A Prodigy, Hype, and Anticipation

Jonathan Bellman

Friend Eric sends this link about Jay Greenberg, a 16-year-old composer who has a big catalogue already and a CD of the London Symphony Orchestra playing his Fifth Symphony.  My local Borders will call me in a couple of days when my copy arrives.  Some of the other publicity glop on the internet plays up the Mozart comparison, the “what were you doing at that age?” trope, and the glowing, wonder-filled remarks from his composition teachers, etc.  Mozart is one of the magic names that is, of course, flung about with gushing abandon.  Mozart, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns; wow!  Prodigies!  Is he as great as those?  Just beneath the surface is the obvious (stupid) question: Will He Save Classical Music?  Just what we need!  A star!  That Bell thing didn’t work out so well, but…

Hey, no pressure!  Be Mozart and save classical music, kid, and learn to drive in the bargain.  Can’t wait to either worship you or spit you out.  Depends on our mood that day. 

My understanding of Mozart is not only that his music is lovely—for pity’s sake—but that he blended the primary musical languages of his day (Austro-German and Italian) in a frighteningly economical and persuasive way, so one had surface attractiveness and a kind of depth of wit and learning that was essentially unequaled.  (OK; we can talk about Haydn and Emmanuel Bach if you want.)  His music was not “new” in the Boulez sense; it was that he spoke the received languages—melodism, topics and styles, various deployments of form—with unparalleled command.

OK; I’ll take the challenge.  It’s not just grinding out passagework and making big pieces; actually, as a friend explained years ago, a number of young’uns at any given time can do that.  I want to see if I can “understand”—whatever that means—what this young man is getting at, via the languages that he uses.  Never mind the twittering network hype; I’m going to get a good recording of two of this guy’s pieces and give them a concentrated listen, and I’ll see what I think.

I’ll let you know.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to A Prodigy, Hype, and Anticipation

  1. squashed says:

    I love music industry freak show! Bring it on. (seriously, at that age what exactly he has to say beyond technical intricacies? If it’s about tricks and thrill, there are more than plenty software able to generate fairly strong composition.)
    But I am all for cheap thrill ! Will it be 240 bpm twelve tones against machine rivaling free jazz drone? Any naked babe performing it for acoustic effect? haa haa…

  2. Alyssa Yorgan says:

    Your mention of J. Bell reminds me of a related “prodigy” phenomenon- the new trend of hyping young violinists as “the next Joshua Bell.” Apparently there is one at our own institution, go figure.

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