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And where are the parents?

Registration for our summer course is at its height, and one of the topics we shall be discussing is musical child prodigies and, no less important, their parents. We shall pay special attention to perhaps the most famous parent ever of a child prodigy: Leopold Mozart. He fathered two prodigies: Wolfgang Amadeus and his elder sister Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia, nicknamed Nannerl, who likewise displayed prodigious musical abilities, albeit to a lesser extent than her brother.

What goes into the making of such a musical child prodigy, and have there been other musicians who displayed such outstanding abilities in early childhood? What is the parents’ function in the career of a child like this, and can we judge their actions – or is such judgment an anachronism in these cases? The fact is that many child prodigies received a musical education, and their talent was recognized from a very early age. Joseph Haydn, for example, was born to a musical father, and before the age of six he was sent to the home of a relative, Johann Matthias Frankh, a school principal and choirmaster in Hainburg, to train as a musician.
Other child prodigies also generally grew up in musical families, and the family of Johann Sebastian Bach is a prime example. However, these children displayed talents that outstripped those of other family members. This was the case with Ludwig van Beethoven, with Camille Saint-Saëns, who was a multi-disciplinary child prodigy and a Renaissance man through and through, despite having been born in the 19th century. Even Johannes Brahms, who was not considered a child prodigy, conducted a choir at the age of fourteen.

Were these cases the evolutionary pinnacle of a glorious dynasty or the fruit of a rigorous education? Apparently, both. And what is the parents’ place in such a career? To parents who observe him from a 21st-century perspective, Leopold Mozart looks very bad indeed. In hopes of financial gain, he took his two children on three tours throughout Europe. His expectations of making money from their talents were, however, disappointed, because of the high cost of travel and accommodation. Several years later, Johann van Beethoven, the father of Ludwig, heard of the Mozart tour and embarked upon a similar journey across Europe in hopes that his son’s talent would fill his pockets; he, too, returned penniless.

From a 21st-century viewpoint these were acts of exploitation, and we, of course, judge them with the utmost severity. We must bear in mind, however, that it was not until the late 19th century that we began to regard childhood as we do today – and by that time the parents of most of these child prodigies, and the children themselves, too – had long ago departed this life.

Itzhak Rashkovsky
Music Director, Keshet Eilon