How to Become a Virtuoso: 5 Lessons from the Life of Child Prodigy Felix Mendelssohn

by | Sep 25, 2014


Felix Mendelsson: the child prodigy more gifted than Mozart. We can learn much from child prodigies.

It has long been argued that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the most brilliant child musical prodigy who ever lived. At five years old, he could already play multiple instruments, had begun composing his own pieces, and was performing in the royal courts of Europe. However, eighteen years after Mozart’s death, another child prodigy was born: Felix Mendelssohn. Like Mozart, he demonstrated a rare and breathtaking musical talent. In fact, the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had seen a seven-year-old Mozart perform in Frankfurt, dared to state that Mendelssohn’s skills surpassed those of Mozart. Goethe remarked to Mendelssohn’s teacher Zelter, “What your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”

Regardless of whether Mozart or Mendelssohn was the better musician, the fact that they were both so remarkably talented from such a young age is enough to fascinate and inspire. But, of course, talent alone does not equal success. The lives of child prodigies reveal many other factors that are essential for becoming a virtuoso. In today’s post, we’ll look at the life of Felix Mendelssohn to discover five lessons anyone can use to hone their own talents and skills.

1. Find Your Passion & Pursue It

The young Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy at twelve years old.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy at twelve years old.

Mendelssohn and Mozart discovered their passion and talent for music when they were both very young. Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons when he was six years old, and his wealthy, well-connected parents made sure to provide him (and his sister Fanny, who was also a child prodigy) with the very best tutors and nurture their musical gifts. However, it is doubtful whether they needed to remind the Mendelssohn children to practice. Indeed, even though Mendelssohn’s parents knew their son was a prodigy, they were cautious about encouraging him to pursue a musical career until they recognized his own self-discipline and motivation.

By the time he was a teenager, Mendelssohn had become a prolific composer. NPRMusic has a fascinating segment on the genius of Mendelssohn’s Octet that he wrote when he was 16. Ultimately, even though Mendelssohn knew he was a child prodigy, he never coasted on his talent, but continued to tirelessly practice, write music, and study the work of his favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Lesson Learned: Child prodigies like Mendelssohn are somehow born with an inexhaustible supply of focus and dedication. Not only are they talented at what they do, but they love what they do as well. Even the learning process. They practice relentlessly and are never distracted from their goals. Of course, child prodigies are a rare breed, but their steadfast determination should inspire us. Everyone can develop grit and perseverance. It is never too late to discover what you are gifted and talented in and buckle down to develop those skills. There’s an old proverb that states, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

2. Create Your Best Work

A quote attributed to Mendelssohn states, “Ever since I began to compose, I have remained true to my starting principle: not to write a page no matter what public, or what pretty girl wanted it to be thus or thus; but to write solely as I myself thought best, and as it gave me pleasure.”

Clearly, Mendelssohn was not thinking about fame and fortune when he composed. Rather, he wanted to create the best work that he was capable of. He wanted to create something truly beautiful that would inspire the lives of others.

Indeed, for Mendelssohn, his ultimate desire was to honor God with his work. His parents had converted from Judaism to Christianity, and Mendelssohn was deeply religious, composing many pieces of sacred music including two Biblical oratorios on the lives of Elijah and Saint Paul. His friend Julius Schubring wrote, “On one occasion, he [Mendelssohn] expressly said that sacred music, as such, did not stand higher in his estimation than any other because all music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God.”

Lesson Learned: Even if we weren’t born child prodigies, we all have the potential to become great by always striving for excellence, always working to create something we can be proud of, always seeking to improve our work. We will never know our true potential unless we challenge ourselves to work as hard as we possibly can and stay true to our convictions, seeking to honor God with the gifts he has given us.

3. Never Stop Learning

Mendelssohn eagerly studied the works of the great composers who had gone before him: Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. When he was sixteen, his teacher Ignaz Moscheles admitted that there was little he could teach the boy. However, Mendelssohn always stressed the importance of a musical education. In 1843, he founded a Conservatory in Leipzig that exists to this day.

Mendelssohn was a close friend of Queen Victoria and her favorite composer. His Wedding March was played at her daughter’s marriage, which probably helped it become one of his most well-known pieces. When the Queen heard of Mendelssohn’s death, she stated, “We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart & the most amiable man…We liked & esteemed the excellent man, & looked up to & revered, the wonderful genius, & the great mind…With it all, he was so modest and simple.”

Ultimately, Mendelssohn never let his successes go to his head. He remained humble about his gifts, and he always sought to continue learning from others.

Lesson Learned: If we wish to become successful in our field, we must stay humble, knowing that no matter how successful we become, we will always need to continue learning. We should always read as much as we can and seek out those who are smarter than us so we can learn from them.

4. Gather Outside Experiences & Start New Hobbies

A watercolor painting by Mendelssohn.

A watercolor painting by Mendelssohn.

Not only was Mendelssohn a brilliant composer and musician, he was also a gifted watercolor painter. He spoke four languages (English, German, French, and Italian) and was also knowledgeable in Latin, translating Roman plays into German. He read widely, especially about history in order to accurately portray the ancient world in his oratorio about Saint Paul. Further, he loved to travel throughout Europe and his travels often influenced his symphonies: The Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A Minor) and The Italian Symphony (Symphony No. 4 in A major).

As I observed in this article, having multiple hobbies can help you become more skilled in that one field where you have the most talent. The skills that Mendelssohn learned as a painter were transferrable to the field of music, meaning that mastery in one field led to mastery in another. His journeys throughout Europe provided him with a well of varied experiences that he was able to draw on for inspiration in his music.

Lesson Learned: A virtuoso must lead a rich and fulfilling life. Your experiences and hobbies are food for your creativity. They stimulate your brain and make you a well-rounded person. You never know where you will find inspiration.

5. Share Your Work With The World

Felix Mendelssohn once observed: “Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God.”

When Mendelssohn composed, he did not plan to leave his sheets of music in a dusty drawer when he had finished. His goal was to perform before an audience who would be inspired and uplifted by the beauty that he had created. With his religious pieces, he hoped to share the gospel message. He wanted his music to edify and enrich the hearts and minds of its hearers. Art can have no influence unless it is given an audience.

Lesson Learned: Though we should always try to do our best work, we should not become such perfectionists that we are afraid for our work to see the light of day. Because Mendelssohn began sharing his work from a very young age, he was able to benefit from the suggestions of others on how he could improve. Don’t be afraid to share your work with the world. Mendelssohn believed that he was not creating music for music’s sake alone, but also as a means of glorifying his Creator and transforming his culture. You never know the impact your work can have until you let it loose on the world.

If this post motivated you, please leave a comment below and share the post with someone you would like to inspire. What will you create today?

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