Alma Deutscher

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Alma Deutscher
A portrait of Alma Deutscher by Alex Nightingale Smith.jpg
Born Alma Elizabeth Deutscher
February 2005 (age 13)
Basingstoke, England
Residence Dorking, England
Occupation
Known for Child prodigy; music composition
Parent(s) Guy Deutscher
Website www.almadeutscher.com

Alma Elizabeth Deutscher (born February 2005) is an English composer, pianist, violinist, and child prodigy. At age six she composed her first piano sonata. At age seven, she completed her first major composition, the opera The Sweeper of Dreams. Aged nine, she wrote a concerto for violin and orchestra, which she premiered in a 2015 performance.[1]

At the age of ten she completed her first full-length opera, Cinderella, which had its European premiere in Vienna in 2016 under the patronage of conductor Zubin Mehta,[2] and its US premiere in San Jose, California a year later, in December 2017. At the age of twelve, Deutscher also premiered her first piano concerto.[3]

Background[edit]

Deutscher was born in Basingstoke in 2005,[4] the daughter of literature professor Janie Deutscher née Steen and Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher. Both are amateur musicians.[5]

She began playing piano at the age of two, followed by violin at three. At four she was composing and improvising on the piano, and by five had begun writing down her compositions. These first written notations were unclear, but by six she could write clear compositions by hand and had composed her first piano sonata. At seven she composed her first short opera, at nine a violin concerto, and her first full-length opera at age ten.[6][7]

According to her father, she could name the notes on a piano when she was two. "For her third birthday I bought her a little violin as a toy. She was so excited by it and tried playing on it for days on end, so we decided to try to find her a teacher. Within less than a year she was playing Handel sonatas."[8][9]

In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Steen said: "At three she heard a lullaby by Richard Strauss, and she came to us and said, '...how can music be so beautiful?' She was struck by the beauty of it."[10]

Early publicity[edit]

Deutscher's initial media exposure may be traced to writer and comedian Stephen Fry publicising her YouTube channel when she was seven. Guy Deutscher and Fry knew each other through a shared interest in linguistics. Deutscher's channel originally was produced for the private viewing of her relatives. Her father said: "Then Stephen Fry saw [her family videos] and tweeted on Twitter, and that's how it became known to his millions of followers. And from there very quickly reporters were onto it and it snowballed." On October 10, 2012, Fry wrote: "Simply mind-blowing: Alma Deutscher playing her own compositions. A new Mozart?", with a link to one of Deutscher's videos.[11] Television crews arrived at the family home the next day.

In September 2014, a viral YouTube mashup video released by Israeli musician Kutiman ("Give It Up") featured a 4-second ostinato assembled from pieces of one of Deutscher's early videos.

Guy Deutscher spoke of his concerns surrounding Alma's initial press coverage and explained that the family had been unprepared for the intense exposure, and that they view as their most important task to protect her and ensure that she has a happy childhood.[7]

Operas[edit]

The Sweeper of Dreams (2012)[edit]

Deutscher's first completed opera is a short work based on Neil Gaiman's story "The Sweeper of Dreams", with the text adapted from a libretto by Elizabeth Adlington.[12] It was submitted to a contest held by the English National Opera, where the composition narrowly failed to make it to the final.[8][9][13] Parts of the score came to Deutscher in a dream.[14] The first performance of the opera was in Israel in 2013.[15]

In the story, the Sweeper of Dreams can no longer do his job, having been drinking on his shifts. His employer advertises for a replacement. A sixteen-year-old girl named Alex T. Strumm applies. Her interviewers mock her, having been surprised to find she is not a man. Alex sets out to prove her suitability and eventually is hired.

