NOT “The Next Mozart!”

This is a special 54th birthday post – a bit of rumination over how I started as a composer, how I’ve seen other composers starting whom I’ve helped over the years, and how crucially important it is that we are all completely and totally ourselves no matter what our gifts may be.

I was musically prodigious as a child. At age 5, I encountered a piano for the first time and desperately wanted to understand it, absorb it, and learn its lessons. By age 8 I was reading orchestral scores, and soon encountered a professional mentor whose example set me on the path toward where I am today. By age 13, I arranged and composed works for solo piano, chamber ensembles, and orchestra. Even at that, I felt that I could have accomplished much more throughout my childhood, if my parents had indulged my talent a bit more. That was the cost of being their child, and the blessing: assuming that if I had some touch of greatness, then I’d just figure it out for myself. They were willing to pay for lessons, but not to reorder their lives to make my artistic aspirations necessarily convenient.

I can’t deny that the experience shaped me into the artist I am today. I make my own opportunities and do my own thing in my own little corner of the world. My attempts to fit into the general plan of larger organisations have largely proved futile, such as applying for grants, awards, fellowships, and so on. The benefits of any organisation that assumes a parental role have been largely lost on my art, including for the most part degree-based education (but that’s just me – not you). And yet situations in which I share artistic responsibility have proved quite fruitful. Bringing my own thing to a table of equals and building projects with feedback and consensus is the cornerstone of my recent career, such as in my longterm position as Education-Composer-in-Residence with Orchestra Wellington.

I relate the above not to toot my own horn, which I generally try to avoid nowadays because I feel an artist’s work should speak for them rather than their bio. Rather, it’s to make the point that I had to work out for myself what kind of artist I was to become. At no time did anyone call me “The Next Mozart,” nor did I aspire to such an identity. I wanted to know who Thomas Goss was artistically – how that person was going to grow, and what surprises lay ahead. Not having great shoes to fill meant that I could determine my own artistic shoe size. I didn’t have to follow a script determined by a previous composer, like writing X piece by Y age. That’s not to say that I didn’t have expectations or disappointments. But I learned to find out who I was when life made a mess of all my perfect plans, which was pretty much constantly for many years.

By age 54, I’ve taught many young musicians in development. Some are prodigies by any definition. I have a student at this time who’s composed and orchestrated beautifully conceived music, and has set his life path as a musician from an early age, as I did long ago. He just turned 12. I would never dare to diminish the great individuality of his talent by calling him “The Next Mozart.” He has a right to figure out who he is, and then attach his name to that manifestation rather than personifying a long-dead, culturally out-of-date man (however great that man’s significance).

This is why I’m so opposed to the current rush of articles written about young composer Alma Deutscher. Not that great talent shouldn’t be acknowledged at whatever age it emerges. But to acknowledge talent simply because it is young reduces art into a kind of sideshow. Prodigy should be recognised, but only alongside quality, beauty, and discipline. And in this regard, Deutscher hasn’t received mass media coverage that truly expressed anything about her art. Discussions of her merit seem limited to the fact that A. qualified adults acknowledge her talent, and B. she’s only 11.

A prime example of the inherent vacuousness of this approach is a Limelight article currently making the internet rounds, “Is this British Wunderkind the next Mozart?” [http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/news/british-wünderkind-next-mozart] It’s pretty much a rewrite of a much better profile in The Telegraph, the equally regrettably-titled “[…] meet Britain’s reluctant heir to Mozart.” [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/an-opera-at-seven-a-concerto-at-nine-meet-britains-reluctant-hei/] To its credit, the Limelight article embeds a performance of Deutscher performing a movement of her own violin concerto with an orchestra at age 9. This speaks for itself – a very young and gifted musician composed and performed her own work. That work is charming, but it doesn’t stand on its own quite yet without her prodigy to prop it up. But that is simply the way of things with every contemporary composer. Your work goes nowhere without your own efforts, whether that’s connecting with performers and filmmakers, or going out and making some reason for someone to attend a performance of it, which Deutscher and her parents have certainly done here. There’s no shame in that – it’s just our situation. In that way, I acknowledge her efforts as equally valid to anyone else’s, regardless of perceptions of quality or permanence.

And yet the tone of the article is thoroughly predictable, and encourages the reader to focus on the worst presumptions about concert music: that artistic work can be great simply because a child wrote it, and that great artists are appreciative of it. This ignores what art is all about, which is a way to live your life and grow into who you’re meant to be. A musician that is trumpeted too loudly as a prodigy can often be deserted once the spectacle of their youth departs. What’s worse is when a composer is born into the notion of spectacle being the validation of their art because of their prodigy. It makes an unspectacular life in the arts unattractive, even though that is the lot of many very fulfilled and happy artists (and I include myself in that number, whatever my achievements may appear to be from the outside).

