Author Barry Brooks Rescues Child Composers from Oblivion

Barry Cooper asks: Who are the most important child composers of the past?(Photo: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.)
Barry Cooper asks: Who are the most important child composers of the past?(Photo: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.)

Everyone loves a prodigy.

Mozart‘s music is sublime, but would we find it quite so sublime if it were not accompanied by Mozart’s mythology: that the musical genius who could never land an actual job as a court musician, the brilliant playboy who burned the candles at both ends and died tragically young, began life as a continent-crossing musical child wonder?

Despite our fascination with the workings of minds at once so tender and so well formed, the musical works of child composers we know best today are generally those that come from their later years, not their youth.

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony is one of his last works, as is Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. So maybe I must revise my opening: even though everyone does love the story of a prodigy, our ears have been trained to prefer the music of a prodigy’s adult years – music deemed by some standard of values ”mature” – over that of a prodigy’s youth.

Really, everyone loves a prodigy as long as that prodigy eventually grows up.

Barry Brooks Examines Composers’ Ages

Barry Brooks, professor of music at the University of Manchester and author of several books on Beethoven, aims to refurbish the image of musical works by child composers in his most recent book, Child Composers and Their Works: A Historical Survey (Scarecrow Press, 2009).

Brooks’ rationale for his study is intriguing: that musical research has in recent years explored the effects of many other types of “difference” (be it racial or gender difference, or that of sexual orientation) on the crafting and reception of musical works, but difference in “age” has not been seriously considered. Instead, Brooks notes, we tend simply to brand a composer’s childhood works as “juvenilia” and relegate them to the aesthetic rubbish heap.

In just this way has the canon of Western art music been formed, by prejudices that fairly often throw the baby (no pun intended here) out with the bath.

I’m sure Brooks himself also intended no pun by deeming research on music by child composers a “virgin field” of inquiry. Indeed it is. The field is so untrodden that when I picked up the book, I had to ask myself why we cared what it may say. Then I asked myself why shouldn’t we care, and read on.

Brooks states one of his more subtle objectives also in intriguing terms:

“The issue to be addressed is not the childhood works of major composers, but the major works of child composers. What concerns us here is music composed by children of the past . . . regardless of how they developed in later life.

One cannot assume that the most successful child composers became the most successful adult composers, or even continued composing at all.”

Who are the most important child composers of the past, and did they generally become the leading adult composers?  Is Mozart particularly exceptional in this respect? . . .  How far back in childhood can distinguishing hallmarks of a composer’s adult style be found? How often is the neglect of children’s works due to prejudice rather than inherently poor musical quality or some other reason?”

And in Child Composers and Their Works he sets out to answer at least some of these questions.

At What Age is a Composer a “Prodigy”?

One question Brooks doesn’t include in his list (which is much longer than what I’ve quoted above) but does seek to answer as the book unfolds is, When did the age of child prodigy adoration begin? For various reasons, few child composers have been able to be identified before the sixteenth century, Brooks claims, and only a few (Claudio Monteverdi being one better known to us today than most others) are recorded between then and 1760s.
And we all know what happened in the 1760s: Mozart (1756-91) appeared. It was he, Brooks says, who

“changed the image of the child composer irrevocably . . . with a series of remarkable compositions. Had there been other young child composers shortly before [Mozart], even if a little older and less skillful than he was when he first made his mark, he would not have created such a stir; but there were no immediate predecessors remotely comparable.”

Well there it is. Our understanding of child composer’s today begins and, until Brooks’ book arrived, at least, ends with Mozart. And once Leopold Mozart began trotting young Wolfgang around the courts of Europe and his son’s reputation grew legs on took off on its own, child composers started coming out of the woodwork.

19th Century Prodigies

Child composers continued to arrive in a more or less steady stream, given the esoteric nature of what we’re talking about, into the nineteenth century, with the likes of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Chopin; through that century and into the twentieth, with Richard Strauss and Erich Korngold; and right down to Jay Greenberg (b. 1991) and Alexander Prior (b. 1992) working today.

In later chapters, Brooks discusses the ways children’s compositions have been marginalized (loss of various kinds, destruction of the manuscripts by the composers as adults) and the two litmus tests (competence and originality) to which they are typically subjected.

Whenever we evaluate artworks for their aesthetic merit, it is difficult not to lapse into the very same thinking that constructed child composers (and composers in other non-normative groups) out of the canon.

Do We Gave an Unfair Pass on Music By Children?

Even as Brooks calls our attention to the cultural devaluation of musical works by children, and even as he warns against using of the term “prodigy” to describe them – writing that it “implies something freakish and unnatural, and could be regarded as little short of an insult” – his judgments of the music of some child composers are based on the same underlying set of values that regard musical evidence of mature thought as superior to that of the thought processes of a child.

Brooks notes that Monteverdi’s Sacrae Cantiunculae, a collection of motets Monteverdi composed before the tender age of 15, has been dismissed by scholars as the immature work of a composer whose mature works are today known for their sensitive text setting.

But in assailing this reception of Monteverdi’s work, Brooks doesn’t so much tell us why the youthful aspects of Monteverdi’s writing have been unjustly maligned as attempt to show how the motets of his Sacrae Cantiunculae are more mature in style than earlier writers have recognized them to be.

“Most of the words in the Sacrae Cantiunculae,” Brooks writes, “are set syllabically, with the careful attention to verbal rhythm that also characterizes his later music.” [My emphasis]  Brooks takes a similar approach, though emphasizing different specific musical aspects, in his brief discussions of early works by Beethoven and Liszt.

Is there a way to evaluate the music of children for its unique contributions to human culture, rather than against the yardstick of “maturity” that prevails as the measure of successful music composed by adults? I’m not sure Brooks answers this question, but he certainly raises it.

Brooks writes, “. . . even where they (works by children) are praised, authors often seem obliged to add or imply that the works are admirable only if the age of the composer is taken into account.” But the problem Brooks butts up against is that because music by child composers has been patronized, maligned, and dismissed throughout the ages, there exists today no language and no critical vocabulary unique to music by children with which to discuss it without inadvertently comparing it to music by (white, male) adults.

The same is true for music composed by women and composers of non-Western ethnic backgrounds who wrote (or write) in western European idioms. And if we view artistic production as artifacts of human experience, we must decode the Rosetta stone of each group’s unique way of communicating that experience through art.

A lofty undertaking? Certainly. But one that must happen if we are to move beyond the barriers that Brooks has so ably shown exist in understanding the value of music by one such under-sung group – children.

And by hearing - and patiently working to understand – the voices of the voiceless we will experience the true richness of the human life cycle, from beginning to end.

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