Deutscher has said she prefers stories about girls overcoming adversity; in The Sweeper of Dreams the main character "...committed two terrible crimes: the first was being a child, the second was being female. But despite that, she manages to triumph in the end."[16]

Cinderella[edit]

Early chamber version (2015)[edit]

Deutscher's second opera is a full-length work based on the fairy-tale of Cinderella. In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, she explained that she had started working on the opera in 2013. A chamber version was performed for the first time in Israel two years later, in July 2015.[17] Deutscher finished writing the overture to the opera "just a few days before the performance".[18] Deutscher explained that her version of the story differs considerably from the traditional fairy-tale, because music is a central part of the plot. It is set in an opera production company run by the Evil Stepmother. The two step-sister stock characters are portrayed as talentless divas. Although Cinderella is a natural composer, with "beautiful melodies springing into her head", she is not allowed to perform.[19] The prince is a poet, and Cinderella chances upon a captivating love poem, which unbeknownst to her was written by the prince. She is inspired by the poem and sets it to her own music. Her melody is then stolen by her step-sisters and sung at a singing competition during the ball; however, finally Cinderella sings her melody to the prince, unaware that he wrote words to it. Similarly, the prince is unaware that the singer composed the enchanting music to which he composed his lyrics.

After Cinderella flees from the ball at midnight, the prince searches for Cinderella not using a glass slipper, as in the traditional fairytale, but using a melody. Eventually, the pair is united: "In the end, they find each other like lyrics find melody".[16] Deutscher explained: "I didn't want Cinderella just to be pretty. I wanted her to have her own mind and her own spirit. And to be a little bit like me. So I decided that she would be a composer."

Deutscher sang an aria from the opera during her performance at Zeitgeist Minds in 2015."[20]

Vienna version (2016)[edit]

In December 2016, a fuller version of the opera had its world premiere in Vienna, with conductor Zubin Mehta as patron of the production. It was performed in German. During 2016, Deutscher had edited and expanded the opera considerably, and orchestrated it for an ensemble of 20 musicians.[21] The premiere was received with a standing ovation and with jubilant reception in the Austrian and international press.[22]

The Viennese newspaper Der Standard described Alma Deutscher as

"this amazing girl, who has also written this amazingly good opera, which sparkles with original ideas. Stylistically, Cinderella moves between "Vienna Classic" and early Romanticism. From this cache of music history, however, emerge remarkable inspirations, which understand the psychological corset of the characters. Here, someone with a great deal of empathy delves into the characters. And she also understands how to build scenes, keep them in tension, and orchestrate dense atmospheres. Alma Deutscher proves talent for the humorous as well as the melancholy."[23]

The journal Der Neue Merker wrote

"Alma Deutscher's musical role models come from the Viennese classic and the 19th century. What is really perplexing, however, is that the composer can capture wonderfully different moods of the soul. The sad ballad of Cinderella, which is constantly recurring in leitmotiv, the despair of the unworldly prince-poet, who shows no interest at all in the affairs of government, the evil of the ladies’ trio: everything is congenially cast into music. It all sounds truly inspired – and also in the instrumentation, as if the artist always knew exactly what she wanted to do. There is nothing arbitrary or left to chance."[24]

The Daily Telegraph wrote

"Cinderella proves that Deutscher is an extraordinary talent. Prodigy is a much-misused term, but the maturity of her composition would suggest that, for once, it is not mere hyperbole. That a young girl could have the mental energy to compose a two-hour opera and take credit for its full orchestration is staggering; that the end result is a lively, coherent piece of comic opera is exceptional." [25]

Full version in California (2017)[edit]

In December 2017, the full version of the opera Cinderella was premiered in San José, California.[26] This production of Opera San Jose and the Packard Humanities Institute was sung in English and performed with a large orchestra, choir and dancers.[27] Deutscher re-orchestrated the whole score for a full orchestra of 44 musicians, and has greatly expanded the music from the Vienna version, adding new music for the choir and the dancers. The performances were led by British conductor Jane Glover. Deutscher performed on both the violin and piano during the opera, as she did in earlier productions and on this occasion also performed on the organ. The five performances sold out within the hour following a feature on CBS Sixty Minutes and an additional two performances were arranged.[28] Reviewer Heather Mac Donald called it an "opera of astounding wit, craft, and musical beauty… The sheer amount of orchestral and vocal invention is stunning…", and predicted that Cinderella would find its way to Broadway.[29]

Studio version for children by Vienna State Opera (2018)[edit]

In January 2018, the Vienna State Opera premiered a short adaptation for children of Deutscher's opera, for a four month run (January—May 2018) on its studio stage. Deutscher had to reduce the length of the opera to 75 minutes.[30] All performances sold out.

