By Lawrence Toppman
Mozart wowed European monarchs and millionaires at the age of seven, embarking on a three-and-a-half-year trip around Europe with his family. He played keyboard compositions new and old, juvenilia by himself and masterpieces by others, and improvised dazzlingly. But was he the greatest young composer in history? Well…maybe.
Mozart wrote masterpieces before his 18th birthday: his first great symphony (No. 25), the motet “Exsultate Jubilate,” some well-crafted if overlong operas, the first of his revolutionary quintets for two violins, cello and two violas.
But Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later became a Hollywood composer (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) did more impressive work in Vienna between the two world wars. By his 18th birthday, his operas “Violanta” and “The Ring of Polykrates” earned wide acclaim, he wrote a stimulating Sinfonietta, and beloved pianist Artur Schnabel often played his Sonata No. 2.
What about Felix Mendelssohn? Great work shot out of his pen before he turned 18, from his Octet for Strings to his Beethoven-like Symphony No. 1 and the irresistible overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (He wrote the rest of that amazing incidental music later.) He also knocked out 12 short but impressive symphonies for strings and a mature string quartet.
These three died in middle age: Mozart at 35, Korngold at 60, Mendelssohn at 38. So the title of Composing Prodigy Who Died Too Young goes to Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.
Not only does he share the first two names on Mozart’s birth certificate. Not only was he born 50 years to the day after WAM on January 27, 1806. In his teens, he wrote a Stabat Mater, two cantatas, short piano works, an octet, a nonet, an opera titled “The Happy Slaves,” three immaculate string quartets (I’ve heard those) and a lively, polished Symphony in D (ditto).
He had to do all that before turning 20, because he died (probably from tuberculosis) 10 days short of that birthday. Listen to his music, and you’ll always wonder if the man posthumously dubbed ”The Spanish Mozart” would have lived up to that nickname.