Composing an opera? It's just child's play, says Britain's newest classical music prodigy

Having written her first sonata at the age of five, Alma Deutscher is, unavoidably, being likened to Mozart. Simon Usborne joins the audience

Simon Usborne
Friday 12 October 2012 10:06 BST

"It takes a long time to write a sonata," says Alma Deutscher, drinking milky tea from a mug decorated with pictures of squirrels. The seven-year-old then describes how she conceived a piano composition when she was five. "I was in my room playing with my dolls and singing," she recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, that's nice, what I just sang. It was a beautiful melody'."

Alma, the daughter of academics whose house near Dorking offers views of the Surrey hills, is a talent who is being compared to great composers and commended for her first opera. "Simply mind-blowing," Stephen Fry tweeted on Wednesday. "Alma Deutscher playing her own compositions. A new Mozart?"

Fry, a devotee of classical music who has campaigned for it to reach younger audiences, then posted a link to Alma's YouTube page, which features dozens of short clips of her compositions, as well as her renditions of works by the likes of Bach and Rossini.

They include The Sweeper of Dreams, a short opera Alma composed this year and entered into a contest run by the English National Opera. By far the youngest entrant, she narrowly missed out on a place in the final.

The videos were swiftly devoured, clocking up tens of thousands of views by last night and bringing Alma to the attention of a new audience.

"I want people to know how I play," she says, adding that when she is older she wants to "compose like Mozart, play the violin like Perlman and play the piano like Barenboim".

Alma's talent and ambition appeared early. Her father, Guy Deutscher, an Israeli-born linguist of international renown, and an amateur flautist, says she could repeat nursery rhymes in perfect pitch before she could speak. At the age of two, she was naming notes struck on the piano.

"For her third birthday I bought her a little violin as a toy," Mr Deutscher says. "She was so excited by it and tried playing on it for days on end, so we decided to try and find her a teacher. Within less than a year she was playing Handel sonatas."

Aged four, Alma startled her father. "She had heard a song that she loved," he recalls. "She came to me and asked me, 'How can music be so beautiful?'"

Mr Deutscher, 43, and his wife Janie, 39, moved with Alma and their younger daughter, Helen, four, from Oxford to be closer to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey. Alma has weekly piano and violin listens there and may yet enrol as a full-time pupil, but she is taught at home for now.

She plays in the garden and goes to ballet with her friends but spends five hours a day immersed in music. Does she ever get bored? "No," she says.

Her father welcomes any comparison between Alma and Mozart but says the young Austrian was "effectively a circus boy". He adds: "He travelled around Europe playing to dukes and emperors, sometimes with his eyes [blindfolded]. It ended well but, for every success, there are those who didn't do so well."

"Why?" asks Alma.

"Maybe they were miserable because their parents forced them to practice too much."

"It's very much an issue with us," he adds. "We don't want to pressure her but, at the same time, Alma absolutely loves an audience."

Precocious talent has become poisonous for many young musicians, a subject that has fascinated Jessica Duchen, the classical music critic and author of Alicia's Gift, a fictional account of a family challenged by a brilliant daughter. Duchen has been impressed by Alma's videos but cautions: "My fear is always that if a child is pushed too much too soon, they don't get the chance to develop into fine musicians and mature human beings. The recording industry can swoop and the kid ends up being harmed."

Mr Deutscher, a shy and softly-spoken man, does not fit the stereotype of the pushy parent, and there is no doubting Alma's love of music. But a new Mozart? "What she is doing now is definitely no less sophisticated than what Mozart was doing at her age," he insists. "What that says about the future, only the future will tell."

Starting young: Other precocious talents

Alex Prior

Born to a British father and Russian mother, Prior began composing at the age of eight and has written more than 40 works, including symphonies, concertos, ballets and operas. Now 20, he is also a conductor.

Terence Judd

Born in 1957 and quickly hailed as one of the great pianists of the 20th century, Judd won praise and awards from the age of 10. Aged 22, with a string of recitals booked around the world, he committed suicide by throwing himself off a cliff at Beachy Head.

Mieczysław Horszowski

The Polish-American pianist died in 1993, aged 100, after the longest career in performing arts history. First taught by his mother, whose tutor was a pupil of Chopin, he could play piano by the age of three and toured Europe at 11, later becoming a model for the maturing prodigy.

Benjamin Grosvenor

When he was 11, the Essex pianist was disappointed to lose out to Nicola Benedetti in the 1994 BBC Young Musician of the Year award – but he has grown up well. Now 20, he has dozens of awards and a recording contract with Decca, and has vowed to restore the image of classical music among young people.

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