Ballet based on the music of Cinderella (2018)[edit]

In October 2018, Kinder Ballett Kompanie Berlin and the ID Ensemble are putting on a ballet based on the opera and using the music. [31]

Compositional method[edit]

Deutscher's melodies are said to arrive "...unbidden and fully formed".[32] As she told the Daily Mail: "The music comes to me when I'm relaxing. I go and sit down on a seat or lie down. I like thinking about fairies a lot, and princesses, and beautiful dresses."[33] At Zeitgeist Minds, she explained: "When I try to get a melody it never comes to me. It usually comes to me either when I'm resting or when I'm just sitting at the piano improvising, or when I'm skipping with my skipping rope. Or even when I'm trying to do something else, when somebody is talking to me or I'm trying to do something, then I hear this beautiful melody."[16] "When I am in an improvising mood", she explained in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in June 2016, "melodies burst from my fingertips." [34]

Deutscher has described her purple skipping rope as 'magical' and a key part of her composition process: "I wave it around, and melodies pour into my head"[6] A 2015 interview with BBC News showed Deutscher waving the rope in the garden of her family home and singing an improvised melody.[35] Melodies also come to Deutscher in her dreams, in common with other classical compositions such as Tartini's Sonate du Diable. Describing one such dream-composition, the themes for a set of piano variations in E-flat, Deutscher said: "I woke up and I didn’t want to lose the melodies so I took my notebook and wrote it all down, which took almost three hours. My parents didn’t understand why I was so tired in the morning and didn’t want to get up."[32] She sleeps with a tape recorder by her bed.[33] Sections of her first opera, The Sweeper of Dreams, also came to her fully formed in a dream.[36] Deutscher is also said to draw inspiration from an imaginary country called Transylvanian: "I made up my own land with its own language and there are beautiful composers there, named Antonin Yellowsink and Ashy and Shell and Flara".

However, Deutscher has explained that her seemingly spontaneous style of composition obscures the harder work involved in creating larger and complex compositions, where the idea or initial melody is only the first part of a much longer process. At Zeitgeist Minds, she explained: "Lots of people think that the difficult part of composing is to get the ideas, but actually that just comes to me. The difficult bit is then to sit down with that idea, to develop it, to combine it with other ideas in a coherent way. Because it's very easy to throw a soup of lots of ideas which don't make any sense together. But to sit down and develop and combine it, and afterwards to tweak it and to polish it – that takes ages..."[16][37] In addition, her father explained in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Alma's inspiration is underlined by her extensive knowledge of harmony. He gave an example of a passage from a Haydn sonata she was playing at the time, stating that most listeners would have found the piece beautiful, but mysterious, but for Alma the same piece was an 'open book' of familiar harmonic progressions.[7]

Critical reception[edit]

Much of the critical response to Deutscher's compositions in the first years of her public exposure centred on her young age and status as a child prodigy. Commenting on the public perception of child prodigies and their musical output, Deutscher has said "….I want my music to be taken seriously….and sometimes it's a little bit difficult for people to take me seriously because I'm just a little girl." [16]

More recent responses have focused on Deutscher's compositions and performances. Reviewing the world premiere of her piano concerto at the opening concert of the Carinthian Summer Music Festival in Austria in 2017, in which Deutscher performed as soloist both her piano concerto and her violin concerto,[38] the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung titled its review: "Flying fingers, Grand Music" and hailed the concert as "a triumph of creativity: whether it is her sparkling and richly ornamented Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, or the world-premiere of her striking and nuance-rich Piano Concerto in E-flat major: these are supple, powerful, sumptuous tones, with which this (still) child creates musical wonders."[39]

