‘THERE WAS ONLY ONE MOZART AND I PRE­FER TO BE ALMA THAN TO BE THE SEC­OND MOZART’

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - WILDLIFE - By Sally Wil­liams. Pho­to­graph by Laura Pan­nack

She’s 12 years old, has writ­ten an opera and seen it per­formed in Vi­enna, and plays to au­di­ences the world over. Just don’t call Alma Deutscher a prodigy…

Alma Deutscher could read mu­sic be­fore she could read words. She com­posed her first piano sonata at six, her first short opera at seven, and her first full-length opera at 10.

She then de­buted her Cin­derella – based on the tra­di­tional fairy tale, but with Cin­derella as a com­poser – to crit­i­cal ac­claim at the Casino Baum­garten theatre, Vi­enna, on 29 De­cem­ber 2016, when she was 11, but her plaits made her look younger. A gifted mu­si­cian as well as a com­poser, Alma was on stage through­out, switch­ing be­tween the piano and the vi­o­lin. She im­bued her play­ing with a mu­si­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion that seemed al­most in­con­ceiv­able in some­one who still wears Start-rite shoes.

Af­ter the per­for­mance – and long past the bed­time of most 11-year-olds – she stayed and talked to the au­di­ence, who were fas­ci­nated by her. ‘By the time I got back to the ho­tel I’d been talk­ing and smil­ing and I’d been so ex­cited my cheek­bones re­ally ached,’ she says.

Alma the child prodigy, or ‘Lit­tle Mozart’, whose mu­sic is in the clas­si­cal­ro­man­tic tra­di­tion, has since pre­miered her new piano con­certo at the Carinthian Sum­mer fes­ti­val in Aus­tria – and she is now the sub­ject of a tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary, Imag­ine… Alma Deutscher: Find­ing Cin­derella, pre­sented by Alan Yen­tob, with en­dorse­ments by Sir Si­mon Rat­tle and Bryn Ter­fel.

We are in a light-filled house on the top of a hill near Dork­ing, Sur­rey, where Alma lives with her mother, Janie, her fa­ther, Guy, and her younger sis­ter, He­len, who is nine.

It’s about as re­mote as Sur­rey gets, with panoramic views across the Downs, and in­side feels pretty re­moved from the out­side world too: fos­sils and shells as or­na­ments; no tele­vi­sion – the fam­ily has strong views on screens. There’s an em­pha­sis on books and, of course, mu­sic ev­ery­where – a Stein­way piano that has been in the fam­ily since 1913; baroque flutes; a por­trait paint­ing of Mozart’s sis­ter, Nan­nerl; five tiny vi­o­lins of in­creas­ing sizes, which Alma and He­len played when they were younger. Even a land­scape paint­ing turns out to be by Men­delssohn.

Her mother has a PHD in Old English po­etry from Cam­bridge and her fa­ther, Is­raeli-born, is a math­e­ma­ti­cian with a PHD in lin­guis­tics from the same univer­sity (where they met). Both are quite for­mal, think deeply be­fore they speak, and ap­pear to be quiet, level-headed – the an­tithe­sis of pushy par­ents.

They main­tain Alma is an adult when it comes to mu­sic and a nor­mal girl in other re­spects. And it’s true, Alma, now 12, is girl­ish: ea­ger, en­thu­si­as­tic, she likes to bake cakes. But she is also dif­fer­ent in mul­ti­ple ways from most other 12-year-old girls. For ex­am­ple, her wardrobe: she al­ways wears dresses. To­day, a fuch­sia velour pi­nafore. ‘I never wear jeans,’ she says. ‘Once I saw an opera where the lady per­formed in jeans and I couldn’t be both­ered to watch it be­cause I can go out in the street to see peo­ple wear­ing jeans. I don’t need to see [it in] an opera.’

She has al­ways been home-schooled and is read­ing Philip Pull­man’s His Dark

Ma­te­ri­als when we meet. She is not prac­ti­cal, like He­len: she loses things and has dif­fi­culty ty­ing her shoelaces.

