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A prodigy is a person whose talents or achievements — in music or in any other area — are so extraordinary as to seem miraculous. The term is most often applied to children.

No one has ever been able to explain why some children demonstrate musical gifts far beyond those of other, even very talented children. Musical families, a musical environment, early and excellent training, hours of practice — all certainly contribute, but a child of six or seven or even ten years of age has simply not lived long enough for prodigious achievement to be the result of hard work and positive influences. And more difficult to explain than fast and accurate fingers is the level of seemingly mature musical expressiveness that many child prodigies achieve.

Interestingly enough, child prodigy performers have not been so very rare in the history of music. Every generation seems to have its famous prodigy, if not several. (The most famous was undoubtedly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was taken on tour by his father starting just before his sixth birthday, and whose playing at the keyboard and on the violin astonished professional musicians and royal audiences throughout Europe.) And yet the public's interest never ceases: there is an endless fascination with stunning musical feats performed by people who are years away from being able to carry on an adult conversation.

Far more rare than the child prodigy performer is the child prodigy composer. People tend to think of Mozart in this regard, as well, and it's true that he started writing music at the age of four or five. But of the many great pieces on which Mozart's fame as a composer rests, few were written before his twentieth birthday. Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), on the other hand, composed works when he was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen that far surpass the adolescent Mozart's, and that are still considered masterpieces. The Octet for Strings, for example, is a brilliant and profound composition, one of the great works of chamber music, and Mendelssohn was just sixteen when he wrote it. The manuscript of the Octet even has the sweet, very careful, and slightly stiff look of a young person's hand. Another great compositional prodigy was Franz Schubert (1797–1828), who wrote many of his most celebrated songs (in addition to various symphonies, string quartets, and choral works) when he was seventeen and eighteen years old. In this century, the Vienna-born Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957), later famous as a composer of film scores, was writing music of astonishing complexity and expression by the time he was thirteen.

The rarity of child prodigy composers should probably not be surprising, since the process of creation is even more mysterious than that of interpretation and performance, or of physical accomplishment, precocious or otherwise. From what sources, after all, does a child creator draw inspiration? How can a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old start with a blank sheet of paper and write music that in countless ways stirs the souls of men and women far beyond him in years and life experience?

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[NPR Logo] The NPR® Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z by Miles Hoffman, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright © 1997 by Miles Hoffman and National Public Radio. All rights reserved.