Modern-day Mozarts

Masters from the cradle

I was always fascinated by stories of music prodigies: Mozart composing already at the age of five, 10-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns offering to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory as an encore at his debut public recital, or Hungarian virtuoso Georges Cziffra entering the Franz Liszt Academy at age nine, after four years performing in a traveling circus.

Several instances of young children displaying extraordinary musical talent have been recorded in recent times. Among them one can find famous performers such as Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould, and Yehudi Menuhin, to name but a few.

The Canadian Mozart

However, the list also includes many less-known musicians whose early promising careers did not always match the expectations of their patrons and audience once they reached adulthood. One such case was Canadian pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929 – 1968). While still 7 years old, Mathieu gave a recital of his own works in Paris. His performance was received enthusiastically and critics unanimously hailed him as “Canadien Mozart”.

However, the aftermath of WWII found Mathieu a changed man and his return to Montreal was followed by alcoholism and emotional problems that led to his premature death at the age of 39.  Mathieu’s life story is explored in the film L’enfant prodige (2010) by Luc Dionne, which features much of his beautiful music performed by -also Québécois- pianist Alain Lefèvre.

Rise and fall (and rise again)

L’enfant prodige bears a close resemblance to the film Shine (1996) by Scott Hicks, which deals with the formative years of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott and his subsequent struggle with mental illness. Both films explore similar themes such as the beginnings of a promising music career, the strong influence of family on the child’s character, and the early claim to fame followed by a sudden fall.

There is, however, a crucial difference. While L’enfant prodige is the tragic story of one’s descent to alcoholism and despair, Shine is essentially a film about overcoming seemingly unsurpassable obstacles and surviving life’s misfortunes.

A great challenge even for the most phenomenal talents, no doubt.

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