According to the Guardian newspaper, conductor Simon Rattle declared that he was "absolutely bowled over" by her.[40] In an interview with BBC Television, Rattle called Deutscher "a force of nature", and said: "I don’t know that I’ve come across anyone of that age with quite such an astonishing range of gifts. It’s natural for her, it’s play, and I think it was play for certain brilliant composers, young composers, like Mozart, like Korngold. These are very unusual people who have this." [41] According to the Daily Telegraph, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim said of Deutscher: "Everything that cannot be learnt, she already has".[34] In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Der Standard in November 2016, conductor Zubin Mehta described Alma Deutscher as "a genius"[42] and on Austrian Television, he called her "one of the greatest talents of today".[43]

The composer Jörg Widmann called her an "extraordinary phenomenon" and said he had never met a talent like hers before.[44]

The pianist and pedagogue Arie Vardi described his first meeting with Deutscher: "People had said that she was a prodigy, but usually I'm a little sceptical about this term, sceptical both about those who bestow this title and those on which it is bestowed.… Although I had reservations, from the moment I actually met this girl in the corridor and she said 'hello' – it was impossible not to love her. ...I have a feeling that with Alma the wonder will not be lost, because she has such wide horizons."

The German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter wrote that "it is absolutely extraordinary what this young girl has managed to achieve on the violin, the piano, and in her compositions. Her musical sensitivity and her powers of expression already at this age underline her exceptional talent."[45]

The composer and musicologist Ron Weidberg said of Deutscher's melodies: "Alma's most important talent is the perfect connection between her inner world and the melodies she creates, which are so beautiful because they stem directly from this inner world. Few composers can write such tunes, which from the first moment are immediately impressed upon our memory, and thus turn into the possession of all those who listen to them. Alma is one of these composers, and this is why we are confident that the melodies she is writing now will remain with us even when we ourselves no longer remain the same as we were."[46]

"Alma and the dangerous love of melody"[edit]

In January 2017, following the premiere of Deutscher's opera Cinderella in Vienna, an article entitled "Alma and the dangerous love of melody" appeared in the Viennese newspaper Der Standard, which expressed the hope that Deutscher's melodious music may help to change the prevailing attitudes in contemporary classical music and inject a new life into the world of opera, by steering it back towards melody.[47] The author, Robert Schediwy, notes the storm of enthusiasm with which Deutscher's Cinderella was received by the public, and asserts that the public would have loved the opera even if it had been written by a 40-year-old man, because (as many of the critics have noted) it is full of beautiful melodies. However, Schediwy also expresses the fear that if Deutscher's "uninhibited love of melody" continues as she grows older, and especially if the wider public continues enjoying her music, the response of 'advanced culture-theorists' would no longer be favorable. They would then regard Deutscher's love of melody as a threat, and accuse it of 'anachronism', 'cultural populism' and 'musical inferiority'. Nonetheless, Schediwy expresses the hope that Deutscher's love of melody may help to inject new life into the world of opera, which is now so often pronounced dead, and help it reconnect with the wider public.

In February 2017, Deutscher herself made a statement about her style, her love of melody and her musical aesthetics, in a message to a press conference of the Carinthian Summer Music Festival in Austria. She explained that some people have expressed to her the view that one should not compose beautiful melodies in the 21st century, but that music must reflect the complexity and ugliness of the modern world. "But I think that these people just got a little bit confused. If the world is so ugly, then what's the point of making it even uglier with ugly music?".[48] She then cited the lullaby by Richard Strauss mentioned above as her early inspiration for trying to write beautiful music.[10] In July 2017, Deutscher further elaborated this point in an interview with the newspaper Der Standard. Asked about her dreams for the next 10 years, she said: "...but the best thing would be if people stopped telling me how it is allowed or not allowed to compose in the 21st century. I hope they will have stopped counting my dissonances. And I hope that in ten years' time, it will not be considered a crime to want to compose beautiful music."[49]

