Mozart and Enescu: a tale of two child prodigies

How does someone become a famous composer? It takes more than talent. A comparison of two child prodigies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and George Enescu, amply demonstrates that.


The Mozarts in Paris, ca. 1763 / Louis Carrogis Carmontelle

The Mozarts in Paris, ca. 1763 / Louis Carrogis Carmontelle

Mozart’s early life is well known. He was the son of a well-respected member of the musical establishment of the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg. When he was 4, he learned to play piano pieces from a notebook his father Leopold had compiled for his older sister. He made his first public appearance as a performer and composed his first pieces at age 5.

Leopold Mozart took charge of his children’s education and took them on an extensive tour, where they performed in major musical centers, including Paris and London. They met many important literary and musical figures.

Their first visit to Vienna proved less successful. The Empress Maria Theresia received them cordially at first, but eventually turned against them. Later, when her son Francis wanted to hire Wolfgang as a court composer, she wrote

You ask me to take the young Salzburger into your service. I do not know why, not believing that you have need of a composer or of useless people. If however it would give you pleasure, I have no wish to hinder you. What I say is intended only to prevent you burdening yourself with useless people and giving titles to people of that sort. If they are in your service it degrades that service when these people go about the world like beggars.

After having such a good relationship with Prince-Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach back home in Salzburg, Wolfgang found the appointment of Hieronymous von Colloredo a rude shock. The two didn’t get along, and ultimately Mozart was dismissed with the footprint of Colloredo’s steward on his backside.

Wolfgang moved to Vienna where, because of the imperial family’s hostility, he found himself essentially unemployable. He had to make his living freelance, but lacked the money-management skills necessary to succeed at it.

But he certainly succeeded musically. Along with Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart became part of the founding triumvirate of classical music.


Georges Enesco as a child

Enescu with his violin as a young child


Enescu was born to an estate bailiff and a teacher in a Romanian village. If anything, he showed musical talent even earlier. When he was 3, he heard some peasant musicians. The next day, he tried to make his own violin and cimbalom so he could imitate the sounds he had heard.

His interest in music grew from there. His parents gave him a toy violin when he was 4. Offended that it wasn’t a real violin, he threw it in the fire.

When he received a real violin, he tried to play familiar tunes by ear. Eduard Caudella, a music teacher at the conservatory in Iasi noticed him and recommended that his parents direct his education towards music. Caudella became his first teacher.

Enescu wrote his first compositions when he was 6, and from then on had no interest except to become a composer. He entered the Vienna Conservatory when he was 9 and the Paris Conservatory when he was 14.

Eventually, he made his living as a touring violinist and conductor. He performed all over Europe, the US, and Canada and taught such younger virtuosos as Arthur Grumiaux and Yehudi Menuhin.

All this performing and teaching left him with less time for composition than he would have liked. Nonetheless, his output included a violin concerto, three symphonies, an opera, and some large-scale orchestral and choral works. His reputation as a composer, however, rests entirely on two youthful Romanian Rhapsodies, which are not even characteristic of his early style.

Some contrasts


Georges Enesco as a young man

George Enescu–at about the time he graduated from the Paris Conservatory?

Mozart’s decision to make a living as a virtuoso forced him to compose. In the late eighteenth century, audiences expected popular performers to compose the pieces they played. But in the twentieth century, audiences expected performers to play the standard repertoire.

So when Mozart considered the violin as his primary instrument for a while, he wrote five violin concertos. Enescu wrote only one, but he probably performed all of Mozart’s violin concertos plus all the other famous ones. Of necessity, Mozart wrote a lot of music and Enescu much less.

The Viennese style blended traditional elements of the German, French, and Italian styles. It became an international musical language, at least somewhat familiar to audiences all over Europe.

It relied on a few set forms, which even the less musically educated people could understand and enjoy. Of all the important styles in musical history, Viennese classicism was the most listener friendly. Classical composers assumed that amateurs would enjoy playing their music, so much of it was also reasonably easy to play.

By Enescu’s time, form had become much less standardized. It also became more difficult to play over the course of the 19th century. Composers wrote with skilled professional performers in mind. Much of Enescu’s music is quite difficult.

Style became fragmented, first as composers tried to develop a personal style, and second as composers in “marginal” countries developed national styles. Enescu received his training as a composer in Paris. He tried to combine Parisian cosmopolitanism with Romanian nationalism. But because composition had to take a back seat to performing, conducting, and teaching, he could not actively pursue performances of his music where he was not personally involved.

So Enescu’s compositions are much less known than Mozart’s. They will remain much less known even if there is ever an international revival of interest in his music. And it’s not because he had any less talent.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie (Grove Dictionaries of Music, 1980), s.v. “Enescu, George” and “Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus”

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