Backstory: The child prodigy in few of us

A symphony by a 14-year-old composer gets this writer all riled up. But what can one do but applaud?

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Nowadays it's probably not acceptable to imply that children be seen and not heard. Nor would it be considered proper to suggest that child prodigies be given neither consideration. Maybe I'm alone in feeling this way, though some five centuries ago Erasmus remarked that "everybody hates a prodigy, detests an old head on young shoulders."

This all came to mind not long ago when I was driving to the grocery store and the public radio station was playing a recording of Jay Greenberg's Symphony No. 5. If you guessed that Greenberg preceded this symphony with four others, that's very astute of you.

Which is not a big deal – this writing of five symphonies – as these things go. After all, Haydn wrote more than 100. What makes Greenberg's symphony stand out is that the composer, who entered Juilliard at age 10, is only 14. Which means the kid is calling the shots for an entire symphony orchestra before we trust him to operate a motor vehicle.

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So there I was, perched on the edge of my seat as the opening strains of Greenberg's Fifth rang out. I was coiled like a spring, ready to declare (OK, if only to myself) that it sounded just like something a 14-year-old would write.

But, alas, it didn't. It sounded – to my untrained ears – as capable as anything I've heard from other composers. OK, so the kid's not gonna knock Beethoven or Mahler off his pedestal anytime soon, but he seems to have developed a knack for this symphony-writing stuff.

Which tends to make me grit my teeth, if I may be frank. For at age 8, when Mozart was writing his first symphony, I was just starting to get comfortable tying my own shoelaces. At 14, the age at which Greenberg loosed his Fifth upon us, I contributed to the cultural enrichment of humankind by honing my Three Stooges impersonations. At 19, when Christopher Paolini was making the bestseller list with his fantasy epic "Eragon," I attempted to master the guitar riff to Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water.

I do believe all of us have something we do well. There are even some of us who do something very well. But few of us will ever do anything as well as Mozart – or, for that matter, Jay Greenberg – does music. I tell myself it's not right, these old heads on young shoulders. I tell myself that kids should be kids and that it's bad enough that we've got them all scribbling notes for college applications on their crib walls and reading SAT study guides while they're teething.

I tell myself this is all terribly unnatural, like a duck donning scuba gear or coming home to find your dog watching Masterpiece Theatre.

But the fact is that we can't do anything about child prodigies. We must resign ourselves to these precocious little ankle biters turning up now and then and making the rest of us feel inadequate. Maybe it would help the other 99.9999 percent of us to remember the words of Will Rogers. Though he wasn't specifically discussing child prodigies, he once said: "We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."

William I. Lengeman III is a freelance writer in Harrisburg, Pa.

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