Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1873:
MOZART AT EIGHT

by John H. Lienhard

Today, when Mozart was eight. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Daines Barrington, born in 1727, was a noted London lawyer, with a vast range of interests. His paper on the prospects of reaching the North Pole stimulated England's first attempt to get there. He vigorously opposed the literal truth of the Biblical flood, and he proposed his own theory of the origin of fossils.

Barrington thought fossils were imprints left by the claws, or maybe juices, of subterranean insects. That idea didn't fare so well. However, he also showed that birds learn calls from their parents. His scientific interests won him membership in London's Royal Society. In 1770, he wrote a letter to the society describing a physical phenomenon he'd witnessed six years earlier.

He'd been invited to the home of a man whose eight-year-old son had been concertizing in London. He describes meeting the son: Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. (You and I translate Theophilus from Greek into Latin -- we get the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) What would you think, Barrington asks, if I were to tell you I'd met an eight-year-old who stood seven feet tall? Well, young Mozart's musical ability was that amazing.

Barrington has brought along the five-part open score of a new opera by a London composer. To compound the problem, two of the five lines are in the offbeat contralto clef. This is a very tough test, and Mozart not only plays it flawlessly -- he also captures the composer's tempos, dynamics, and musical intentions. Barring-ton goes on for two pages explaining the complexity of the feat to the non-musician readership of the Royal Society.

The test continues. Next he asks young Wolfgang if he'd be good enough to improvise a love song. The child gives him an arch look, as though to say, "Ask me something hard," and he continues to create a complete piece with recitative and two movements.

Could you then, asks Barrington, compose me a song of rage? This time, Mozart tears into the keyboard like a child possessed -- standing up from his bench and hammering the keys with small fingers that can scarcely reach the interval of a fifth.

The playing comes to an abrupt halt when a cat enters the room. Mozart suddenly leaps up to run after it. No more harpsichord for a while. As Barrington talks with the father, Mozart finds a stick, which he makes into a hobbyhorse. He gallops back and forth through the room.

All this had taken place six years before Barrington's letter. So what's become of Mozart? Well, he's now fourteen and has been concertizing in Austria -- he's written some very nice oratorios.

Perhaps, Barrington concludes, this Mozart is no mere flash in the pan. He may, Barrington rashly suggests, become even greater than another one-time European prodigy, now working in London. This Mozart might, one day, prove to be a match for even the great Georg Friederich Handel.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


D. Barrington, Account of a very remarkable young Musician. Philosophical Transactions, Volume 60, 1770, pp. 54-64.

For more on Barrington, see: his Wikipedia entry.

I'm indebted to listener Brad Spencer for bringing the Barrington letter to my attention.


Mozart's birthplace
Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria, 1975 (photo by John Lienhard)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.