Prodigies in the age of Big Media
Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, wrote a fascinating profile of a young composer named Jay Greenberg in a recent issue (unfortunately, the WSJ web page is subscription only, so I can't give a link). Greenberg is 14 years old.
He's written five symphonies and more than a dozen piano sonatas. Samuel Zyman, his teacher at Juilliard, compared him to such composing prodigies as Mendelssohn and Mozart.
Greenberg, unlike Mozart or even the more recent Benjamin Britten, though, is growing up in an age of celebrity. Our 24 hour news culture likes to find the next big thing, chew them through and spit them out.
Teachout recently listened to Greenberg's debut CD, to be released by Sony this fall. Greenberg's Fifth Symphony is strikingly well-made, he noted, though it is conservative (young Greenberg seems to be consciously following Brahms -- not a bad person to imitate, of course, but composing is about creating something new). Because it is conservative, it's unlikely that anyone will be listening to it 200 years from now, Teachout states.
So what? We won't be listining to Beyonce, either. But quality does matter with classical music, which isn't written to be flash-in-the-pan. The fact that Sony rushed to get a CD out while Greenberg is a marketable young prodigy means that he hasn't had time to perfect his craft in private. "If his handlers have their way, the immature student efforts he might someday have chosen to suppress will instead be recorded for posterity and hawked to a world-wide audience with a short attention span," Teachout writes. When audiences have a short attention span, you need to go out with your best shot. I have old stories I've written stashed places around the house. Let me just say, I'm glad they stay in the house and the world will never see them. Sometimes when young people get rushed into things -- remember the Opal Mehta flap? -- their otherwise promising adult careers get snuffed out before they can start.
On the other hand, I think people -- including Teachout -- worry too much about prodigies losing their childhoods in order to pursue their dreams. He cites Ruth Slenczynska, a pianist who made a recital debut at age six and later wrote a memoir called "Forbidden Childhood." Does that "say it all" as Teachout claims? Not really. Plenty of people who don't get to pursue their talents have miserable childhoods. Prodigies likewise may or may not enjoy being children. My guess is most wouldn't anyway.
Since they're profoundly gifted, their brains will be years ahead of where their ages and bodies allow society to interact with them. That's seldom a recipe for a happy youth.
What does make people happy, though, is losing themselves in doing something they love. Which makes the hours many a prodigy spends practicing per day more like therapy than the child abuse popular culture makes it out to be.