In search of a modern-day Mozart

Richard Fairman:

The premiere of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto at the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan on December 26 1770, must have been a memorable occasion. Six hours long, the opera was an immediate hit, and its run extended to 21 performances. “Every evening the theatre is full, much to the astonishment of everyone,” the young composer wrote in a letter to his sister. “People say that since they have been in Milan they have never seen such crowds at a first opera.” Mozart was 14 at the time.
He is far from being the only teenage genius in musical history; a recent poll to decide music’s greatest prodigy in BBC Music Magazine didn’t even manage to place Mozart in the top 10. Mendelssohn, who was the winner, composed his brilliant Octet when he was just 16. In second place, Schubert set German song alight by penning “Gretchen am Spinnrade” at 17. Korngold, placed third, completed his sexually saturated opera Violanta at the same age.
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Where are the equivalents to these prodigies today? There is plenty of evidence that young people are as busy composing as ever – the recent Channel 4 television series about 16-year-old British composer Alexander Prior will have alerted the world to that – but very few music-lovers are likely to be aware of them. Spend a year going to concerts in any cultural capital and it would be quite normal not to hear a note of music by a single composer as yet untroubled by middle-aged spread.
If there is one place where youth really has a hold, it is the BBC Proms. The 2009 season opens on Friday and promises the usual admirable spotlight on youth. Young audiences, teenage soloists, family days, youth orchestras all have their place. But what of young composers? Search through the season programme and the score here looks rather different. The youngest living composer in the main evening concerts is 28. There are only three others under 30 out of the 128 composers altogether. By that age Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Bizet had already turned out masterpieces by the armful (and, tragically, each only had a few more years to live).