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10 classical pieces you'd never guess were composed by kids

Robert Rowat

"Every child is born a genius." — Albert Einstein

While Einstein may have been onto something there, few children are born with the ability to channel their genius and express it in music. That must be learned, and for some it takes a lifetime. For others, it never happens at all.

But now and then a child genius comes along with the gift to organize ideas into music — to pull melody from the stars — and the imperative to create. They are the musical prodigies, and our fascination with them knows no bounds.

Some consider the fascination unhealthy; we're drawn to them as to a circus sideshow act. But really, the fascination stems from our belief that inspiration has chosen to speak to us through a child, and there's something beautiful about it.

We've assembled 10 shining examples of childhood musical inspiration in the list below.

1. Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 1, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Korngold published this beautiful, four-movement work in 1910 when he was 13 years old. He wrote it under the guidance of his teacher, Alexander Zemlinsky, and dedicated it to his father. It impressed Richard Strauss and quickly established itself in the standard piano trio repertoire.

It's such a good composition that you might suspect somebody was doing young Korngold's homework for him, except its style is echoed in his later works and it just sounds like Korngold through and through. The opening movement is especially memorable.

2. Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli by Franz Liszt

This short piece in the style of an étude is Liszt's first known work. He was 12 when it was published in 1824, but probably only 10 or 11 when he composed it.

The piece was commissioned by Anton Diabelli, who sent a challenge to composers of his time to write variations on one of his own waltz themes. Of the 50 composers who contributed pieces, Liszt was the only child.

3. Mass in C Major, K 66, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When it comes to prodigious musical talent, Mozart is in a league of his own. Consider this: by the time he turned 18, he had already composed approximately one-third of his entire oeuvre.

Mozart composed in every genre imaginable, but this mass caught our ear. It's scored for SATB soloists, choir and orchestra, and he composed it for the ordination of the Mozarts' landlord.

The overall mood is joyous — you don't want to put your landlord in a bad mood, after all — but there's also something terrifying about it, when you realize this perfection was formed in the mind of a 13-year-old boy.

4. Symphony No. 1, Op. 11, by Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1824 when he was 15 years old. It was premiered later that year to celebrate his sister Fanny's 19th birthday — how many 15-year-old boys do you know who'd come up with a gift like that? — and was first performed in public in 1827 by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn himself conducted the London premiere in 1829.

There are lots of exciting fugal passages and C-minor drama in this youthful work, and it compares favourably to his more popular mature symphonies.

5. Variations on 'Là ci darem la mano' for piano and orchestra, Op. 2, by Frederic Chopin

Chopin's Op. 1, a Rondo in C minor, was sort of a dud, but two years later he dropped his fabulous Op. 2, Variations on "Là ci darem la mano," and the 17-year-old pianist/composer never looked back.

Chopin was the soloist at the work's 1827 premiere in Vienna and afterwards wrote to his parents, "Everyone clapped so loudly after each variation that I had difficulty hearing the orchestral tutti."

When composer Robert Schumann heard it in 1831, he made the now-famous declaration, "Hats off, gentlemen. A genius!"

6. Barcarolle, Op. 1, No. 2, by Camille Saint-Saëns

Not only did Saint-Saëns compose music well into his 80s, but he also started relatively young so his output encompasses an astonishing range.

His Op. 1, Three Pieces for Harmonium, was published in 1852 when Saint-Saëns was 17. You don't hear the harmonium much any more. It sounds like an accordion, but mellower. The second of the three pieces, Barcarolle, is haunting, and we love how YouTube user Chris S performs it by candlelight in this video:

7. String Quartet No. 1, D. 18, by Franz Schubert

Schubert composed so much music in his tragically short life, it's no surprise that he started young. He completed his first string quartet in 1810 or 1811, when he was just 13. (By this time he had only dabbled in the vocal music that would later become his addiction.)

While this early string quartet doesn't reach the heights of his later masterpieces in the genre, there are still some touches of Schubertian genius present. For instance, that characteristic tremolo in the presto vivace section of the first movement, and the wistful ache of the slow movement.

8. Il pianto d'armonia sulla morte di Orfeo by Gioacchino Rossini

Rossini was just shy of his 18th birthday when he wrote Il pianto d'armonia sulla morte di Orfeo, a cantata for solo tenor, orchestra and chorus, as a student exercise for the Liceo Musicale. In a few short movements, it depicts Harmony and a chorus of nymphs (men's chorus) lamenting the death of Orpheus.

Highlights include an expressive cello solo during the recitative "Ma tu che desti" and a horn obbligato in the aria that follows, hinting at the penchant for excess that would define many of his mature operas.

9. Nocturne in F Major, Op. 2, by Georges Bizet

OK, so maybe it doesn't approach the harmonic inventiveness of Chopin's magnificent Nocturnes, but Bizet was barely 16 when he composed this solo piano miniature, and it's pretty good. By that point, he had already been studying at the Paris Conservatory for six years and won its first prize in piano, so he was well on his way.

10. Concertino No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 13, by André Mathieu

Often dubbed the Canadian Mozart, Mathieu started composing at age four and gave concerts of his own piano compositions in Montreal, Paris and New York at a very young age.

In 1941, before Mathieu turned 12, he won first prize in the composition competition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. He also performed his Concertino No. 2 for piano and orchestra at Carnegie Hall.