The Arty Semite

Where Is the Next Great Child Composer?

By Benjamin Ivry

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Asked to name a Jewish child prodigy composer, most people would think of Felix Mendelssohn or perhaps even Felix’s sister Fanny. Yet a fascinating study from Scarecrow Press, “Child Composers and Their Works: A Historical Survey” by Manchester University musicologist Barry Cooper, argues that we should also think of the Swiss Jewish composer Ernest Bloch who by his late teens had composed dozens of surviving works.

Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, an eminent Canadian composer of Russian Jewish origin, was another early starter, as was Morton Gould and a host of 19th century Romantics like Ignaz Moscheles and Henri Herz.The German Jewish composer Erwin Schulhoff wrote “Mélodie,” a chamber work for violin and piano, when he was only nine.

In our day, Jay Greenberg, a Juilliard prodigy, has written symphonic works which have been widely acclaimed and were recorded in 2006 by Sony Masterworks. The Jewish elements in the suave compositions of Greenberg, whose 19th birthday this December will place him outside prodigy age limits, have been well noted.

Yet much study remains to be done on the origins and development of child composing prodigies in the Jewish tradition. This is of more than incidental interest, because prodigy composers from all backgrounds often grow up to be talented adult composers. This indeed may explain why early compositional talent is sought after and prized with only slightly less ardor than that with which Tibetan monks seek infant reincarnations of distinguished Lamas.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it must be admitted that Asia has given us the strongest child composer in recent years: the astonishing composer and pianist Conrad Tao, an American of Chinese descent who is still in his mid-teens, and who has produced works that are personable and fluent, as well as idiomatic for the instruments for which they are written. Furthermore, Tao, who surprisingly is not even mentioned in Barry Cooper’s otherwise admirable compendium, writes compositions expressing the witty, playful personality of a young person, rather than like some miniaturized adult.

The next aspiring Jewish child composer to come down the pike, and surely there will be one, will have a formidable standard to match.

Listen to a short work by Jewish composer Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté:

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