The reality of the situation was that even Mozart wasn’t the Mozart that these writers think he was. They are fixed on the little Wolferl of the First Grand Tour, a preadolescent fireball that lived out his childhood on the stages and palaces of Western Europe. That child was a phenomenal performer, but he wrote only encouragingly gifted works along the models of his heroes, like J.C. Bach. His individuality starts to emerge in his early teens, and his immortal works by age 17. That’s still pretty great, but it’s not like Mozart was composing at the level of the Jupiter Symphony or The Magic Flute at age 8. Far from it. What really made Mozart great were the works he wrote while proving that a composer could make a living independent of direct royal patronage, without being a hired musical manservant about the palace like his best friend Haydn. Mozart had to rise to the highest level of musical achievement to prove that truth, and a great deal of that achievement included things that come with the accumulation of information and perspective over decades: wisdom, proportion, deep craft, and a body of existing work that could be built upon. In doing so, he changed the world for every serious concert musician and composer to come.

So to throw Mozart’s name carelessly at every young high-achieving creative musician that emerges is a travesty. And to hold composers to that level of expectation is an injustice to us and any sense of individuality that we may nurture. Let us find our own paths, and fulfil our own expectations. Stop imposing false narratives – especially as you won’t be around to bandage our wounds if we fall from the sky from trying to flap the pair of faulty wings that you pressed onto our shoulders.

3 thoughts on “NOT “The Next Mozart!”

  1. Here’s a short excerpt from my novel, Murder in the Doghouse. Maestro Willensen firmly believes that if the dress rehearsal is a disaster, then the concert will be brilliant so sets about ruining his. The ‘The Next Mozart’ line crops up here.

    Chang Sung Park, the thirteen year-old Korean wunderkind, snaked his way between the first and second violins and sat at the enormous Steinway concert grand piano. Now Willensen had someone else to blame. This was his chance.
    He let the first chord of the Schumann die away, and gestured to Alan to begin the oboe solo. A slight glitch on the second phrase. Moisture had gathered under one of the oboe’s keys and the first note started a little abruptly. Willensen, however, kept his cool. Let him go on. This was good but he was after bigger fish.
    Let him have it! Willensen said to himself. One note out of place and the rockets fly! Fuck, he’s only a kid. No. Nothing gets by tonight, not in my dress rehearsal. Okay, kid, let’s hear it. You’ve bitten off more than you can chew. He even chuckled to himself imagining that Yu Kan Chu might be another Asiatic wunderkind. But the whole time, the little Korean boy had Schumann in the bag. Flawless execution, dazzling interpretation, and a maturity of expression Willensen had rarely heard all in the one player. He thought of old Yasha Horowitz back in the eighties. Yasha had lived through the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz. His pain was real. When Yasha played, you knew where that expression came from. He was a pupil of the great Padarewski, so you knew where his flawless technique came from. And he was eighty-five when Willensen had had the privilege of working with him so as far as maturity went, you knew where that came from, too. But this? The kid was thirteen, for God’s sake! Damn! He could be the next Mozart. And what then? You don’t want to be the guy who sabotaged the next Mozart. No, that wouldn’t look good at all on your CV.

  2. I suggest that the very worst thing that you can do to a child is to call him a genius to his face. (A close second would be pressuring him to participate in sports so that he can become the athlete you always wanted to be.) Although you might do such things with the very best of intentions, you instill in him or her both a fear of failure and a belief that things will be (or, should be) easy.

    People easily forget – or, simply do not know – that any form of creativity is a craft that must be learned. If they are only exposed to finished works – a Mozart symphony; a Stephen King novel; Michelangelo’s “David” – they see none of the trials, none of the rewrites, none of the marble chips on the floor of the workshop. They see nothing of the process. They see no evidence of planning, alternatives, or decision-making. Therefore, “it all seems too easy,” and they become frustrated when they encounter the process that they simply didn’t know to expect.

    They also don’t realize just how much hard work it sometimes takes. Charles M. Schulz drew 17,897 “Peanuts” comic strips by himself … one at a time.

    Never tell anyone, most especially not a child, that he is a genius … even if you are certain that s/he is. Instead, help them to become one. Teach them how to reinforce their skills with craftsmanship. Teach them what craftsmanship is. Expose them to resources (such as the many excellent materials found here) that teach them to learn from others, and one day, how to teach.

    Also, help them to realize that they never need to aspire to be anything more (nor, anything less!) than what THEY are. They should be pleased with their work yet never fully satisfied with it. They should be taught to smile at dinner parties even at the end of an exhausting(!) day of creativity, and to never “talk shop.”

    “Fame” is not necessary, and if it ever comes, one would do well to remember that the public’s perception of you was written by an advertising copywriter. Take a bow, yes, yes, and then get back to work.

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