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Prodigies and the Gift of Music

[Editor's Note.—Over a year ago Mr. Louis C. Elson wrote an article for The Etude citing some of the dangers surrounding the musical prodigy who is carelessly exploited. In the present article Mr. H. T. Finck, the well-known critic and author of many highly successful musical books, indicates that many of the greatest of all musicians have been prodigies. He also shows that many prodigies live to a ripe old age and remain healthy and successful. In this same issue there appears a talk with Pepito Arriola, the most phenomenal and musical child of our day. This interview indicates a mental development highly astonishing and together with Mr. Finck's article affords teachers and students an opportunity to estimate the nature of the phenomena of prodigious musical ability sometimes found in children.]
When Josef Hofmann came to New York in 1887 to give his first series of American concerts, he was only ten years old. In company with two other critics I called on his father to become acquainted with the wonderchild. Wagner's "Siegfried" had just been sung in New York for the first time, and I had in my pocket a copy of Harper's Weekly containing a double-page picture of the fight with the dragon. Taking little Josef on my knee, I showed him this picture. He was greatly interested, and then, looking at me with eyes wide open, he asked: "Are there any dragons in America ?"
This same boyish boy played the music of the masters as few adults have ever played it. In Chopin's E minor concerto, in particular, I remember in the Romanza, his rendering of the bars marked leggierissimo; he made the grace-notes light as gossamer and accented the quarter tones in a significant way that he himself has not equalled since—nor has Joseffy, nor Pachmann, nor even Paderewski. It was unique—an inspiration from above; and often have I longed to hear those bars done again so poetically.
That was twenty-two years ago. In the interim, many wonder-children have come and gone. The latest is Pepito Arriola, who has made a sensation comparable to that created by Josef Hofmann. In view of this fact, the editor of The Etude has suggested to me that a few comments on prodigies and the gift of music in general would be timely and welcome. As it is a subject of exceptional interest, I gladly comply. Before offering any conclusions, let us look at some of the facts on which they must be based.
Child prodigies occur in diverse branches of mental activity. There was once an Italian boy named Jacques Inaudi who at the age of seven, could carry on mentally multiplications of five figures by five figures. In other words, he could multiply, for example, 34,967 by 84,934 without using pen and pencil—in fact, he did not learn to write (or read) till thirteen years later. Dante was only nine years old when he wrote a sonnet on Beatrice, and Tasso wrote poems at ten. At fourteen Raphael was already famous, so was Vernet at twenty. When Wetton was five he understood Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and five years later he had also mastered Arabic, Chaldee and Syriac.
Many similar cases might be cited, but in this article we must confine ourselves to prodigies of the musical persuation (sic).
These are by no means rare; and in saying this I do not by any means refer to the fact that nearly every locality has a child who is hailed as a prodigy. In regard to most of these, we may apply the conundrum: "When is a prodigy not a prodigy?" and the smart answer: "In nine cases out of ten."
With the counterfeits we must place the human parrots, among them the boy who was supposed to be improvising for an audience, but suddenly stopped and cried out: "'Papa, I have forgotten the rest!"
As regards real prodigies, a magazine writer, George Wm. Winterburne, once made some laborious investigations which he printed in the Galaxy (1874). He found more than two hundred on record in the same number of years, all of whom achieved local celebrity previous to their seventh birthday and, on reaching maturity, showed eminent talent. Let me briefly cite a dozen or so of these cases.
Charles Wesley, brother of the founder of the Methodist Church, had a son who, at the age of three, would put a true bass to the tunes he played. At twelve he performed the works of Handel and Scarlatti "so as to excel anyone in London at the time."
Tom Cooke, of Dublin, played a difficult violin concerto at seven, and five years later he composed for and played on nine different instruments.
William Vincent Wallace, composer of the still popular opera ''Maritana," had produced two hundred compositions before he was fifteen years old.
An oboeist named Robert Bochsa, played a concerto at a public concert when seven years of age, and a year later he composed a symphony.
Before Dr. Wm. Crotch was four years old, he could play tunes, with the cords belonging thereto.
The story of the Irishman who, when asked if he could play the fiddle, answered that he didn't know as he had never tried, is recalled by an incident in the life of Domenico Dragonetti. When nine years old he asked permission to play an accompaniment on the guitar. His father thought it a joke, but the accompaniment was played all right by the boy, who had some time previously hidden away an unused guitar and practiced on it secretly.
John Purkins, born blind, played the works of Handel on the organ so well when he was only seven that he was called "Young Handel." John Stanley, also blind, was an acting organist at eleven, and two years later he was appointed official organist of St. Andrew's, London.