Alma runs me through her day: up at seven; scales be­fore break­fast (toast, eggs, ce­real, wa­ter or tea); com­pos­ing or prac­tis­ing be­fore lunch at one; break for twoand-a-half hours (skip­ping, read­ing or play­ing Tran­syl­va­nian, a game in­volv­ing an imag­i­nary coun­try she in­vented when she was three, with He­len); lessons such as maths and his­tory (‘I don’t do English be­cause I read so much’); sup­per; bath; and bed at around 8.30pm. Ev­ery Fri­day she meets other home-schooled chil­dren at a bal­let class and they play af­ter­wards.

But per­haps what most sets her apart is the in­ten­sity of her imag­i­na­tion. Spend time with Alma and you are struck by how of­ten she talks about Tran­syl­va­nian, which is un­re­lated to the re­gion in Romania. ‘I must have heard the name some­where, be­cause I didn’t know it was a real place un­til much later,’ she says. Tran­syl­va­nian is ‘my own land with its own lan­guage and there are beau­ti­ful com­posers there, named An­tonin Yel­lowsink and Ashy and Shell and Flara’. Tran­syl­va­nian is out­side, in­side; ev­ery­where and nowhere. She has writ­ten bi­ogra­phies about the com­posers, created a mag­a­zine,

Paris Flash, for the in­hab­i­tants, and even com­posed a Tran­syl­va­nian na­tional an­them (per­formed in Cin­derella). Her fa­ther be­lieves her mu­si­cal abil­ity is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of this imag­i­na­tion. ‘It all bub­bles out like a vol­cano,’ he says.

Alma has talked be­fore about how melodies just ap­pear in her head fully formed (the hard work is turn­ing them into com­plex opera). She doesn’t know where they come from. ‘It’s a mys­tery to me also,’ she ad­mits. But she is more re­cep­tive to ideas when she is ‘dream­ing’ – in other words, in her Tran­syl­va­nian world. For her sev­enth birth­day her aunt gave her a skip­ping rope with blue and sil­ver foil tas­sels, which is now in­te­gral to the cre­ative process. She wraps one end around her back then hooks it on her arm, while spi­ralling the other in the air with smooth, flow­ing ges­tures. ‘I like the move­ment and I like the sound of the swish – that’s why the tas­sels are im­por­tant – es­pe­cially when it’s out­side in the wind with the birds and the trees. It gives me in­spi­ra­tion for sto­ries or melodies.’

She still likes to dress up as her Tran­syl­va­nian char­ac­ters and her par­ents see it as her safety valve. ‘That is her way of re­lax­ing,’ says her fa­ther, ‘if she didn’t have that she would be ill.’

Her par­ents are not happy for Alma to be called a prodigy. ‘It means a marvel but also a mon­ster,’ says her mother (the word comes from the Latin prodigium, a mon­ster that vi­o­lates the nat­u­ral order). Nor do they wel­come com­par­isons with Mozart.

‘A ter­ri­ble bur­den,’ says her fa­ther. ‘What hap­pens if she reaches the age of 18 and she thinks, “Gosh, I haven’t writ­ten the Re­quiem and I haven’t writ­ten Don Gio­vanni. I haven’t writ­ten the world’s great­est mas­ter­pieces yet, I am a fail­ure.” It ’s ab­surd.’ Alma, for her part, has a stock an­swer to the ques­tion. ‘There was only one Mozart and I pre­fer to be Alma than to be the sec­ond Mozart.’

So how do her par­ents de­scribe Alma? ‘As a com­poser and mu­si­cian,’ her mother replies, ‘re­gard­less of her age, that is what she is.’

Alma was born into mu­sic. Her pa­ter­nal grand­mother was a pi­anist; and her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther is an or­gan­ist. Janie plays the piano; Guy plays the flute. (‘They are both am­a­teurs,’ says Alma, with a smile. ‘They love mu­sic but they don’t prac­tise.’)

Alma was born in Basingstoke in 2005. Her par­ents were living in Am­s­ter­dam at the time (teach­ing at Lei­den Univer­sity) but Janie wanted to be near her par­ents for the birth. When Alma was two the fam­ily moved back to Bri­tain, and set­tle d in Ox­ford, where her par­ents taught at the univer­sity.

