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Musical Geniuses

Is there such a thing as a musical genius, and – if so – what sort of characteristics would you expect him or her to have?

In popular imagination, geniuses are exeptionally talented, but they are also unpredictable and eccentric. Unfortunately this latter criterion elimates many of the greatest musicians in Western music. But it also allows us to consider the contributions of others.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) can easily be discounted. Bach led what most of us would probably consider a pretty boring life. Widely regarded by his contemporaries as reliable and hard working, he never travelled far from the small area in Germany where he lived. Married twice - but with no hint of scandal - he spent most of his life as a church organist and composer. It seems that the most exciting thing he ever did was to use the first letters of his name to form the notes of a theme for the unfinished final fugue in his unimaginatively titled work, The Art of the Fugue.

Edward Elgar (1857-1934), perhaps the greatest of modern British composers, led a similarly quiet existence. But although outwardly content to live the life of an English country gentleman, his music was almost the complete opposite - extravagant and restless, with a powerful emotional charge.

Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), a great pianist as well as a highly successful composer, also seemed to lack personal flair. He was described by one critic as looking more like a provincial banker.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770- 1827) fits our definition of a genius more easily. Moody and disorganised, particularly in later life, he is regarded by many as the greatest composer who ever lived.

But if we accept this popular definition, we must also consider other musicians. Italian violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) was promoted by his press agents as someone who was inspired by both God and Satan. He acted the part well too. Tall and thin, he had a long nose, a pale and long-drawn face with hollow cheeks, thin lips that seemed to produce a sardonic smile, and piercing eyes. One widely believed rumour was that he had killed a woman and imprisoned her soul in his violin, and that her gut wrenching screams could be heard as he played on stage.

Should a musical genius have an all-round musical ability, or is it sufficient for him to excel in just one aspect of music? Maurice Ravel (1875-1917) lacked a good sense of pitch and was only a mediocre piano player. Arnold Schoenberg's (1874-1951) highly original music came very close to reforming Western music completely, thus satisfying yet another often unspoken definition of genius. But he was not a good performer on any instrument, and was only a passable conductor - even when it came to his own works.

The history of music also presents us with a long list of flamboyant conductors, among them the imperious Hans von Bulow (1830-1894) and the charismatic Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

If these approaches to identifying musical geniuses seems wrong somehow, allowing well-known musicians to do the job for us is even less reliable. When Vienna music critic Julius Korgold got his talented 10-year-old son to play to Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the famous composer repeatedly exclaimed “A genius, a genius”. The young Korngold ended up writing Hollywood film music, most of which has since been forgotten.

The one person everyone can agree on when it comes to identifying geniuses is Albert Einstein. Curiously, Einstein was also an amateur violin player, and often played Mozart sonatas with his friends. But despite his undoubted genius, the great physicist was weak on rhythm. “Can you count, Albert?” his fellow musicians often asked.

Sound familiar?

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