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Alma Deutscher on her fight to save classical music from extinction and being called ‘the new Mozart’

Alma Deutscher: ‘I am not a little girl any more’ - Judy Grahame
Alma Deutscher: ‘I am not a little girl any more’ - Judy Grahame

“I want to save classical music from dying.” Alma Deutscher, the little girl whom the press relentlessly labelled “the new Mozart”, has turned 18 and is putting away childish things. Her new opera-cum-musical, The Emperor’s New Waltz, premiered in Salzburg at the weekend and is something of a broadside against music “that only clever people like”.

The work sees two gifted teens from opposite ends of the social spectrum accepted into an elite music college, where the odious teacher-composer Sir Anthony Swindelle (the girl’s fiancé) tells the boy that his melodic pop compositions are total trash. For Deutscher, the fusion of melody and harmony are the ideal. “Ultimately, music has to touch your heart. It has to be beautiful or powerful or uplifting, or even make you sad. Melody is considered inferior, but for me it is the most noble thing in the world.”

The modernist noise she parodies in the work is there because she wants to “start a revolution. If a piece of music sounds like noise, that is because it is noise. I want to free audiences from this repression, and to liberate composers, otherwise the art form doesn’t stand a chance.”

Deutscher fixes me with a hard stare which suggests no small amount of ideological zeal, and following our interview, the subject which she is so passionate about and which pervades her latest work causes some criticism among the German press. One journalist for Munich radio station BR Klassik said that the opera’s mission to promote tuneful music was “reminiscent of the agitation against so-called ‘degenerate music’ ” in Nazi Germany, a nasty provocation particularly given Deutscher’s heritage (her father, Guy, a Cambridge-educated linguist, is Israeli-Jewish).

And yet while Deutscher is obsessed with melody, she does relent when I suggest that some people might actually like the dissonant, atonal stuff. “I can’t define what ugly is. I can’t define what beautiful is,” she tells me. “Everyone is entitled to their own tastes, of course. Personally, The Rite of Spring doesn’t speak to me, but I know it speaks to a lot of people. I would never tell anyone what they should like.”

Young musician: Deutscher’s The Emperor’s New Waltz has just premiered - SLT / Tobias Witzgall
Young musician: Deutscher’s The Emperor’s New Waltz has just premiered - SLT / Tobias Witzgall

It is an unusually heavy conversation with which to engage an 18-year-old, but then Deutscher is not your ordinary 18-year-old. Her story is extraordinary – and well known, with details of her early life often being recounted by journalists with the same breathlessness as a preschool teacher telling a fairy-tale. She was writing music by the age of four, composed an opera at seven (The Emperor’s New Waltz is her third) and a violin concerto at nine. Inspiration, she said, came from her “magic” pink skipping rope.

Stephen Fry spotted her on YouTube very early on and tweeted profusely, but there was support from some of the classical music world’s biggest names, too, including Daniel Barenboim, who told her: “Everything that cannot be learnt you already have” – a quote which Deutscher now reflects on bashfully. “I think he meant I still had a great deal to learn. Of course, I will be learning until I die. When you stop learning is when you give up.”

Many were fascinated by the young girl’s drive; her despair after her first day at school when she came home in tears, devastated that she hadn’t been taught to read and write. Subsequently home-schooled, she now tells me: “It was the right decision. I had the freedom to learn about what I was interested in, and to do everything at my own pace.”

If that educationally progressive approach suggests a charmed life, Deutscher found other aspects of her talent a burden. Of the prodigy and new Mozart tags, she says: “Oh my God, I hated it all so much. I really resented it, even though I knew people meant it kindly. I always wanted to be an adult and being compared to Mozart was the most depressing thing in the world because nobody could ever be like him.

Alma Deutscher at the age of 10
Alma Deutscher at the age of 10

“I am so relieved I am 18. People have suddenly started to take me seriously now I am not a little girl any more.”

That may sound brattish on page, but Deutscher is certainly not a brat. She is a delight: intellectually smart but, at times, childlike and uncomplicated, hugging herself self-consciously during our conversation, and giggling nervously at certain questions.

Shortly before the pandemic, she and her family (father Guy, mother Janie and younger sister sister Helen) moved from their home in the Surrey Hills to Vienna where Deutscher now studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts. It is widely believed that she is the youngest ever alumna of the conductor course whose old boys include Kirill Petrenko and Claudio Abbado. She still lives at home, but the cosseted bluestocking of yore is, to some extent, cutting loose. She and her friends spend three or four nights a week ballroom dancing in the grand halls of the Austrian capital for fun; Deutscher loves the waltz, the cha-cha, the paso doble.

The young musician also seems happy in her own skin. I worried when I met her seven years ago that the world’s hype around this “prodigy” (always a loaded word) and her own quest for perfection might prove all too much. She smiles: “To be honest with you, I had writer’s block a few years ago, before I composed this opera. I then told myself that not everything you create can be amazing, but hopefully some of what you write can be worthwhile. If you think everything you write is going to be a masterpiece, then you will never write again.”

@almadeutscher

What an incredible feeling it is that I'm now getting a chance to conduct my own compositions, here with the wonderful Strauss Capelle Vienna, in an excerpt from my "Waltz of the Sirens"

♬ original sound - AlmaDeutscher

That said, Deutscher is clearly not one for compromise. She tells me that during rehearsals for The Emperor’s New Waltz there was quite a lot of creative conflict with the director Christina Piegger, who she felt “subverted her vision”, although she adores the two young leads, played by Thomas Wegscheider and Julia Sturzlbaum.

However well the opera does, and it must be said that since our interview, the reviews have been mixed, it seems that Deutscher will be unperturbed, moving on to the next phase of an already extraordinary career. Sticking to that melodic theme, she wants to set up a composition school where she will teach harmony. She tells me: “I have received hundreds of letters from young composers who are told their music is infantile, but when I hear their compositions, some of them are beautiful.” She will also stage a series of concerts in which she will conduct, play piano and violin, even dance. Her aim, she says, is to bring music “to people who don’t know when to clap, who aren’t knowledgeable about classical music; I would love to play stadiums”.

It is odd that Alma Deutscher, a symbol in some ways of elitism, has become a poster girl for the proselytisation of classical music. Yet she has always been something of a paradox – on the one hand she has developed her craft in the highfalutin hothouses of Europe, on the other she has won millions of fans on that most democratic of social media platforms, TikTok.

At her opening night in Salzburg, the audience is encouragingly young: they include a cross-dresser, looking fabulous in a punishingly short skirt and thigh-length boots – rather outré for conservative Austria. Clearly, Alma Deutscher has the power to effect change. Whether that is for better or for worse is open to debate.


The Emperor’s New Waltz runs until May 12 at Salzburger Landestheater. Tickets: salzburger-landestheater.at/