ("who would also sometimes run around the room with a stick between his legs by way of a horse") through his musical paces. (The Public Domain Review has a complete copy of the letter, with an introduction.)
But with his child prodigy status came questions from a skeptical few. Was he really so young? Was he really that talented? One person eager to test the truth of these doubts was Daines Barrington, a lawyer, antiquary, naturalist and Friend of the Royal Society. In a few visits to the Mozart family lodgings in London Barrington was committed to testing “scientifically” whether this young Mozart was the real deal or not. Barrington’s findings are laid out in the above report to the Royal Society. He brought a manuscript, never before seen by Mozart, which was composed with 5 parts with one part written in an Italian style Contralto clef. As soon as it was put before him on his desk the young Mozart played it perfectly, “in a most masterly manner” wrote Barrington, “as well as in the time and stile which corresponded with the intention of the composer”. Further tests included improvising a love song, a “song of rage”, and completing a series of difficult keyboard lessons. The young Mozart more than impressed and Barrington wrote that the boy’s musical gifts were “amazing and incredible almost as it may appear”. Barrington also gives us a touching insight into the still child-like nature of the boy, when he reveals that a favourite cat was often given preference over playing the harpsichord.
Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolour by Carmontelle, c. 1763–64. Their stop in London was part of a Grand Tour that astonished all of the great courts of Europe.
Geniuses still have to apply themselves. As Mozart commented later in life, “It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.” (Spoken in Prague, 1787, to the conductor who led the rehearsals for Don Giovanni.)
View discounted concertos, choral works, and symphonies by Mozart, as well as the Rough Guide to his life and works, here.


  1. One of the delights in that article detailed a duet between elder and child Mozarts, both sight-reading the music. Dad made a mistake, and eight-year-old Amadeus corrected him, somewhat impatiently.
    It's amazing what little Mozart could do with his tiny hands. The song "of rage" was performed with appropriate passion and fortissimo!

  2. thanks for that addendum! (Without you I would just be a voice blogging in the wilderness.) Many thanks for the Victorian Xmas image too :)