On prodigies

Every art when first discovered seems to resemble a rough and shapeless mass of marble just hewn out of a quarry, which requires the united and successive endeavors of many laborers to form and polish. The zeal and activity of a single workman can do but little towards its completion; and in music the undirected efforts of an infant must be still more circumscribed; for, without the aid of reason and perseverance he can only depend on memory and a premature delicacy and acuteness of ear for his guides; and in these particulars the child of whom I am going to speak is truly wonderful.

From a little gem in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1779: Charles Burney pays a visit to the three-year-old William Crotch. Crotch, who is mainly remembered today for 1) a couple of pieces in various choral anthem anthologies, and 2) his unfortunately inappropriate name (I always threaten my church choir that we’re going to do a concert of William Crotch and John Blow), was one of the more famous musical prodigies: at 18 months, he began picking out tunes on an organ his father built (!), and within a year was enough of a phenomenon in Britain that Burney was sent to investigate.

[A]ccording to his mother, it seems to have been in consequence of his having heard the superior performance of Mrs. Lulman, a musical lady, who came to try his father’s organ, and who not only played on it, but sung to her own accompanyment, that he first attempted to play a tune himself; for, the same evening, after her departure, the child cried, and was so peevish that his mother was wholly unable to appease him. At length, passing through the dining-room, he screamed and struggled violently to go to the organ, in which, when he was indulged, he eagerly beat down the keys with his little fists….

In his own time, the adult Crotch, in addition to composing, was well-known as a teacher, textbook writer, and music editor. He developed a theory of the evolution of music in which he divided the history of music into three sections: the sublime, the beautiful, and the ornamental—he regarded the sublime period as the golden age, and spent much of his life reviving, imitating, and encouraging the performance of early English church music.

His chief delight at present is playing voluntaries, which certainly would not be called music if performed by one of riper years, being deficient in harmony and measure; but they manifest such a discernment and selection of notes as is truly wonderful, and which, if spontaneous, would surprize at any age.

Nicholas Temperley, in the old New Grove, takes Crotch’s mother to task for dragging him hither and yon during his childhood in order to demonstrate his talents; Temperley blames the resulting “psychological damage” for Crotch’s “ultimate achievement as a composer” not living up to his early promise. I have always found this particular criticism, in general, to be largely meaningless—do any of us really live up to our initial promise? But Temperley does make the more interesting point that Crotch’s output seemed to reverse the typical pattern of those composers who excel in miniatures but stumble in the larger forms. Crotch’s shorter, smaller works are largely uninspired, but in his big statements—oratorios and organ concertos—he showed a real flair for drama, and a surprisingly adventurous compositional palette.

When he declares himself tired of playing on an instrument, and his musical faculties seem wholly blunted, he can be provoked to attention, even though engaged in any new amusement, by a wrong note being struck in the melody of any well-known tune; and if he stands by the instrument when such a note is designedly struck, he will instantly put down the right, in whatever key the air is playing.

Crotch was also a noted landscape painter, he wrote plays, and he dabbled in the sciences like a true English gentleman. As he grew older, he largely turned away from composition (the bulk of his later output is in the arid genre of Anglican chant), and became sharply critical of younger composers, particularly Samuel Wesley, who would succeed him as the preeminent English church musician. Crotch would come to regard as inappropriate much of the innovative vocabulary that the newer generation took from Crotch’s own works.

Into what the present prodigy may mature is not easy to predict; we more frequently hear of trees in blossom during the winter months than of fruits in consequence of such unseasonable appearances.

If there is any lingering effect from his precocious beginnings to be found in Crotch’s later music, I think there’s a case to be made for a certain devaluation of the craft of music. Burney pointed out that the young Mozart was surrounded by the best music and musicians of the day, whereas the young Crotch was largely left to his own devices. Crotch’s imagination was fired by the most dramatic and high-profile public projects, but the more everyday corpus of practical church music must have seemed to be hack-work. Apparently he lacked any formal training until the age of 10 or 11, by which time he had already toured the country and played at Buckingham Palace; it must have been difficult for anyone to instill in him a sense of discipline towards the act of creating music.

Premature powers in music have as often surprized by suddenly becoming stationary as by advancing rapidly to the summit of excellence. Sometimes, perhaps, nature is exhausted or enfeebled by these early efforts; but when that is not the case, the energy and vigour of her operations are seldom properly seconded, being either impeded or checked by early self-complacence, or an injudicious course of study; and sometimes, perhaps, genius is kept from expansion by ill-chosen models; exclusive admiration, want of counsel, or access to the most excellent compositions and performers in the class for which nature has fitted those on whom it is bestowed.

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