The Myth of the Eternal Child

As I prepare for an upcoming lecture-recital presentation on the very young Mozart, specifically how his formative musical experiences happened to a great extent during the three-plus years of travel that his family undertook between 1763-1765 through much of Europe, I find myself referring to the wonderful research and writing of Maynard Solomon in his book, Mozart.

In discussing this early period of Mozart’s life–the incredible stir his talents caused among crowned heads, music cognoscenti and scientists alike–Solomon coined the phrase “The Myth of the Eternal Child” when discussing the young Mozart’s impact on Enlightenment thinking of the time, especially regarding child-rearing. The eminent 18th-Century music historian and traveler, Charles Burney, described Mozart as possessing “prodigious and supernatural talents”, citing the child’s uncanny ability to read even the most complicated music at sight, play entire works with absolute accuracy after a single hearing, as well as demonstrate various “parlor tricks” (playing blindfolded or with a satin cloth placed over the keyboard).

The nine year-old Mozart was also examined (tested) by various members of the Royal Society during his fifteen-month stay in London, who later published the results in the publication Philosophical Transactions of 1770. These various examinations not only served to confirm the almost unimaginable extent of Mozart’s talents, but also fueled the  legend which was quickly growing up around him.

Indeed, Mozart (as Solomon thoughtfully expands on) had to contend with the “myth” of his younger self for the rest of his life–including a very difficult and conflicted period of time around the mid-1770’s when he began to break away from his highly complicated relationship with his father (Leopold) and older sister (Marianne–known as ‘Nannerl’ in the Mozart family) and establish his identity as a mature composer and musician–ultimately resulting in his relocation to Vienna from the family home in Salzburg, Austria.

Reading Solomon’s thoughts on this period in Mozart’s life reminded me of the tendency various societies have which idealizes (even idolizes) childhood as a time of unlimited potential, often unencumbered by the accumulation of life experiences. In Mozart’s case, it seems that he was indeed sheltered from much of the external world during most of his early childhood, so that his latent talents could be nurtured undisturbed by any other concerns.

I also began to wonder what would happen if our public schools became primarily places of exploration and creation, instead of of test and assessment-driven factories?  What would happen if academic teachers were given much more freedom to design and teach their curricula (in other words, to be trusted as the highly-skilled and knowledgeable professionals that they are)?

What would the result be if STEM-based curricula were not even considered without a robust and engaging arts-based component? (How much more research do we need to validate the efficacy of STEAM-based curricula? The arts are a particularly effective doorway to learning excellence.)

Even though the young Mozart represents an extreme degree of prodigious talent, we all have latent talents and abilities which can flourish, given the proper support and encouragement (not to mention funding!). I view my role as a teacher as being primarily two-fold: To model and share a creative life with my students and to also assist and inspire others to be their most creative selves. That’s my personal artistic mission and it’s the gift that many good teachers have given to me–one which I wish to honor by passing it along to my students and colleagues.

Rick Ferguson