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The Other Mozart
Which composer do you think of when we hear the term "child prodigy"? Chances are that the composer at the forefront of your mind would be the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (You might also think of Ludwig van Beethoven, although he was not really a child prodigy, even though his father had tried to make it appear so.)
The name Mozart is synonymous with child genius, and why not? By age five, little Wolfgang was performing, composing, and proficient in keyboard and violin. In fact, it is recorded that at the age, he would play little pieces and his father would write them down. His musical genius had actually manifested itself from the age of three, when he would play notes a third apart and show immense delight at the consonant sounds; Leopold Mozart had originally intended to wait until he was older before the younger Mozart embarked on music study, but is said to have commenced earlier when he was convinced that the boy had talent.
There are many products out there for infants and toddlers all bearing the Mozart name, such as Baby Mozart CDs, which suggest that playing children music by the composer in their formative years helps enhance the wiring of the developing brain. In the 1990s, a group of researchers found that among three groups of research subjects, the group that listened to Mozart before attempting spatial reasoning tasks demonstrated better ability and achieved better scores. Never mind that the test subjects were college students and not toddlers. Never mind that the effects of listening to the Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major did not extend beyond 15 minutes. Never mind that it could have been another work by one of Mozart's contemporaries. The generalisation made was listening to Mozart increased one's IQ. After the 1997 book The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell, and the 1998 announcement in the state of Georgia that every child born in the state would be provided with a tape or CD of classical music because it "affects the spatial-temporal reasoning that underlies maths and engineering and even chess", the belief, however superfluous, that the music of Mozart had potential to develop brighter children was truly entrenched in the public mind. And if you ever doubted the research, you would have been directed to the master himself: Mozart, the genius, the child prodigy.
Actually, little Wolfgang wasn't the only prodigy in the family. Perhaps, if there is any benefit from listening to music by a Mozart, the music of his elder sister Maria Anna should be credited with this, for it was her playing that Wolfgang grew up listening to. The older by four-and-a-half years, she and her more famous sibling were the only of seven children to survive infancy. Nannerl, as she was more affectionately known, began keyboard lessons at the age of seven, and was equally talented at performing as her brother - their father Leopold took them on several performing tours across Europe.
In her late teens, Maria Anna was no longer as marketable as a child prodigy, and stopped touring when she turned eighteen. She took over running the household at the age of twenty-seven when her mother died. Her father's will dominated - "next to God comes Papa", Wolfgang once wrote. She fell in love but the father demanded she break up with the prospective suitor. Three years later, she would marry Johann von Berchtold, a twice-widowed magistrate on the advice of her father.
Unlike her brother, who eventually broke away from their father's domination in terms of career path and choice of spouse, Maria Anna was entirely subordinate to his decisions. Even after the birth to her first child, named Leopold after his grandfather, she left the infant in the care of his grandfather in a different city. Historians have speculated that Leopold wanted another hack at producing a child prodigy, and point to the hold he had on Maria Anna that she even consented to such a bizarre arrangement like this. The plan never came to fruition - the grandfather died before the child's second birthday.
Wolfgang and Maria Anna had drifted apart in adulthood and remained so until after his death. Maria Anna's animosity towards her brother did soften and she allowed his wife Constanze access to family correspondence, which shed light on the early life of the Mozart household, in order for Constanze to write an biography of her late husband.
Leopold Mozart wrote in 1764 that Maria Anna "plays the most difficult works which we have ... with incredible precision and so excellently", and that he considered her to be one of the most skilful players in Europe at the age of twelve. She was quickly overshadowed by her precocious brother, although historians credit her to some extent for his success. Eva Rieger, author of the biography Nannerl Mozart: Life of an Artist in the 1800s, credits her with inspiring her brother to play, and also for being a co-teacher, in explaining her father's concepts to a younger child in a way he could understand. Maria Anna reinforced for Wolfgang what Leopold was trying to teach, and may have also provided some positive motivation for Wolfgang, to see what he could achieve, and - as a form of sibling competition - someone he could aim to out-do.
Maria Anna's compositions were lost, her skill overshadowed by her brother's, and the furthering of her talent denied by society's expectations of women at the time. Perhaps future generations might prick up their ears at the mention of "Mozart" and "child prodigy" in the same sentence, and question: "Which one?"
Why not discover the joys of playing the piano by playing music you know and like? Extend your skills in a positive, encouraging process.
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