Paganini, when he was only eight years old, composed a sonata which was so difficult that no one but himself could play it. Another boy who became a famous violinist, Sivori, played, at ten, at one of the exclusive Conservatoire concerts in Paris.
Clementi was only nine years old when he was admitted an organist at Rome. Czerny, at ten, played Bach and Clementi so astonishingly well that Beethoven offered to take charge of him and give him lessons.
Among females Mr. Winterburn found a much smaller proportion of child prodigies—only one girl to every fifteen boys. Camilla Urso made her debut at the age of seven. Maria Theresa Paradies could perform the works of Bach at five. Pauline Viardot Garcia at the age of four spoke four languages, and three years later she was helping her father with his music lessons. Teresa Milanollo, when six years old, made a concert tour, giving violin recitals in Italy, France and Holland, arriving in London at the age of eight.
This list of singers and players whose talent developed unusually early might be increased very much but of greater interest still are the cases of precocious composers, concerning whom their respective biographers relate details that are still more astonishing because composing makes even greater demands on the powers of the brain than does the cleverest performing.
When Handel was a child he showed such a great liking for penny trumpets, drums and other musical toys that his father, who did not wish him to become a musician, destroyed these, and in other ways tried to suppress the "alarming symptoms of genius." The lad nevertheless succeeded in smuggling into the garret a clavichord, on which he played to his heart's content. At the age of seven he played the organ so wonderfully that the Duke of Saxe Weissenfels persuaded his father to let him be a musician. At eleven he astonished famous professionals in Berlin by his improvisations on organ and harpsichord. At this time he had already composed a set of trios for oboes which are considered more remarkable even than Mozart's productions at the same age.
Mozart is usually regarded as the prodigy of prodigies, and not without reason. When he had barely turned his third year he picked out simple harmonies on the harpsichord. He learned to play minuets when five years old, requiring only half an hour to master one; and soon thereafter he wrote minuets and other pieces of his own. He was only six years old when his father took him on a tour during which he astonished all the world by his playing. In London, when he had just entered his eighth year, it was announced that "he plays anything at sight, and composes amazingly well." By the time he was ten he had a perfect craze for composing; at one time, when he was just recovering from a violent fever, he had a board rigged across his bed so he could write music without rising. At that age he knew as much about his art as most musicians do at forty.
Schubert's biographer, Kreissle, had good reason to declare that, with the single exception of Mozart, "in none of the great musicians was the creative faculty awakened so early, or made its way with such irresistible power, as in Franz Schubert." His teachers found he had everything at his fingers' ends and soon outstripped their knowledge. That he composed music as a mere child is not particularly noteworthy, for many others have done that; what is remarkable is that, with the exception of Mendelssohn, he is the only master who composed immortal music before he was eighteen years old.
Beethoven's productions at such an early age were trifles in comparison; his genius matured slowly. As a player, however, he was precocious. He himself said that he began music in his fourth year. His father taught him to play the violin and clavier; but before the pupil was nine years old he knew more than the teacher. At the age of ten he composed a funeral cantata, which was actually performed.
An amusing incident in the life of Haydn was his sitting on a bench at home with two sticks in hand, imitating the violin playing of the schoolmaster. It was this that suggested the idea that he might have in him (he was only five years old) the making of a musician.
Mendelssohn began systematically to compose with his twelfth year; and when he was seventeen he wrote the overture to the "Midsummer Night's Dream," an inspired product which is really superior to anything he composed in his more mature years.
"A child not yet eight years old, who, in the opinion of the connoisseurs of the art, promises to replace Mozart"—in these words a Polish writer referred to Chopin after hearing him play the piano. At the age of nine Chopin appeared at a public concert. How far his musical talent was ahead of his general development at this time is shown by what he said to his mother, who asked him when he came back: "Well, Fred, what did the public like best?" "Oh, mamma," he answered, "everybody was looking at my collar."
Liszt got his first lessons on the piano when he was six years old. He took to music as a duck does to water, becoming soon so absorbed in it that he avoided his playmates and their games. He remembered everything without effort. He wrote music before he had learned to write words, and there was coherence in the notes he jotted down. Falling seriously ill, he was reported to be dead, and the village carpenter actually began to get his coffin ready; but he soon recovered, and his skill was now more wonderful than before his illness. He could transpose a piece into any key he chose, and his cleverness in improvising was most remarkable. When, as a boy of nine, he gave a concert in Pressburg, it was this gift of improvising, in particular, that impressed his audience to such a degree that six Hungarian noblemen made up a purse to enable him to pursue his studies. Czerny was so delighted with the boy's achievements that, after giving him a dozen lessons, he refused all compensation therefor.