Alma says she is like her mother, ‘very dreamy’; whereas He­len is like her fa­ther, ‘ very prac­ti­cal’. ‘ When any­body loses some­thing in the house she can al­ways

Alma doesn’t know where her melodies come from. ‘It’s a mys­tery to me also,’ she says

‘Alma is not pushed to do any­thing. In many senses, what we of­ten try and do is the op­po­site, to hold her back’

find it,’ she says. Her mother en­cour­aged Alma’s imag­i­na­tion, telling her sto­ries (both clas­sic fairy tales and im­pro­vised). She also lis­tened to lots of mu­sic be­cause, as her fa­ther says, ‘that is what we did’. And from an early age Alma’s re­la­tion­ship with mu­sic was un­usu­ally in­tense. Her par­ents de­scribe how as a baby she would scream if one of her favourite songs was in­ter­rupted on car jour­neys. ‘It was al­most a night­mare,’ re­mem­bers Guy. ‘We’d have to sit in the car park un­til it ended, oth­er­wise she would go into ab­so­lute hys­ter­ics.’ Alma de­scribes a Richard Strauss lul­laby she heard as a baby ‘giv­ing me a kind of ache be­cause it was so beau­ti­ful’.

It is said that Han­del sang be­fore he talked and it was al­most the same with Alma. When she was 20 months, she came home from a party one day and be­gan to sing Twin­kle Twin­kle Lit­tle Star. ‘She couldn’t sing the words, be­cause she couldn’t speak yet. She sang some­thing like “shashi shashi shashi sha” – but the notes were pitch per­fect,’ says Guy. ‘I re­mem­ber think­ing, that’s a bit un­usual. We should pay at­ten­tion to that.’ She has the abil­ity to name any note she hears with the ef­fort­less­ness that most peo­ple can name a colour.

Alma com­posed her first piece be­fore she was four. ‘I al­ways had lit­tle melodies in my head,’ she ex­plains. ‘It wasn’t re­ally any­thing un­usual for me.’ B ut of course a child prodigy – as David Henry Feld­man and Lynn T Gold­smith, both experts in the field, have pointed out – ‘is a group en­ter­prise’. A mu­si­cal prodigy, in par­tic­u­lar, hinges on parental in­volve­ment. Alma’s par­ents bought her first vi­o­lin when she was three, paid for a teacher, nur­tured her gifts, taught her what they know. ‘That didn’t last long,’ says Guy. ‘She out­stripped us, maybe even at seven.’

When Alma was younger, Guy, who now works from home writ­ing books on lin­guis­tics, would in­put Alma’s writ­ten com­po­si­tions on to the com­puter. ‘Alma was never par­tic­u­larly tech­no­log­i­cally minded,’ he says. Th­ese days she does most of the in­putting her­self, and Guy helps ‘with the more tricky fea­tures’. He is also the first per­son to give her com­ments on her com­po­si­tions – ‘Such as, that is won­der­ful, or that is a lit­tle bor­ing’ – and deals with ‘ad­min­is­tra­tive stuff ’ such as the del­uge of in­vi­ta­tions from all over the world. Alma has al­ready per­formed in Spain, Ja­pan, Uruguay, the US, Switzer­land, Israel and Ger­many.

Janie, who has given up her univer­sity job, is also a huge sup­port, home-school­ing both girls. She seems thrilled to be teach­ing her daugh­ters ‘about fos­sils or Por­tuguese ex­plor­ers, Tu­dors and Stu­arts, or what­ever it is’. But her par­ents be­lieve Alma wouldn’t have thrived in main­stream education any­way. ‘Her needs are dif­fer­ent and it’s quite dif­fi­cult for any school, even with the best in­ten­tions, to cater for some­one like that,’ says Guy. ‘Even with her friends, Alma plays very in­tensely, and af­ter that she will say, “Now I have to be on my own for a bit and dream.” It would be dif­fi­cult to do that in school.’

Alma was be­hind the move to Sur­rey, ow­ing to her hav­ing lessons with two teach­ers from the nearby Ye­hudi Menuhin School. She is also taught via Skype from Switzer­land by a spe­cial­ist in a method, used in Italy in the 18th and 19th cen­turies, that teaches chil­dren com­po­si­tion in a play­ful way.

