History is crowded with examples of composers who produced some of their most dazzling achievements in the earliest stages of their career. Whether it is the young Mozart, who as a child performer enthralled audiences across Europe, or the teenage Mendelssohn, who by the age of 14 already had 12 symphonies to his name, there is something intriguing about how the young creative mind makes these early flowerings occur.
In her first year as Coriole Music Festival’s artistic director, Anna Goldsworthy has programmed two days of music-making that explore this whole notion of ‘early style’. Here she speaks about what it consists of, how it is made, and why it so fascinates us.
Why is it that some of classical music’s most spectacular achievements were the products of children and teenagers, and what brought you to choose this theme for the Coriole Music Festival?
I was struck by that question while hearing a wonderful 11-year-old violinist, Christian Li, in Melbourne a few weeks ago. I hesitate to use the word ‘genius’ necessarily in this context, but I was struck by his level of acumen and emotional intelligence.
What actually drew me to this notion of ‘early style’, however, is that I’ve always had a fascination with the exact opposite, which is ‘late style’. In this we see how, towards the end of their lives, artists frequently seem to shed the need to be congenial and perhaps some sort of ‘realer’ self emerges – Beethoven always being the prototype.
I’ve always loved the works of the young Mendelssohn; and Korngold has become a composer who fascinates me, because he also seems to have almost started out ‘complete’. Schubert fascinates me too, in that he created wonderful early Lieder such as Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade in his teens; and yet when one thinks of his great chamber music masterpieces, and of course Winterreise, these come from more than a decade later.
Some composers seem to arrive at an early level that they never subsequently surpass, and I suppose that’s a traditional understanding of Mendelssohn. Others such as Mozart were astonishing when younger but were able to continue on a similar trajectory to become even more astonishing in other ways as they matured.
Is it only in hindsight we can fully see these composers’ extraordinary childhood gifts? What is it about the passage of time that magnifies our appreciation?
I guess there’s the danger of being overwhelmed by the ‘wow factor’ in the magnitude of their artistic achievement, or just being overpowered by the freakiness of a child doing such things. When we look at the history of reception of names that we now think of as canonic, sure, we see Mozart was celebrated as a child, but we don’t really see the same with Schubert. Mendelssohn was born in the right place at the right time, with a family who were prepared to support him in everything he did, and his early work was well received. And Korngold was likewise, having been the son of Vienna’s leading music critic at the time, Julius Korngold. I guess it is a precondition of child prodigies that they need to be born into a family or social structure that will allow them to be heard and taken seriously.
But personally, I’ve never been particularly interested in the phenomenon of the wunderkind, because it builds a cult around such questions and creates a level of artistic expectation that is unrealistic and not conducive to an artistic career. I suppose what interests me about this theme is the notion of voice: how an authoritative and distinctive individual voice allows some composers to bypass juvenilia and find their feet from the start.
Mendelssohn is one. You see it in his early teens as he tries out every genre and makes his way through his musical apprenticeship. By the time of the Octet, which he wrote at 16, we have the most glorious celebration of music-making that there is in the repertoire. It fascinates me where this voice happens in music, and where it doesn’t, and where for other composers there’s a lot more [of a] hard slog to get where they need to go.
What is the place of youth when we typically have a gallery of crusty old males who represent the achievements of classical music?
Well it’s funny that we do in a way, because when you look at it statistically, it seems that there is a disproportion of so-called great composers who died in their 30s – like Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Those who actually survived until old age tend to be remembered by their subsequent selves in the public imagination. So, we are much more likely to imagine Brahms as the stentorian face with the bushy beard than we are the youth with the flaxen blonde curls who so enchanted Schumann. Had Schubert survived until he was in his 50s or 60s, maybe we would have a different notion of him.
How qualities of youth infuse their music is an interesting question. I suspect there is an energy and freshness. Certainly, when you think of the works of Schubert, there’s a kind of purity, alongside the moments of darkness. Whether that’s to do with being young and idealistic, or simply having a song in your heart and wanting to share it, I don’t know. Whether all this is right there in the very heart of what much art music is, I’m not sure either.
You are programming works at Coriole by two Australians in their 20s, Jakub Jankowski and Luke Styles. Can you tell us about these composers?
Jakub is a brilliant young composer who is deeply intelligent and has terrific command of craft. He is interested in expanding the ranges of an ensemble but at the same time has an allegiance to beauty. His new work, … the Voices of Silent Thing, is for two sopranos and piano four hands, so that’s a really unusual textural possibility. There’s also going to be an off-stage piano trio, making this a site-specific work in which the Barrel Room at Coriole is going to become part of the instrumental fabric of the piece.
Luke Styles comes from a very strong background in writing for voice and in the last few weeks had an opera premiered at the Perth Festival, Ned Kelly, with a libretto written by my father, Peter Goldsworthy. At Coriole we will hear his On Bunyah, based on poetry by great Australian poet Les Murray. It was premiered last year at Wigmore Hall by the tenor Mark Padmore, and this will be its second performance.
Coriole Music Festival
Saturday, May 4 to Sunday, May 5
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