The Well-Tempered Ear

Who was the bigger child prodigy in classical music – Mozart or Mendelssohn?

September 13, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

The Karp Family Labor Concert concert last Monday night got me to thinking: Who was the bigger classical music child prodigy – Mozart (1756-1791) or Mendelssohn (1809-1847, below right)?Mendelssohn

It’s a particularly timely question to ask during this Mendelssohn Year when we are celebrating the bicentennial of the composer’s birth.

The question came to me while I was listening to an outstanding performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 1. It was his first work, written in 1822 when he was 13.

Yes, 13.

It does not sound like a child’s work. It is full of dark shading and fine part writing, some of it even experimental or unique in the way it gives the parts of one instrument to another.

The difficult piano part, in particular, was beautifully played by Frances Karp, who had just the right light touch, even and and crisp and quasi-detached, in the piano part. That lambent quality (the dictionary defines “lambent” as “running” or “moving lightly” or “brilliantly playful”) is the signature of the mature Mendelssohn in his symphonies and the Scherzo in Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (written at 17).

And there it was — in his first published work. At 13.

I think we can all agree that eventually Mozart turned into the more important composer, though Mendelssohn is hardly to be dismissed.

But to be honest, I can’t recall a Mozart work written at 13 that has a similar depth and power as the Mendelssohn piano quartet. The same goes for the Mendelssohn’s sublime string Octet, which he wrote when he was 16. (He wrote string symphonies between 12 and 14.) Clearly, Mendelssohn found his own recognizable personal voice or style early on –earlier even than Mozart

(By the way, many music historians say the third biggest prodigy in classical music was the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. That’s more proof that the biggest prodigies, composers or performers, don’t always turn into the biggest mature talents.)Mozartfamily

What do you think? Do you agree and disagree with The Ear?

Mendelssohn or Mozart (depicted, at right, as a child playing the piano with his father Leopold and sister Nannerl) – who was the greatest child prodigy in the history of classical music?

Maybe some listeners, performers or musicologists can pass along some important information to confirm or change my view.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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