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 with her younger sister Helen, mother Janie, and father Guy, at home in Dorking, SurreyCredit: Solo Syndication
Alma the child prodigy, or ‘Little Mozart’, whose music is in the classical-romantic 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.
Alma doesn’t know where her melodies come from. It’s a mystery to me also
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 two-and-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 performing at the Henley Festival, 2016Credit: Getty images
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.
Alma is not pushed to do anything. In many senses, what we often try and do is the opposite, to hold her back
‘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 pater-nal 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 settled 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 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’.
Alma with Theresa Kruegl rehearsing Cinderella in Vienna, 2016Credit: Rex features
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.’
But 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’.
Simply mind-blowing: Alma Deutscher playing her own compositions. A new Mozart? http://t.co/ARBnPMzF
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) October 10, 2012
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.
Of course I have to work hard, but all children have to work hard for exams, and at least when I work hard, I work hard for something incredibly exciting
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.’
Performing in Vienna, 2017Credit: Getty Images
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