Should Mozart have been included in our list of 'Ten Greatest Prodigies'? Reader John Stone argues in favour of the young composer's brilliance
The dismissal of Mozart’s early works by this magazine left me with a feeling of sadness. Two decades ago I wrote something very similar to Stephen Johnson [who argues against Mozart's inclusion as one of music's greatest prodigies] in the section ‘Myths and Legends’ of The Mozart Compendium (ed. HC Robbins Landon, Thames & Hudson, 1990):
'There can be no doubt about the brilliance of Mozart’s early career and it is probable that outside the German world it took a considerable time after his death for his adult achievement to begin to eclipse the image of the precocious infant.
Indeed, it is probably still a popular misconception that many of the great works date from early youth – but while it is true there are flashes of inspiration in many of the early works, probably the first which has a firm footing in the modern repertoire is the ‘Little’ G minor Symphony, K183 (173dB), written when he was 17.
Nevertheless, the shade of ‘the prodigy of Salzburg’ has come to haunt two centuries of musically talented children and the lids of chocolate boxes.'
Looking back at this now makes me shudder. Even by the Mozart year of 1991 the scales were beginning to fall away from my ears, with revelatory recordings of the early string quartets by the Hagen Quartet, and the complete symphonies conducted by Charles Mackerras with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.
In truth, all that I had been doing was regurgitating received opinion, which had been compounded by a heritage of dull, poker-faced performances – very often as if the musicians working on reputation expected to find very little. Although I mostly venerate the Amadeus Quartet, my first impression of the early quartets of Mozart was based on their LPs, which had been accompanied by an article in which the musician and musicologist Hans Keller expressed his undying contempt for the music (a formidable piece of rhetoric): I do not know whether the performers were any more convinced but it scarcely came across if they were.
For Keller all Mozart was irrelevant prior to the Sinfonia Concertante in E flat for Violin and Viola, K364 written when he was 23, while Charles Rosen was slightly more indulgent in The Classical Style admitting the E Flat Piano Concerto, K271 to the canon (written round about Mozart’s 21st birthday).
One point where Johnson and my Mozart Compendium pronouncement converge is over the position of the 'Little' G minor Symphony; retrospectively I have a very different view. The big difference between K183 and the A major, K201 and their precursors is one of scale. These two works are the first to have the dimensions of modern concert works – they play about ten minutes longer and they probably fit the repertoire better.
On the other hand I defy anyone to listen to Mackerras’s recordings of the earlier pieces and not to be captivated by their wit, energy and invention. I think this actually goes back to the beginning: of course the technique expands and the expression deepens progressively as he gets older, but the wonderful intelligence – the spiritedness – is there from the beginning. Many of these works have a fantastical character which relates them to the later serenades rather than the symphonies and sometimes the invention is quite tangential to later developments: all the more worth hearing because of it. There also fine recordings of the symphonies by Trevor Pinnock (DG) and Jaap ter Linden (Brilliant).
It would also be quite wrong to compare Mitridate and the other early operas with the late operatic works because they belong to an earlier dramatic tradition. When Mozart in his last year adapted Metastasio’s libretto for La Clemenza di Tito he noted in his catalogue 'opera seria reduced to true opera'. It does not make Mitridate shallow because it does not have psychological depth of the later works, or their speed of movement: neither do Handel’s operas, but they are in a different genre. Properly performed as in the fine recordings of Christoph Rousset (Decca) and Jed Wentz (Brilliant) Mitridate is a thrilling piece (too much recitative, of course). I greatly look forward to the new recording by Mackerras as well and why, indeed, would he be turning his attention to inferior music at this stage of his career? Wentz also makes a powerful case for Il Sogno di Scipione (Brilliant).
This is not even to touch the young Mozart’s extraordinary church music, notably the grand and resourceful ‘Orphanage’ Mass, K139 written when he was only 12 years old. I promise you, this is not music for which any allowances need to be made (there is a fine recording under Nicol Matt, also on Brilliant).
Well, I do not know who should be sitting with a dunce’s cap? In the end you can only answer the question by listening, but many leading musicians have taken the trouble to re-visit the repertoire in recent years and it is only our loss if we do not follow.
Now read the arguments for and against and let us know what you think. Did Mozart produce a childhood masterpiece?