Mozart the Wunderkind in Context

(Mozart Society of America Session at 2018 ASECS)
American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Saturday, March 24, 2018

Chair: Laurel E. Zeiss (Baylor University)


  1. Alyson McLamore (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo), “Mozart in the Middle: London’s ‘Musical Children’”
  2. Steve Machtinger (Independent Scholar), “Mozart and the Contested Meaning of ‘Genius’”
  3. Adeline Mueller (Mount Holyoke College), “Revising the Age of Reason: Mozart, Childhood, and Jewish Conversion in the Habsburg Monarchy”


“Mozart in the Middle: London’s ‘Musical Children’”
Alyson McLamore (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo)

In any discussion of musical prodigies, Mozart is invariably cited as the exemplar of the species, yet Mozart and his sister Nannerl were by no means the first children to appear in front of London audiences. British newspapers advertised a steady stream of “Musical Phenomena,” catering to concert-goers who were avid for novelty and diversion. The caliber of many of these youthful performers seems to have been fairly impressive, for Mozart’s appearances excited little more than the typical reaction.

This paper explores the widespread activities of juvenile virtuosi in eighteenth-century London during a fifty-year span. These “Prodigies of Nature” came from diverse backgrounds and social classes, and were featured in a wide range of environments. Children performed in taverns and in the leading concert halls; they appeared between the acts of operas and oratorios. Some even ran their own concert series. A notable example was a nine-year subscription series organized by the Wesley brothers, who, like many other young virtuosi, composed and published music as well. Mozart himself apparently was stimulated by this thirst for youthful talent, since Leopold Mozart reported that Wolfgang—after the family returned to Salzburg—was anxious to produce an opera “with several young people.”

Moreover, this London concert milieu was open to young performers of either gender. And, some of the children—both male and female—continued to be active as musicians all through their adult lives, such as William Crotch and Elizabeth Weichsell Billington. Still, others vanished from sight after one or two performances; in fact, a few years after the Mozart family’s visit, some British commentators included Mozart among those prodigies who had not lived up to their potential. Nevertheless, from the viewpoint of posterity, Mozart’s shadow has long obscured the many other youthful participants in London’s burgeoning public concert life.

“Mozart and the Contested Meaning of ‘Genius’”
Steve Machtinger (Independent Scholar)

At a very young age, Mozart was recognized throughout Europe as a genius. This label created a problem for philosophers, who disagreed about what it meant. The crux of the controversy was whether Mozart’s phenomenal abilities should be attributed to God or to nature. Leopold Mozart repeatedly proclaimed that his son’s genius was the result of divine intervention. But deists, materialists and skeptics challenged the claim that God intervenes in human affairs; they argued that geniuses simply had the benefit of better training and other material advantages. At an early age, Mozart himself accepted the explanation that his gifts were a manifestation of the divine. As he matured, however, he seems to have wanted to emphasize his earthly roots.

Toward the end of his life, Leopold Mozart seems to have questioned his prior position that God was responsible for Wolfgang’s genius. Perhaps he, the teacher, deserved the credit. So, at the age of sixty-five, he undertook a secret experiment, with his daughter’s newborn son as the subject. Leopold took custody of the child and watched closely for signs of musical talent, which he hoped to develop over the next ten years. Less than two years later, however, Leopold died, and the boy was returned to his parents. He never evidenced any musicality and the true source of musical genius would remain a matter of debate.

“Revising the Age of Reason: Mozart, Childhood, and Jewish Conversion in the Habsburg Monarchy”
Adeline Mueller (Mount Holyoke College)

Mozart’s first published compositions—printed in 1764 with the composer’s tender age of seven on the title pages—have been cited both then and now as evidence of his astonishing talents as a child composer. Yet they also had a direct and immediate impact on the everyday lives of children throughout the Habsburg Monarchy, an impact that goes far beyond the arts. In 1765, Empress Maria Theresa heard an Imperial court case concerning the age at which Jewish children should be considered old enough to be “allowed” to convert to Catholicism without the consent of their parents. Forced and coerced baptisms of Jewish children were common in eighteenth-century Europe, and legal challenges often hinged on determining the anno discretionis, or age of reason. In the 1765 decision, the lone figure singled out as an exemplar of the potential reasoning capacity of young children was Mozart. The Court Chancery declared that the fact that Mozart was “so experienced in music as even to compose” proved that children below the age of seven could have the necessary “discretionary judgment” (iudicium discretivum) to choose Catholicism against their parents’ wishes.

Much was at stake in this case besides childhood: the power of civil law versus the favor fidei (the Catholic dictum that “favored the faith” over all other law), the autonomy of the Habsburg provinces, and underneath it all, religious intolerance and anti-Semitism. When Maria Theresa’s son Joseph assumed sole reign in 1780 and began granting religious freedom and some civil rights to the Monarchy’s Jews, he reversed his mother’s 1765 ruling. Mozart came up again, this time as evidence that natural ability in an art was not equivalent to mature judgment with respect to religion. On two occasions, then, Mozart was “Exhibit A” in a legislative debate regarding childhood reason and religious freedom, one with serious consequences for thousands across the Monarchy.