Apollo et Hyacinthus
Clinch, Dermot, New Statesman (1996)
Joy Lisney played the cello sitting on a nursery chair no higher than the average person's ankle. Her arms sawed; her blow creased with concentration. She wore a floral-print dress and she shot glances into the audience for reassurance. Her display piece - "L'Innocence", by an Englishman, despite the title - had a four-square tune that kept coming back and sounded uncomfortably like circus music. People laughed with admiration and unease.
Joy's moment came during a week of recitals and concerts inspired by the young Mozart. He, of course, was already composing by the age of five. By six he was playing for crowned heads and ears. By seven - a "little man with his wig and his sword", as Goethe remembered him - he was setting off on the Grand Tour and dedicating sonatas to princesses en route: "Your Serene Highness's very humble, very obedient, and very small servant". In London he mimicked the singing of popular opera stars in extempore operas set to nonsense words and sat down immediately afterwards to play marbles, "in the true childish way of one who knows nothing".
No work by the five-year-old composer was put on by the newly formed Classical Opera Company. But the centrepiece of their week - in addition to workshops for young singers, the pianist David Owen Norris playing music composed specially for children and the junior department of the Royal College, including little Joy, playing a lunchtime recital was Mozart's first opera, written at the age of 11.
Was Apollo et Hyacinthus extraordinary? Was it exceptional? Everyone, no doubt, wanted to hope so. The programme note did. The music's ability "to capture the essence of each dramatic situation", it said, was extraordinary. But what did that mean? And what were we supposed to admire, exactly? Was the composer's ability to "capture the essence" of a situation the remarkable thing? Or his ability to represent the essence in music? Certainly Hyacinth's aria "Saepe terrent numina" - the libretto, in Latin, was by Salzburg Grammar School's Master of Syntax - was agile, winning, charming. But then so was the singing of Sarah Fox who took the role, which may have explained it.
Dramatic essences are, by their nature, simple, not complex. The programme note suggested "joy", "grief", "rage" as among the emotional states brilliantly limned in sound by the young composer. But Mozart's joy, if musically fantastically competent, seemed emotionally one-dimensional: the character Melia, at her moment of supreme happiness, whizzed up and down the major scale, in and out of it, and added a dazzle of trills, runs, tremolos and exclamations. …