The Infant Prodigy

by Thomas Mann

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Bibi Saccellaphylaccas, the child prodigy, enters the packed concert hall to the applause of an audience already favorably disposed because of advance publicity. Dressed all in white silk, the eight-year-old boy, whose age is advertised as seven, sits at his piano and prepares to play a concert of his own compositions. The hall’s expensive front seats are occupied by the upper class, including an aging princess, as well as by the impresario and Bibi’s mother. Bibi knows that he must entertain his audience, but he also anticipates losing himself in his music.

As Bibi plays, it is clear that he knows how to work his audience. He flings his body with the music and bows slowly to prolong the applause. Recognizing that the members of the audience respond more to a show than to the aesthetics of the music, he thinks of them as idiots.

In fact, his listeners react to the performance in the context of their individual interests and experiences. An old gentleman regrets his own musical inability but views Bibi’s talent as a gift from God to which the average person could not aspire. There is no more shame in falling short of Bibi’s accomplishment than in bowing before the Christ Child.

A businessperson, believing art to be merely a pleasant diversion, calculates the profit from the concert. A piano teacher rehearses the critical comments that she will make after the concert concerning Bibi’s lack of originality and his hand position. A young girl responds to the passion of the music but is confused that such passion is expressed by a child. A military officer equates Bibi’s success with his own and applauds in smug self-satisfaction.

An elderly music critic reacts disdainfully, seeing in Bibi both the falseness and the rapture of the artist. Contemptuous of his own audience, the critic believes that he cannot write the truth because it would be beyond his readers. He thinks that he would have been an artist had he “not seen through the whole business so clearly.”

As the concert nears its end, laurel wreaths are brought to Bibi. The impresario places one around his neck and then kisses him on the mouth, sending a shock through the audience and leading to wild applause. The critic sees this as a ploy to milk the audience and seems almost sorry that he can so easily see through it.

Bibi’s final number, a rhapsody, merges into the Greek national hymn, exciting the Greeks in the audience to shouts and applause. Again the critic deplores this exploitation and plans to criticize it but then wonders if it is perhaps “the most artistic thing of all.” After all, an artist is “a jack-in-the-box.” He leaves, reflecting that criticism is on a higher level than art.

When the concert ends, the audience forms two groups, one around Bibi and the other around the aging princess. The princess meets Bibi and asks if music simply comes to him when he sits down. He responds that it does but thinks to himself that she is stupid.

As the audience leaves, the piano teacher is heard remarking on Bibi’s lack of originality. An elegant and beautiful young woman and her two officer brothers go out into the street. An unkempt girl says to her sullen companion that “we artists” are all child prodigies. The elderly gentleman who had been impressed with Bibi hears the comment and wonders what it means, but the girl’s companion nods his head in agreement. The final paragraph shows the girl watching the beautiful young woman and her brothers; she despises them but gazes after them until they are out of sight.

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