These days everybody’s a genius: genius soccer players, genius cooks, genius recipes, genius pornstars, what have you. In other words, it’s a much-degraded word and some have suggested retiring it. But however hackneyed, romanticized, and vaporous the idea is, I suggest that genius is real all the same. Here are some thoughts about it. I’ll start in a roundabout way, but I’ll get there.

Two sons of a friend of mine decided, in their early teens, to become famous rock climbers. They began to live climbing, starting with a climbing wall in their bedroom. On every free day for years they were outside climbing all over the landscape. Finally one of them decided he was ready to ascend the daunting Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a two-day trip for only the strongest climbers, in which you spend the night suspended from a nearly vertical wall. On the second day, laboring upward in the morning, he and his partner were passed by a couple of Frenchmen who were doing the climb in a half day. On his return my friend’s son said to him: “Dad, those people are another species.” Soon he gave up his dreams of being a famous rock climber. He could do the necessary work, but he wasn’t a member of the necessary species.

What I’m getting at here is some ideas about the nature of talent and genius, which is part of the foundation of all my biographies, and an issue I’ve spent years thinking and writing about. It was particularly pointed in the case of Beethoven, who in Western culture is the quintessential genius, on whom much of the 19th-century cult of genius was founded. In the course of dealing with my subjects I’ve learned that I’m a good composer and writer but I’m not in that league, the genius species. I’ve taught and observed dozens of student and faculty composers in my career and have seen a fair amount of talent, but no genius.

What am I talking about? The first thing I’m saying is that talent is a real thing. Some have denied it, have tried to claim that great achievement is purely a matter of will and practice. They’re wrong. Bach once said: “Anybody who works as hard as I have will do as well as I have.” Sorry, Bach was wrong too. Talent is real, and you’re born with it—some people less, some people more, some people a great deal more. If ten pianists set out to be great and each practices ten thousand hours, they will end up in ten different places, some will have made the progress others did in a third of the time, and none of them will be great pianists, because that is given to few people indeed.

It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. I have a talent for composing and writing and it showed up however dimly in the very first things I composed and wrote: they were lousy, but they were real compositions and real writings, with a real voice. I once saw Chekhov’s first play; it was stunningly awful. Before long, unlike most awful playwrights, he became a great one. A lot of people write terrible first plays, but they don’t go on to become Chekhov. The likes of Beethoven, Brahms, and Ives also wrote bad music to start with, but their development from that point was more or less off the charts. I’ve never been off the charts. Few people are, in any endeavor.

As a conservatory teacher I watched composition students come and go year by year. It was especially interesting with the 18-year-old freshmen. I was not teaching in a leading conservatory, so we accepted a lot of young men and women who creatively had done more or less diddly. I watched some of them flounder, most of them improve slowly, some of them take off like a rocket. Most of those who rocketed reached a certain level and went no further, as if they’d hit a brick wall. (One of my students hit a wall, mired in tired clichés, but got well-known anyway because he was relentlessly determined to be.) Some stagnated for a while and suddenly took off. A very few rocketed and kept rocketing.

When Beethoven was ten years old he acquired a highly sophisticated teacher named Christian Neefe, who in a magazine article predicted that this friendless, grubby, and sullen student, if he kept going as he had, could be the next Mozart. Brahms’s teacher, who was a cynical old pro, said when Mendelssohn died: “It’s too bad about Mendelssohn, but now we have Brahms.” Brahms was fourteen at the time.

Talent is real, some people have it in superabundance, and talent is the foundation of genius—but only the foundation. There are millions of people in the world who have great talent in music, or writing, or baseball or physics or auto mechanics, who never realize that talent because they never take it up, or never find the right mentor, or are told to shut up and enter the insurance industry. A smaller number, but still a great many, are shoved into the arts or sports and the like by their parents, work as hard as expected of them, and in the end find only frustration and failure. The movie Amadeus was wrong about Mozart but right about genius: you don’t get to choose whether you are or aren’t. That’s up to God [or your metaphor here], and fairness has nothing to do with it.

In my biographies I wanted to show genius not in theory but in practice, close up, as much as possible day by day: getting up in the morning, making coffee, going to the bathroom, scribbling on paper, taking a walk, fighting with friends, worrying about money, courting public and publishers, performing.

It all works together in the course of a life, but there’s another caveat, with which I’ll end: There are as many styles of genius as there are geniuses. It doesn’t matter how you live (as long as you get the work done), what your opinions are, whether you’re a dandy or a slob, whether you’re conservative or radical, a nice person or a jerk. Look around the territory, you’ll find them all. The three arguably greatest geniuses of Western music are three distinct kinds of artist: Bach who held to the old contrapuntal arts, Mozart the man of his time, Beethoven who was everywhere called revolutionary (though never called himself that). Somebody I knew who knew the uber-surrealist Salvador Dali said he was a dear, sweet man. Mussorgsky managed to create a few immortal pieces while drinking himself into a early grave. Matisse sketched his models while cursing and snarling, “What a goddamned way to make a living!” Mozart loved composing so much that he basically worked himself to death doing it.

The only thing that unites them all is the indefinable but unmistakable quality that we call, for lack of anything else, “genius.”


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