April 06, 2010

What does it take to be a genius?

Europeans of the Romantic Era tended to ascribe the accomplishments of the great to an inborn spark. In contrast, in this age in which voracious competitiveness must rationalize itself in politically correct terms, American self-help books, such as Malcolm Gladwell’sOutliers and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us, denigrate the importance of talent. They even go to the comic extreme of citing Mozart, who could compose music as fast as he could jot it down, as evidence for the overwhelming dominance of nurture over nature.

To reach the pinnacles of achievement, to be, out of the 100 billion or so humans who have ever lived, one of the few hundred individuals to be remembered by one name”€”to be a Mozart, a Beethoven, a Bach”€”does it help to have innate talent? How about ten thousand hours of practice? An intense work ethic? An obsessive personality? A supportive family? A conducive culture? Role models? Personal connections? Energy? Being in the right place at the right time? Not dying before adulthood? Sheer luck?


Few of the all-time greats were fortunate enough to have every single one of these factors in abundance, but they typically had more than a few. Nobody can accomplish all that solely on his own. Conversely, no family, culture, or state can concoct a genius without a unique individual.

Consider the top composers of Western classical music, as ranked in Charles Murray’s 2003 book Human Accomplishment.

“In most fields, the greats generally emerge during specific efflorescences. The advantages of being in the right time and place can be immense, especially before electronic communications.”

Murray objectively toted up the “€œmost eminent”€ figures in 21 arts and sciences by counting reference work citations. At first glance, Murray’s methodology appears suspect. Why should we listen to the opinion of reference book writers? Yet, it works, because scholars try to make a coherent cause-and-effect story out of history by recounting who influenced whom.

Thus, the importance of, say, Beethoven is attested to by his impact upon Brahms, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Liszt, and Schumann, which the historians merely record. (I suppose you could argue that those later composers really weren”€™t so good either, and that the received musical history of the last two hundred years is just a big Dan Brown-worthy conspiracy among the Beethoven Fan Club to distract attention from the true greats. Still, you can always just listen to his music.)

In Murray’s tabulation, the six most influential composers are Beethoven and Mozart (tied for first), followed by Bach, Wagner, Haydn, and Handel.

You”€™ll note that they were all born in German-speaking countries in the 17th through 19th Centuries. (In fact, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were all in Vienna at the same time in the spring of 1787. Haydn and Mozart were friends, Haydn became Beethoven’s teacher, although they didn”€™t get along, and whether Mozart and Beethoven ever met is still disputed.)

It seems unlikely that all the best compositional talent in human history happened to be born in a small fraction of Europe over a fairly short spell.

Indeed, in most fields, the greats generally emerge during specific efflorescences. The advantages of being in the right time and place can be immense, especially before electronic communications.

Think of the difficulties besetting a hypothetical 19th Century American with the innate talent to have been a leading orchestral composer. For instance, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony premiered in Vienna in 1808, but didn”€™t make it to America until 1842, by which point it was old hat in Europe.

Moreover, after first hearing Beethoven’s Ninth in 1846, American critics complained that his famous “€œOde to Joy”€ melody sounded like “€œYankee Doodle Dandy.”€ America just didn”€™t quite offer the kind of cultural atmosphere helpful toward becoming a great art music composer. Instead, 19th Century American prodigies such as Stephen Foster, John Philip Sousa, and Scott Joplin took the lead in less august forms of music.

And, yet, the notion that golden age German-speakers enjoyed some genetic advantages in musical talent is not implausible. Their music-centered culture would have encouraged assortative mating among the musically gifted.

Most famously, the The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists 80 distinguished musicians from 1550 to 1850 with the surname of “€œBach.”€ (Nobody knows how many descendants of the clan’s daughters bore other last names.) They weren”€™t stars until the generation after Johann Sebastian, but they did all right for themselves.

The musicality of the Bachs wasn”€™t an accident. The Bachs usually married daughters of other families in the church music business, girls who were musically literate enough to copy scores for them.

For example, Johann Sebastian Bach’s first wife (by whom he had seven children, two of whom became famous composers) was his second cousin. After her death, his second wife (by whom he had 13 children, two of them prominent composers) was the daughter of a well-known trumpeter and herself a singer of some renown.

How could he afford that?

Well, there were a lot of jobs for musicians. In the early 16th Century, Martin Luther had exuberantly advocated vocal music for the masses, which necessitated professional leadership.

As we are discovering about human evolution, you get more of what you pay for.


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