Tschaikowsky got his first musical impressions through a mechanical orchestrion which played a considerable number of pieces. When he reached his fifth year he played these pieces on the piano, to which he was so ardently addicted that he had to be taken from it forcibly. If this was done, he was apt to drum the rhythms with his fingers. One day he did this on a window pane so violently that it broke. At the age of ten he began to compose; that is, to improvise things of his own on the piano.
The late Professor Cesare Lombroso, in his book on "The Man of Genius," takes the stand that precocity is likely to be morbid. The proverb, "A man who has genius at five is mad at fifteen," is, he says, often verified in asylums. "The children of the insane are often precocious," he adds.
That may be; but when we read the biographies of the great masters who were infant prodigies we find that while some of them were eccentric, and what we call "cranky," they were not really "cracked." To be sure, some great composers—Schumann, Smetana, Donizetti, Hugo Wolf, MacDowell—died insane; but the malady in most or all of these cases can be traced to causes not connected with any special ability shown in childhood.
Nor can we endorse the current notion that most prodigies die young. Winterburn collected facts which indicate that, on the average, men who were precocious live somewhat longer than ordinary mortals. 
It is true that some of the greatest musical geniuses—among them Mozart, Schubert, Bellini, Chopin, Bizet, Weber, MacDowell—died young; but I could show in each of these cases that death was caused by consumption, typhoid fever, overwork, or other causes not connected with early conditions of the brain or special manifestations of talent.
If we must, therefore, reject the notions that prodigies are allied to the insane and are likely to die young, it is undeniable, on the other hand, that most of them soon disappear from the ranks. As Rubinstein has remarked: "The number of great masters is very small in comparison with the great mass of musically gifted children we admire every year, and who later fulfill none of their promises. Ordinarily, musical talent manifests itself in children at the tenderest age; but there comes a time (with boys from fifteen to twenty, with girls from fourteen to seventeen) when this musical talent suffers a crisis, is weakened, or goes to sleep forever; only those who are able to pass this Rubicon become great artists; their number is very limited."
Fortunately, one can be a musical wonder child, or adult, in more ways than one. Those who fall short in one way may excel in another. Some acquire piano technic almost as instinctively as a newly hatched chick runs and scratches and picks up food. Others, to whom technic comes much more slowly and laboriously, play instinctively with expression, which is infinitely more important.
Thus, the gift of music is not a simple thing, but highly complex. Some persons are absolutely devoid of it. They are tone-deaf, as others are colorblind, or unable to tell the difference between a red dress and a black one. Between this and a Schubert there are endless degrees and varieties, usually quite independent of other mental faculties. Blind Tom, though an idiot, could reproduce on the piano any piece he had heard once. I wonder if he could have reproduced the nuances of expression with which Paderewski plays a Chopin Nocturne, as a phonograph does. I heard Blind Tom but once, and did not think of noting that point.
I have been told that one of our best American composers, Mr. Chadwick, cannot improvise. I know that Edward MacDowell could not transpose, at the piano, as so many minor musicians can, and that, like many other great musicians, he lacked the gift of absolute pitch. I once made an interesting test with Moritz Rosenthal. Asking him to turn his back on the piano, I struck the most unusual chords, and he promptly told me the component tones. Then I hit the keys at random with my fists—and still he told me the ingredients of this ultra-Debussyan cacophony!
This was as marvelous in its way as Hans von Bülow's reading a manuscript concerto away from the piano a few times and then playing it without looking at it again.
Our Stephen Foster easily created a number of immortal melodies, true folk songs; but in harmony he was a child, and he could not have written a symphony to save his life. Debussy, on the other hand, creates charmingly original harmonies and progressions, but his melodic gift is so weak that he tries to hide his defect by crying out sour grapes—"Who wants melody in modern music anyhow?"
It is fortunate that the gift of music is so many-sided; it gives all of us a chance to excel in some direction which best suits our own gifts. To become a good and useful singer, player, teacher, or even composer, it is not at all necessary to have been an infant prodigy, possessing the gift of music in an abnormal degree. To cite Rubinstein again: "Talent, even genius, will not go far without application. Without talent, but gifted with application, it is quite the contrary. Thus it is that genius slowly fades away, while the worker, in time, makes his work known."
There is a place for all workers. To be sure, all cannot be generals; there is need also of colonels, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, and many, many private soldiers. A corporal or a private may enjoy life as much as a general—or more, for "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." If you ever feel dissatisfied with your lot, read the chapter "Are Great Artists Happy?" in my book "Success in Music and How it is Won" and you will find abundant cause for consolation.

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