Breathtakingly flashy, preposterously difficult and compositionally naive - that seems to be the general verdict on two previously unknown pieces by Mozart recently unearthed in Salzburg. Since the announcement of their discovery last month by Salzburg's Mozarteum foundation, music experts have been awaiting the new pieces' performance with nail-biting anticipation. The reaction to their first airing - to a packed room at Mozart's Salzburg birthplace last week - might sound remarkably harsh for anything written by a universally acknowledged musical genius. Except, that is, for one small mitigating circumstance: Mozart probably wrote the pieces at the grand old age of eight. That such fiendishly difficult pieces were written by someone at an age when most of us could barely bang out Chopsticks on a keyboard adds extra lustre to the composer's reputation as one of the most precocious figures in musical history.
The pieces - a four-minute concerto movement and a one-minute prelude - come from the so-called Nannerl's Music Book, a collection of miscellaneous pieces copied by the great composer's father, Leopold Mozart, for Wolfgang's older sister and harpsichord prodigy Maria Anna (nicknamed Nannerl). The pieces are written in Leopold's hand and were long thought to be his work. The combination of extreme technical bravura and organisational naivety in two of the pieces, however, has led experts to deduce that they are highly unlikely to have come from Leopold's hand, himself an experienced and highly competent composer.
As young Wolfgang had not yet mastered musical notation, experts believe that Leopold most likely jotted the notes down as his son played them on the clavichord. Performed on August 2 on the Mozart family's original clavichord by the pianist Florian Birsak, the pieces are indeed mind-bogglingly complex for the creations of a child. Written for performance at an extremely fast tempo, they are packed with breakneck runs and difficult leaps across the keyboard, requiring the performer to cross hands regularly. Their bright, crisp, rather charming sound comes across primarily as that of a virtuoso piano player revelling in his own abilities by creating something fiendishly complicated. The fact that Mozart himself was able to play them demonstrates just how dexterous a keyboard player he must already have been at that age. Not unlike many child prodigies today, this early talent saw him hot-housed by his father, who took him and his sister on gruelling tours across Europe lasting years. The trio often performed at royal courts - though they were not above occasionally holding recitals for knock-down prices at inns, as they did in London - and not uncommonly gave several recitals a day. While these proved extremely popular, the high cost of travel in those days (and the long illnesses that the strain of it all helped cause in the family) meant that the Mozarts' finances never greatly improved.
Seeing a pre-adolescent child performing his own compositions like a middle-aged maestro must have been an impressive sight. What really makes Mozart's extreme precocity most remarkable, however, is not the quality of his earliest works, but that his later status as a composer scarcely without rival. Child prodigies were in fact a widespread and highly marketable phenomenon in late 18th-century Europe. Hundreds of other child musicians were making a tidy profit exhibiting their skills around the time of Mozart's childhood, though without notable later careers as composers. Such once-famous figures as the child violinist Thomas Linley and the organist Siegmund Bachmann are now largely forgotten.
Meanwhile, among well-known composers, extremely early promise is surprisingly common. Felix Mendelssohn started studying composition at the age of eight, wrote his first symphony at 15 - and at 16 wrote his String Octet in E Flat Major, one of the most admired pieces of his career. The opera composer and gifted pianist Georges Bizet began studying at the Paris Conservatory at the unprecedented age of nine. Frederic Chopin started composing the Polonaises for which he later became famous at only seven years old. Tales of Mozart's remarkable musical youth stand out, it seems, because none of these figures ever quite matched Mozart's vast output (over 600 pieces) or his almost unique musical flexibility and innovation.
So are there more undiscovered Mozart pieces out there? With other recent discoveries of unknown Mozart manuscripts, at a library in Nantes, France, and at Poland's Jasna Gora monastery, it's perfectly possible that there are. In the meantime, we can all enjoy the experience of the classical music world being transfixed once again by a now-253-year-old little boy.