Mozart and Mendelssohn had a couple of things in common: they were both child prodigies, they were both influenced by their older sisters, and they both died much too young. Another thing they have in common is their appearance on LACO’s upcoming concert. We will hear excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the “Italian” Symphony, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. Mozart was born in 1756 and Mendelssohn in 1809. Although their lives were separated by more than half a century, their styles shared some similarities. Mendelssohn knew the work of Mozart quite well, in fact. Despite being a contemporary of Beethoven and Chopin, much of Mendelssohn’s work hearkened back to the clarity of the Classical period and the counterpoint of the Baroque.
When Felix Mendelssohn was a small boy, he showed an affinity for music. He was composing and studying the works of the old masters at an age when most kids are playing games and trying to avoid homework. His first piano teacher was his mother. When he was ten years old, he began learning the counterpoint of Mozart and Bach from composer and conductor, Friedrich Zelter. Felix’s early works reflected these influences. His works (and those of the masters) were mostly performed at salons and soirees thrown by the Mendelssohn family. Some of the most important poets, musicians, and composers of the day attended these gatherings. Young Felix’s well-rounded upbringing included travel, education in general subjects and the classics. His family was mostly supportive of his interest in music, and the circumstances of his upbringing couldn’t have been more conducive to his creativity. He was allowed to paint or compose or write poetry as he desired; important people came to the Mendelssohn house, and it was soon clear that Felix (and sister Fanny as well) were especially gifted.
Young Wolfgang Mozart showed musical talent from the time he was a young boy as well, and it was fortunate that his family both had the resources to nurture his gift and the desire to do it. But Mozart, unlike Mendelssohn, did not have the luxury of developing at his own pace in a relaxed environment. Mozart’s father, Leopold, who was himself a musician, wasn’t always the gentlest stage father, but he recognized Wolfgang’s gift early, and he was adamant about not squandering it. Leopold took his children (including Wolfgang’s older sister Nannerl) on musical tours, where they played for nobles and royalty. Although it might have seemed they were living a glamorous life, their times on the road were sometimes quite trying. The pressure on Mozart to perform in these circumstances must have been enormous, but he always played well and impressed those they visited.
Neither of these child prodigies lived to the age of forty. Mozart died before his thirty-sixth birthday, and Mendelssohn was thirty-eight when he died. Yet in their relatively short lives, both men wrote lots of music. Mozart was especially prolific because he was so quick in his writing process.
Because of popular culture, including the movie Amadeus, many people are more familiar with Mozart than they are with Mendelssohn. I’m sure there are some who assume that Mozart was the greater genius because he has the Academy Award-winning biopic. I’m not here to take sides, but I think it’s worth noting that—all music aside—Mozart was by far the more colorful character. With his musical talent juxtaposed with his scatological sense of humor and his sometimes inappropriate behavior, he would leap off the screen in a way that Mendelssohn—who is described as much more genteel—could not.
Still, when Mendelssohn was about twelve, his teacher, Zelter, introduced the young boy to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The elderly poet and novelist was quite impressed with young Felix’s abilities, especially in the realm of improvising and playing music at sight. Because Goethe had heard Mozart play when he was a child, Zelter asked him if the talents of the young prodigies were comparable. Goethe’s famous response was:
“I was certainly, like all the rest of the world, immensely astonished at [Mozart’s] extraordinary execution; but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”
Which one was the greater prodigy? Such a thing is impossible to measure. I suppose what matters is that Mozart and Mendelssohn’s music endures through our own time and beyond.
In addition to featuring the music of two former child prodigies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, LACO’s upcoming concert will premiere an entirely new work by Ted Hearne. Hearne’s work, Respirator, is this year’s Sound Investment Commission. I’ve not had the opportunity to hear this piece yet, but I am very excited about it. Hearne is an award-winning composer who shows great innovation and a wonderful collaborative spirit. There’s something very special about seeing old favorites like Mozart and Mendelssohn alongside world premieres. Programs such as these tend to encourage us to hear the old music in a new way, and to place new works into a larger historical context. It’s sure to be a spectacular evening.