In April 2018, leading Austrian critic Dr. Wilhelm Sinkovicz added his voice to the discussion, after he heard Deutscher performing her own piano concerto in Vienna. [50] He explained that it was natural to be suspicious of Deutscher's style and achievements, but that his suspicions were extinguished by the quality of her music, which - despite moving in the Romantic worlds of Mendelssohn and Grieg - is full of extraordinarily original ideas and genuine surprises. He concluded that it is a misconception to believe that the language of music must constantly move 'forward' or that composers need to invent the wheel each time anew. "The world turns in a circle", he wrote, "but always sprouts new, beautiful flowers, if one only lets them sprout."

Comparison to Mozart[edit]

Deutscher has been compared to Mozart repeatedly, although she rejects the comparison, stating that "I don't really want to be a little Mozart because then I would just compose what he has composed already. That would be boring. I want to be Alma, a little Alma."[34] Her family members do not encourage the comparison, her father stating that "...there was one Mozart in human history", and that he does not want his daughter to feel burdened by being compared to other composers.[7][37][51] When asked about her musical idols, Deutscher cited the composers Mozart, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky.

Since 2010 Deutscher's official YouTube channel has gathered more than 7 million views.[52]

Education and home life[edit]

Deutscher lives with her parents in Dorking, Surrey, England. She is educated at home. She was registered for school at the age of five and attended an orientation day, but reported feeling bored, upset, and untutored.[7] Asked if she would like to go to school in the future, she replied: "I never want to go to school. I have to go outside and get fresh air, and read."[53]

Deutscher is reported to spend up to five hours a day composing, practising and listening to music. She attends various activities and outings with other home educating families. Her younger sister, Helen, and most of her friends also are educated at home. Her parents believe that Deutscher's creativity is innate, but requires nurturing. That belief, combined with the long school days in England led them to home education.[7][54] Her father has expressed his reluctance for Alma to learn music via the traditional English method of exams and mechanical learning. Instead her musical education focuses on composition and improvisation, as described by Robert Gjerdingen's analysis of creative methods of teaching music to children in eighteenth century Italy. According to the book Musical Prodigies: Interpretations from Psychology, Education, Musicology, and Ethnomusicology, Professor Gjerdingen recommended to Deutscher's parents the renowned Swiss improvisor Rudolf Lutz, who then connected them with the Swiss musician Tobias Cramm.[55] Gjerdingen sent exercises and commented on technical aspects of Alma’s composition, while Alma had lessons in improvisation from Cramm via Skype, with the pair using the pedagogical method of the eighteenth century Italian partimenti, instructional bass lines used for the teaching of harmony, counterpoint and improvisation.[56] Alma quickly became fluent in the music syntax of eighteenth century music.[55][54][57] Her father has said that she doesn’t have regular tuition in formal composition, rather that "...there are good-hearted experts who help her sporadically and there's a lot of self-teaching."[7][54] Deutscher receives private instrumental instruction in piano and violin from two teachers from the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey.[58]

In 2010 Guy Deutscher characterised Alma's musical creativity as a central part of her imagination.[7] In her first years of life, Alma was the subject of her father's language experiments related to his professional research.[59] As reported in The Nation he made sure never to tell her the sky was "blue", in an effort to understand why ancient cultures never used this term for the sky. Her perceptions, especially calling the clear sky "white" were reported in Guy Deutscher's 2010 book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages.[60]

Performances[edit]

Deutscher has played her own music as a soloist with orchestras around the world, including Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Oviedo Filarmonía, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.[61] And in 2018 she made recital debuts in the prestigious Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Lucerne Festival.[62] [63]

She has said that she thrives on performing music, particularly before an audience.[7] Her parents are reported to limit her performances, selecting opportunities to perform that they consider the most enjoyable and helpful for her.[15] She has performed on television shows including NBC,[51] The Ellen DeGeneres Show,[6] and Intermezzo with Arik.[64] She has given recitals and public performances in multiple countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia, including UK,[65] Germany,[66] Austria, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Ireland,[67] Japan, China, Israel,[68] USA, Canada, Uruguay.

