A great deal is often made about musical precocity, especially when it comes to Mozart and Mendelssohn (and to a MUCH lesser extent Korngold). The notion of these genius composers writing music when they’re young children is somehow a sign that their intrinsic gifts surpass those of much more “normal” composers who struggle for years mastering the art of composition (like Bruckner, for example). Is Don Giovanni MORE genius than Bruckner 9? Not really, but Mozart is regarded as a pseudo-mythological genius. And the most interesting part about it is that this perception stems from his adorable-for-a-4-year-old-but-not-exactly-amazing childhood compositions and not from his this-music-has-forever-altered-the-course-of-human-history mature compositions.
What I find most interesting is the litany of works by young men that can actually stand the test of time in not only music history, but within that composer’s own output. Shostakovich wrote his Symphony no. 1 at the age of 19. Taken a listen to that shit lately? It’s incredible, one of his finest symphonies and chock full of ideas, sounds, and concepts that we associate with the Shostakovich of 50 years later. Saint-Saens completed his wildly underrated First Symphony at the age of 18. Even Mozart, for all his childhood composing, also wrote his Violin Concerti as a teenager, which is frankly more impressive – the last three in particular are bedrocks of the violin repertoire.
But the greatest of these works is Don Juan, which Strauss wrote at the age of 24 and is simply and completely STRAUSS! in every way. Everything that Strauss would go on to accomplish can be found in the pages of Don Juan, from the insane virtuosity to the playful humor to the never-ending supply of great oboe melodies. If he had never written anything else in his life, we still would point these out as characteristics of his style. You can make a reasonable argument that it’s his finest music – you’d be wrong, but not so wrong that you’d get laughed at in your face area. It is immensely popular today, has been since it’s premiere performance, and will be until human beings destroy themselves in a nuclear war or global-warming fueled plague. Sorry, that’s a different topic.
I’ve written many times about how talented the pool of musicians in the world is right now, and this recording is further evidence. It’s taken from a concert in October 2011 at the New England Conservatory and conducted by Hugh Wolff which also featured a performance of the original version of Mahler’s Titan – Symphonic Poem in 2 Parts, which ended up becoming his Symphony no. 1, itself a pretty stellar work for a twenty-something. You can listen to the entire performance at InstantEncore, which is free and awesome.
The Mahler is cool and interesting from a historical perspective, but the Strauss is just a bad ass performance. There’s no way a university, even if it is a prestigious conservatory, should sound that rad. Wolff’s reading is exciting, and the band is up to the task. Maybe there’s some sort of synergy between young people and young music or something, because it’s absolute magic. Give it a listen, and take a gander around that site, too, because there’s some great shit in there.