Today, when Mozart was eight. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Daines Barrington, born in
1727, was a noted London lawyer, with a vast range
of interests. His paper on the prospects of
reaching the North Pole stimulated England's first
attempt to get there. He vigorously opposed the
literal truth of the Biblical flood, and he
proposed his own theory of the origin of fossils.
Barrington thought fossils were imprints left by
the claws, or maybe juices, of subterranean
insects. That idea didn't fare so well. However, he
also showed that birds learn calls from their
parents. His scientific interests won him
membership in London's Royal Society. In 1770, he
wrote a letter to the society describing a physical
phenomenon he'd witnessed six years earlier.
He'd been invited to the home of a man whose
eight-year-old son had been concertizing in London.
He describes meeting the son: Joannes
Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.
(You and I translate Theophilus from Greek
into Latin -- we get the name Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart.) What would you think,
Barrington asks, if I were to tell you I'd met an
eight-year-old who stood seven feet tall? Well,
young Mozart's musical ability was that amazing.
Barrington has brought along the five-part open
score of a new opera by a London composer. To
compound the problem, two of the five lines are in
the offbeat contralto clef. This is a very tough
test, and Mozart not only plays it flawlessly -- he
also captures the composer's tempos, dynamics, and
musical intentions. Barring-ton goes on for two
pages explaining the complexity of the feat to the
non-musician readership of the Royal Society.
The test continues. Next he asks young Wolfgang if
he'd be good enough to improvise a love song. The
child gives him an arch look, as though to say,
"Ask me something hard," and he continues to create
a complete piece with recitative and two movements.
Could you then, asks Barrington, compose me a song
of rage? This time, Mozart tears into the
keyboard like a child possessed -- standing up from
his bench and hammering the keys with small fingers
that can scarcely reach the interval of a fifth.
The playing comes to an abrupt halt when a cat
enters the room. Mozart suddenly leaps up to run
after it. No more harpsichord for a while. As
Barrington talks with the father, Mozart finds a
stick, which he makes into a hobbyhorse. He gallops
back and forth through the room.
All this had taken place six years before
Barrington's letter. So what's become of Mozart?
Well, he's now fourteen and has been concertizing
in Austria -- he's written some very nice
Perhaps, Barrington concludes, this Mozart is no
mere flash in the pan. He may, Barrington rashly
suggests, become even greater than another one-time
European prodigy, now working in London. This
Mozart might, one day, prove to be a match for even
the great Georg Friederich Handel.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
D. Barrington, Account of a very remarkable young
Musician. Philosophical Transactions, Volume
60, 1770, pp. 54-64.
For more on Barrington, see:
his Wikipedia entry.
I'm indebted to listener Brad Spencer for bringing
the Barrington letter to my attention.
Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria, 1975
(photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.