Mozart the Wunderkind

MSA Session at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center
“Mozart the Wunderkind”
Sunday, 30 July 2017, 3:00–4:30 p.m.

It was largely on account of the young Wolfgang Mozart that the English language acquired the word “Wunderkind” (which in German originally designated the miraculously conceived Jesus Christ); when Wolfgang and his elder sister Maria Anna exhibited their musical skills in London in 1764 and 1765, they were advertised as “Prodigies of Nature.” But whatever term was used, the extraordinary compositional and performing skills shown by Wolfgang, in particular, while still a child, have ever since loomed large in his biography and in the reception of his music.

The panel will include three papers and there will be time at the end for questions from the audience.

  • Alyson McLamore (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo), “Mozart in the Middle: London’s ‘Musical Children’”
  • Adeline Mueller (Mt. Holyoke College), “Revising the Age of Reason: Mozart, Childhood, and Jewish Conversion in the Habsburg Monarchy”
  • Edmund Goehring (University of Western Ontario), “An Ingenious Mozart among the Scientists”
  • Bruce Alan Brown, moderator


Alyson McLamore (California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo) – “Mozart in the Middle: London’s ‘Musical Children’”

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 forty-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—after the family returned to Salzburg—that Wolfgang 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.

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

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 Empire, 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 Empire’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 Empire.

Edmund Goehring (University of Western Ontario) – “An Ingenious Mozart among the Scientists”

The persisting fascination with the child Mozart speaks, among other things, to a fascination with causes. What adventitious disposition in the world produced this uncannily talented youth? A question like this generally presupposes genius as a phenomenon to which science can provide the answer. In this spirit, the entry on “Genius” in a recent Mozart encyclopedia forecasts the final explanation and resolution of genius, along with the branches of science that will show the way: “More recent work by psychologists and sociologists . . . has begun the task of demystifying [genius], searching for genetic, social and cultural explanations of [its] components.”

Of course, we would not even be in a position to call Mozart a genius without a culture that had first winnowed the commonplace from the extraordinary. Nature does not identify geniuses for us independent of our own criteria or interests. This circumstance suggests that the place to address matters of Mozart’s genius is not science, but aesthetics. At least, that is the conclusion implied in Immanuel Kant’s somewhat notorious assertion that only artists could be geniuses, not scientists. Kant, a great admirer of Newton, did not mean to belittle scientists. Instead, he discerned and then tried to work out a difference in the nature of their respective laws. The scientist looks to generalize, the artist to individuate. The scientist discovers a law (probably), the artist invents one.

This talk will explore two sides of Mozart’s genius against Kant’s distinction. First, it will play some beguiling passages from his chamber music to dramatize the limits of science’s authority over musical expressions of genius. Then, it will consider some examples from biography and criticism that demystify Mozart the Wunderkind in the name of science. In important cases, that approach both reflects and propagates reductive and overly cynical views of human creativity.