I was having a look at Limelight while eating lunch and I saw it’s time yet again for another musical prodigy to be trotted out, complete with the equally inevitable Mozart comparison. Here we go again. This time, it’s the turn of Alma Deutscher, an 11 year old violinist/composer from Britain. She is seemingly the latest to be thrown into the endlessly gaping maw of demand for child prodigies from the classical music industry. The last word is particularly important- I don’t think many musicians are clamouring to perform a symphony by an eleven year old- but for a marketing or A&R executive in a struggling industry, a talented wunderkind must be impossible to resist.
From her detailed Wikipedia page, we can blame Stephen Fry for this particular blaze of publicity. What had been a small-scale Youtube channel to share with family and friends was somehow picked up by Fry who tweeted it. Fry, famed for his oversized intelligence, was the first to publicly make the Mozart comparison. She has now released two CDs (self-released presumably as the label is named after one of her fairy inspirations and she is its sole artist), seemingly hangs out with Simon Rattle and has a full-length opera being premiered in Vienna this year, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
At this point, it is vital to pause and clarify.
As memorably put by Anne Midgette in discussing the tireless parade of young opera singers on reality television*, the slightest hint of criticism of a child prodigy is typically met with howls and accusations of the critic picking on a talented child. In this she was following on from the work of her predecessor at the Post, Tim Page, who also wrote on this topic. And a quick glance at the archived comments (Page’s attracted 695!) on both articles illustrates the venom that criticism of a prodigy- a poor, innocent child!- attracts. I have no ill-will towards Deutscher at all. In all honesty, of course I have some professional jealousy around her famous friendships and subsequent opportunities but at the same time I am absolutely sincere when I applaud her passion. Writing a full-length two-act opera is hard work for any composer, so that level of commitment from a pre-teen is something to be celebrated.
But are we seeing the emergence of the NEXT MOZART! YOU WON’T BELIEVE IT!!111! or are we just seeing and hearing a very intelligent, very passionate child who is also an excellent mimic.
I don’t mean ‘mimic’ in a derogatory manner at all. But rather, having now listened to some of her work, does she have an ability to absorb a particular style and reproduce it? Her violin concerto, for example, is a very polished and very accomplished work that would not have been out of place in 19th century Europe. Her father has told interviewers that she doesn’t have a composition teacher but calls on occasional mentors and harmony textbooks, and when asked about her favourite composers you can see where the musical education seemingly has reached and stopped. This is, perhaps, an unfair extrapolation of one interview, but it’s supported by the music- which doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the twentieth century happened at all (meanwhile, I would pay real cash money if someone tried to trot out an eight year old with an OMG YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS KID!!11! NEXT STOCKHAUSEN??!! or a charming seven year old singing the Berio Folk Songs on X-Factor). She is seemingly reproducing the world and sounds of the 19th century through her own delightfully age appropriate inspirations- such as princesses and skipping and mermaids.
And a quick side bar about Mozart. Sure, he was a child prodigy but the important thing is that he developed into an adult. If he had died as a child- god forbid but not unusual at the time- he would be little more than an interesting Groves footnote. It’s what came in his adult life that is important about Mozart. This seems to be forgotten in the rush to label the prodige du jour as the next Mozart. His childhood pieces are amusing and performed because of what came after- the significance of child Mozart comes from what we know about adult Mozart. Importantly, I should also add that Deutscher and her family quite sensibly actively reject the Mozart tag and regularly correct over-eager journalists.
I don’t remember when I started composing. I know I wrote a full length musical libretto- David Copperfield!- when I was in primary school. This was, however, before the days of social media and reality television so it was soon forgotten (certainly for the best). As a teenager I wrote and performed my own flute concerto- also sadly lost- which would have to have been a fundamental marker on the journey to wanting to take composition seriously. Both pieces, among others, had a high degree of mimicry of work I liked. This is almost certainly natural, and there may be a nice way to describe growing as a composer as the gradual redressing of balance between mimicry and original voice (I would argue that it is impossible to eliminate mimicry since no composer lives in a vacuum, but that’s an off-ramp for another time). Fortunately, my mum did the sensible thing and enrolled me in a composition class and now I have a blog which sometimes gets tens, nay, dozens of views a month! So things are going pretty well for me even if I don’t have Zubin Mehta on speed dial.
I hope that Deutscher continues to write and perform her music for as long as it makes her happy- far be it from me to tell someone they’re not allowed to write a rococo concerto. She is clearly talented and passionate and should be encouraged and supported for as long as she wants to do it. But the hitching of the industry wagons is obscene and my gripes and general grinchy demeanour are with the wagons, not the precocious musician. The precocious musician who will need steel cable resilience when the caravan eventually moves on- what happens when someone younger appears on the scene and the Ellen Show booker doesn’t return your calls anymore? Are Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle and Zubin Mehta (all of whom, frankly, should know better) going to be so committed to this music when Deutscher is in her twenties? Are these superstar backers going to be supportive if she starts to delve into the Second Viennese school, spectralism, punk or hip hop? I hope she’s getting good advice about enjoying it while it lasts, and if she does end up wanting to be a composer- and she’s only 11 so she may understandably change her mind!- I hope she gets some real composition tuition to convert what is a gifted talent into an original voice.
*- fun fact, I tweeted something about her article and had a brief Twitter conversation with Anne Midgette, who confirmed that, sure enough, a 13 yr old had sung Nessun dorma to the obligatory standing ovation, complete with Simon Cowell looking vaguely post-orgasmic, on the most recent season of America’s Got Talent.