The young composers who wrote symphonies in their teenage years

Can you remember when you turned 18? What had you achieved by then? Had you completed your First Symphony? Here, in chronological order, are some of the overachieving composers who penned great masterpieces when they were teenagers.

Portrait of Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Austrian composer, aged 17, c.1814 (Photo by Art Images via Getty Images)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart is undoubtedly the most impressive child prodigy of them all. His 13 childhood symphonies were written between 1764 and 1771, and were technically sound and showed obvious musical promise. Despite the works written in these early years are diligent and precise, it’s important to note the potentially overwhelming artistic input of his father Leopold during this period. How much Mozart’s father helped his son is difficult to judge, but it isn’t unreasonable to think he would have taken a strong proprietary interest in his early works.

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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Schubert began writing his Symphony in D as a 14-year-old boy, but – like five other incomplete Schubert symphonies, was never finished. Just two years later, he penned his first official symphony. By the time he turned 19, Schubert had already written six symphonies.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

By the time he turned 15, Mendelssohn had completed his First Symphony premiering at a soiree to celebrate his sister Fanny’s 19th birthday. He conducted the piece upon his first trip to England in 1829, with the London Philharmonic Society. The reception he received was a resounding success and led to a popular following in Britain. This visit to England and later Scotland would inspire Mendelssohn to compose his Third Symphony taking more than a decade to complete.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Saint-Saëns gave his first piano recital at the age of eleven before studying organ performance at Paris Conservatory aged 13. In 1851, he began formal composition lessons under Fromental Halévy who had also taught Bizet and Gounod. By the time he was 20, his First Symphony had received its first performance and even when he turned 18, he had already completed his second.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875)

Bizet’s musical gifts were apparent so early that he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire before he turned ten. His Symphony in C was written in 1855 at the age of 17, with its fluid counterpoint and orchestral mastery reminiscent of works by Mendelssohn. Bizet showed no interest in this early work being performed or published; it was never played in his lifetime. Its fusion of Viennese classical style and French melody gives it a worthy ranking in Bizet’s library.

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)

Glazunov penned his First Symphony at just 16, when he was studying under fellow Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. The so-called Slavonian Symphony proven to be an undeniable success, with an audience astonished to see a teenage boy bow in his school uniform. Glazunov did however receive some guidance from Balakirev, writing in his memoirs, “I composed and orchestrated the slow movement of the First Symphony in the summer of 1881. In addition, I played that passage to Balakirev, who approved of it in general but advised me to add something after the presentation of the two themes, before the repetition of the beginning.”

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Shostakovich composed his inaugural symphony as a graduation piece from Petrograd Conservatory, which he finished by the time he was 19. The premiere was organised by the Conservatory’s director Alexander Glazunov, a child prodigy in his own right, and took place in the same hall 44 years after the premiere of Glazunov’s own First Symphony. It was performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Nikolay Malko.

Oliver Knussen (1952-2018)

Knussen studied composition with John Lambert and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood in the US. He was only 15 years old when he composed his First Symphony and later conducted its premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1968. In this work, Knussen displayed a wide range of influences including Britten, Berg and other mid-century symphonists.

Jay Greenberg (b. 1991)

Jay Greenberg is an American composer who first started playing the cello when he was two before attending the Julliard School in 2002 at the age of 12. By 2005, Greenberg had written five symphonies. His first album was released on Sony Classical and featured the London Symphony Orchestra performing his Fifth Symphony. Unlike many of the other aforementioned child prodigies, Greenberg primarily composes on a computer using musical notation software.

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Words by: Tom Fletcher