Some of her performances have been financially supported by the London-based entrepreneur David Giampaolo.[69] In January 2016 it was announced that Alma Deutscher was signed by London Classical Music artist agency, Askonas Holt.[19][70]. In 2018 she was signed by Columbia Artists Management in the US.[71]

In May 2018, Alma Deutscher was invited by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to perform at special Holocaust Remembrance Event in Vienna, where she played an adaptation of part of her piano concerto, and later accompanied the Vienna Boys' Choir. [72]. A few weeks later, she also entertained Russian President Vladimir Putin during his State visit to Austria. [73]

Television appearances[edit]

Intermezzo with Arik (2014)[edit]

In 2014 Deutscher (aged 8) gave an extended appearance on Intermezzo with Arik, the Israel Educational Television programme presented by the pianist, conductor, and piano pedagogue Professor Arie Vardi.

Deutscher performed an on-the-spot improvisation around musical notes presented to her at random. Conversing in both English and Hebrew, Deutscher was asked by Vardi whether she improvised using "...the head or the fingers?"; Deutscher explained that she improvises melodies and harmonies in her head, sometimes unintentionally, such as when conversing with others.

Vardi also asked whether Deutscher felt free to break musical rules; she answered that she stays within them, referencing the Galant composers and their adherence to established musical form.[64]

The show traditionally asks its guests to select a piece to perform from a composer of their choice; Deutscher opted for the German composer Eduard Marxsen, who was the teacher of young Johannes Brahms, and whom Vardi said he'd "never heard of". Deutscher explained that she felt sorry for Marxsen as a long-forgotten composer. After listening to Deutscher perform a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, Vardi commented that she played Scarlatti's music as though she had written it.

BBC1 Imagine (2017)[edit]

In September 2017, Deutscher was the subject of an hour long BBC documentary in the Imagine TV series on BBC One. The BBC team followed her over a period of several months at the end of 2016, during the rehearsals and performances of her opera Cinderella in Vienna in December 2016.[41]

CBS 60 Minutes (2017)[edit]

In November 2017, Deutscher was the subject of a segment on the CBS program 60 Minutes with Scott Pelley. In addition to interviews, the program included excerpts from the world premiere of her piano concerto Austria in the summer of 2017.[74]

Compositions[edit]

  • Sonata in E-flat major for piano, aged 6[75]
  • Andante for Violin, aged 6[76]
  • Rondino (trio) in E for violin, viola and piano, aged 7[66]
  • The Sweeper of Dreams (opera), aged 7[77]
  • Quartet movement in A major, aged 7[78]
  • Sonata for viola and piano in C minor (1st movement), aged 8[79]
  • Quartet movement in G major, Rondo, aged 8[80]
  • "The Night Before Christmas", song to words by C. Moore, aged 8[81]
  • Sonata for violin and piano (1st movement), aged 8[82]
  • Trio for violin, viola, and piano, aged 9[83]
  • Concerto for violin and orchestra in g minor, aged 9, revised aged 12[1] [84]
  • Dance of the Solent Mermaids, for symphony orchestra, aged 9[85]
  • Cinderella, a full-length opera, aged 8-12 [17]
  • Piano Concerto in E-flat major, aged 10-12[86]
  • Near the beloved, a song to words by Goethe, aged 13[87]

Discography[edit]

Title Album details
The Music of Alma Deutscher
  • Released: 2013
  • Label: Flara Records
  • Formats: CD, digital download
Two Songs from Cinderella
  • Released: 2013
  • Label: Flara Records.
  • Formats: CD, digital download

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External links[edit]