Philip Hensher on the trouble with classical music and child prodigies
Wednesday January 24, 2007 - The Guardian
The London Symphony Orchestra is not best known for its interest in new music. So when the LSO records the Fifth Symphony of a contemporary composer, you would be right in thinking there was something unusual about it - even before seeing the oddly fresh face of the composer on the CD sleeve. The unusual thing is this: Jay Greenberg is 15 years old.
Five symphonies by the age of 15 is rather extraordinary. Greenberg, the son of a Slavic linguist, entered New York's Juilliard School at 10, and has been taught by Samuel Adler, an academic composer of traditional symphony-and-string-quartet tendencies.
Greenberg came to attention when, shortly after the attacks of September 2001, he wrote his Overture to 9/11 - but bad taste of this sort was surely forgivable in a 10-year-old boy. The word has been getting around. One of his sponsors at Juilliard has said: "We are talking about a prodigy of the level of the greatest prodigies in history, when it comes to composition. I am talking about the likes of Mozart and Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns."
Mozart's K1, a tiny piano piece, was written in 1761 when he was five. Mendelssohn's 12 early string symphonies were written in the early 1820s, from the ages of 12 to 14. Saint-Saëns made his first public appearance, accompanying a Beethoven piano sonata, in 1841 when he was five, and his first compositions are thought to date from this time as well.
It is worth pointing out, though, that even these prodigies did not produce a significant and original piece until later. Mozart's first strikingly new work is the Jeunehomme concerto, written when he was 17; Mendelssohn's was the remarkable string octet, written at 16.
Performing prodigies are not so rare: currently, there is the amazing 13-year-old pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. Like such performers, very young composers can become striking through a mastery, principally, of craft. They often appear to convey emotions deeper than they could actually be capable of, but that is largely an illusion.
Composers in the 18th and 19th century had a body of accepted harmonic practice they could master as a matter of craft. The 20th and 21st centuries were different. The avant garde, which rests on a notion of individual expression and innovation, is not at all likely to produce a very young composer. There is not much likelihood of a 15-year old doing something really new any more; there has not been for a century.
Of course, it does sometimes happen. Erich Korngold's first compositions, written from the age of 10 onwards, occupy a convincingly late-Romantic idiom. Oliver Knussen created a stir at 16 by conducting his own first symphony with, again, the LSO; if that was an early essay, not quite in an original voice, there is no question about the wonderfully weird second symphony, premiered when Knussen was 19. But by that age, many serious composers are on their way.
I would love to hear something genuinely new from a US composer of any age, let alone Jay Greenberg at 15. But if you were thinking of using Cilla Black's wonderful putdown - "I've got tights older than that" - be warned that Greenberg's musical language is on the antique side. The fifth symphony is an impressively skilful exercise in academic harmony, orchestration and counterpoint, with no sense of anything new in the voice at all.
The first movement begins with a standard, late-19th-century unison string tune answered by a woodwind chorus; the harmony is Mahler, the orchestral style Dvorak. The galumphing scherzo shows that Vaughan Williams's reputation had gone further into the US than anyone knew - the model here is the Sinfonia Antartica, which even in 1952 was an incredibly conservative piece. The kindest thing to say about the finale is that it made one wonder whether the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra is still under copyright.
Strikingly, there is nothing more recent in Greenberg's ears than some very conservative music from 60 years ago. I do not think this is a matter of personal taste; that is the last moment in history when serious art music was still being written within a set of academic rules.
Greenberg will either grow up and use his dusty technical command to produce something vital and original, or he will stay exactly where he is and go and make a killing in Hollywood. After all, that's where the main market for orchestral music is these days. What can be said for certain is that serious art music could never be written by a child. The only things that are left for even the most brilliant of them are reheated gestures from a museum.