But what about He­len? I say. Does she ever feel left out? Guy and Janie re­spond by say­ing that of course both girls are spe­cial, very spe­cial, and point out that He­len is a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. ‘I am not sure she is des­per­ately keen to be play­ing the piano or vi­o­lin on stage in front of a large au­di­ence,’ says Guy. It also helps that Alma isn’t re­motely in­ter­ested in her me­dia pro­file. ‘She gives in­ter­views but rarely reads or lis­tens to them af­ter,’ he says. So He­len isn’t taunted by a wall of cut­tings. They add that what ri­valry there is tends to be re­as­sur­ingly nor­mal. ‘If He­len gets one more straw­berry, Alma makes a face – why are you giv­ing her one more?’ And vice versa.

But of course the his­tory of prodi­gies is full of fam­ily feuds, splits and chil­dren be­ing pushed to break­ing point. The vi­o­lin­ist Vanessa Mae, now 38, has been es­tranged from her mother since she was 21. Mae re­cently

talked of how her mother slapped her dur­ing vi­o­lin prac­tice and con­trolled ev­ery as­pect of her life: her bank ac­counts, clothes, and the sexy photo shoot for the cover of the al­bum she re­leased at 17.

‘We’ve read a lot about the education of mu­si­cians and are now sur­rounded by peo­ple with lots of ex­pe­ri­ence,’ says Guy. ‘Burnout seems to be the re­sult of some­one who is pushed to do things they don’t want to do. And Alma is not ac­tu­ally pushed to do any­thing. In many senses, what we of­ten try and do is the op­po­site, to hold her back.’

Janie de­fines their role as giv­ing Alma ‘the freedom and space to do the work and mak­ing her life as com­fort­able in ev­ery way, but also mak­ing sure she has bal­ance – meet­ing her friends in the park and the woods, bal­let lessons.’

It wasn’t fam­ily, but a fam­ily friend who cat­a­pulted Alma to fame. Stephen Fry met Guy through work, and when Alma was seven they all went to a per­for­mance of Twelfth Night. ‘Stephen was so im­pressed with Alma and how she talked about the play and about Shake­speare, he wrote to me af­ter­wards to say how in­cred­i­ble she was. I just said, “Well, she is spe­cial but you know the re­ally spe­cial thing about her is her mu­sic.” And he asked “What?” So I showed him some videos of Alma play­ing.’ Fry’s re­sponse was to tweet, ‘Sim­ply mind­blow­ing: Alma Deutscher play­ing her own com­po­si­tions. A new Mozart?’

‘Sud­denly a TV crew was here and oth­ers were phon­ing. It re­ally was mad­ness,’ Guy re­calls. The at­ten­tion was, by all ac­counts, rather trau­matic for the fam­ily – ‘peo­ple in the me­dia can be very ag­gres­sive,’ he says – and af­ter two weeks of try­ing to be ac­com­mo­dat­ing they with­drew. But it was a wake-up call. They now have a team of ad­vis­ers: PR man­ager, fi­nancier, agent (Alma is the youngest ever Bri­tish com­poser to be signed by an agent: Martin Camp­bell-white, who worked with Si­mon Rat­tle from the age 18 and is now semi-re­tired, is work­ing gratis. ‘He wants to help,’ says Guy). Alma has a packed di­ary, pre­par­ing for her first con­cert in China in Oc­to­ber; a per­for­mance of Cin­derella in San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia, with an or­ches­tra of 44 mu­si­cians in De­cem­ber, and a short­ened ver­sion of Cin­derella for chil­dren in Vi­enna in Jan­uary. Th­ese per­for­mances will be fol­lowed by the Aix-en-provence Fes­ti­val in France and the Lucerne Fes­ti­val in Switzer­land.

‘Of course I have to work hard,’ she says, ‘but all chil­dren have to work hard for ex­ams, and at least when I work hard, I work hard for some­thing in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing, like see­ing my whole opera put on stage.’

When I leave, Alma is in the gar­den skip­ping with her tas­selled rope. Now I un­der­stand, I say to Janie, she is not just a child play­ing.

‘Yes,’ she replies, as we watch Alma bound­ing across the lawn swoosh­ing her rope in the air, ‘ but she is also just a child play­ing.’ Imag­ine… Alma Deutscher: Find­ing Cin­derella is on BBC One at 10.45pm on Mon­day

Be­low, from top: per­form­ing at the Hen­ley Fes­ti­val, and with Theresa Kruegl re­hears­ing Cin­derella in Vi­enna, both 2016

Alma with her younger sis­ter He­len, mother, Janie, and fa­ther, Guy, at home in Dork­ing, Sur­rey

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