Born in 1991 in New Haven, Connecticut, Jay “Bluejay” Greenberg began playing the cello at age of three, and subsequently taught himself to play the piano.
His first compositions were written at the age of six. His first formal lessons in theory and composition began when he was seven. At the age of ten he enrolled as a scholarship student in New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
His talent first became known more widely in 2004, when, aged 12, he was featured in a 60 Minutes TV news segment. I am very grateful to the reader who pointed me to this video:
Since that time, Jay has developed a career as a professional composer. Like Mozart, he apparently hears his compositions in his head, already complete, and simply copies them out when he feels ready.
Still a teenager (only just, at the time of writing), he has accomplished more than many composers do in a lifetime. He has written over a hundred pieces, including five symphonies. His Overture to 9/11 received first prize in the composition competition at the Juilliard pre-college division in 2003. His works have been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, and many other national and international ensembles.
One of Jay’s teachers at Juilliard is Samuel Zyman [and more on him in a moment]. Zyman states that Jay Greenberg’s talent puts him in the company of music’s most illustrious young prodigies – Mozart, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns. “We haven’t seen his like for two hundred years.”
Well, maybe not quite that long. After a bit of research, I wasn’t too surprised to find that young Jay Greenberg is, facially, an exact copy of one of the great classical composers.
Spot the similarity
Below I have included some head-shot comparisons of the two composers. In each case it’s Gustav Mahler on the left and Jay Greenberg on the right. You can click on each image to see an enlargement.
Bear in mind that the pictures of Jay Greenberg so far show him as a spotty teenager, while even the earliest portraits of Mahler show him in his twenties and thirties with receding hair.
It’s fascinating to see how even the spectacles are quite similar – the same was also true of Branwell Bronte and John Lennon.
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Another child prodigy, born in 1860 in a village in Bohemia, Gustav Mahler was playing the piano by age 6. He was accepted into the Vienna Conservatory when he was 15, where he studied piano under Julius Epstein. Just like Jay Greenberg, he composed a number of works before the age of 20 (most now lost).
Although drawn to composing, he pursued a successful career as a conductor, including posts at Kassel, Prague, Budapest, Hamburg, Leipzig, Vienna, and latterly regular visits to New York. To secure the Vienna post, which he held for 10 years at the height of his conducting career, he had to convert from Judaism to Catholicism.
While hugely successful as a conductor, composing remained his first love and he continued to do this on a part-time basis. If he has indeed returned as Jay Greenberg, it seems he is making sure to focus on the composing this time round.
Mahler was in the process of composing his tenth symphony when he died.
Mahler’s music found little critical support during his lifetime, and he was regarded mostly as a pretentious failure as a composer for many years after his death. Performances of his music were also banned in much of Europe during the Nazi era. Yet he remained convinced that his “time would come,” and indeed, it has. Thanks to the support and performances of his works by post-War conductors, Mahler is now regarded as the linchpin between the music of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mahler produced large-scale dramatic works with enormous contrasts in sounds and moods. For many years his complex symphonies had a reputation for being difficult, by virtue not only of their technical demands, but also because of their length and need for considerable resources. I don’t know enough about classical music to make a stylistic comparison with Jay Greenberg, but one critic (Minneapolis Star Tribune September, 2006) has said of Greenberg’s 5th Symphony:
“The finale is noble and exultant in the style of Mahler, but expressed in Greenberg’s own voice.”
PS: Samuel Zyman and Hugo Wolf
While researching possible links between Greenberg and Mahler, I was struck by the similarity between these two individuals.
LEFT: Hugo Wolf, composer, a close friend of Mahler’s in Vienna.
RIGHT: Samuel Zyman, composer, a teacher of Greenberg’s at Juilliard.
Hugo Wolf (1860–1903) was an Austrian composer born in what is now Slovenia. Wolf and Mahler were exact contemporaries (born in the same year), classmates, room-mates, and long-term friends. They had similar backgrounds, were musical prodigies, pursued the same career, and their lives intersected at many key moments. Both arrived in Vienna in 1875 and enrolled at the Conservatoire at the age of 15. Although Wolf was expelled, the two remained close.
After a few years the two went their separate ways as Mahler left Vienna. When Mahler eventually returned in 1897 to take up Vienna’s most prestigious musical post, Director of the Court Opera, Wolf was probably the best known composer in town – but he was already in terminal decline. It is likely that Wolf suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder. He had several bursts of extraordinary productivity, particularly in 1888 and 1889, but depression frequently interrupted his creative periods. By the time of Mahler’s return to Vienna, Wolf was slipping into syphilitic insanity. After mid-1899 he could make no music at all, and once tried to drown himself.
Mahler’s return fired up Wolf’s hopes that his own opera would at last receive a performance. But there was some awkward confusion – Wolf’s hopes were not to be. A heated argument followed, probably the last straw for Wolf’s fragile mental state. Bizarrely, he publicly proclaimed himself the new Director – Mahler’s boss. But not long after, he checked himself into an asylum, where he subsequently died – slowly, miserably – aged just 42.
Samuel Zyman (b. 1956) has been a member of the Juilliard School faculty since 1987. He was born in Mexico City, where he studied piano and conducting at the National Conservatory of Music and composition with Mexican composer Humberto Hernández Medrano. He also taught medical histology and physiology in the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s School of Medicine. He moved to the United States in 1981 and received MM and DMA degrees in composition from the Juilliard School. As a composer, Zyman draws upon both his Jewish heritage and his Mexican nationality.
Zyman’s unabashed lauding of Jay Greenberg has probably done more than anything else to promote the young prodigy. He wrote in 2003:
“How do you react when you encounter an early compositional gift so extraordinary that you can’t even begin to comprehend it? How do you explain to others a compositional talent so exquisitely developed at such an early age that you can barely believe it yourself? What would you do if you personally met an eight-year-old boy who can compose and fully notate half a movement of a magnificent piano sonata in the style of Beethoven, before your very eyes and without a piano, in less than an hour? How do you let the world know that the same boy, at age 10, composed a probing, original viola concerto in three movements, fully orchestrated, in just a few weeks?”
Perhaps Wolf and Mahler are continuing their earlier relationship in a different way, this time as teacher and pupil rather than as friends and rivals. Whereas Wolf, in a fit of envy, foolishly proclaimed himself to be Mahler’s superior, Zyman is very publicly proclaiming Greenberg’s greater talent.
I have found a number of other similarities from the Vienna music circle now working or studying at the Juillard. More soon.
- Alanis Morissette — the reincarnation of Sergei Prokofiev?
- Reincarnation of American pianist as blind Korean girl? (William Kappel / Yoo Ye Eun)
- Jay Greenberg’s Symphony No 5 is available on Amazon →