Some people love marmite and jam on toast. To them, this (positively sickening) combination was a stroke of genius. A moment when someone did what others had not yet done. It’s the same with Bach and Beethoven. I feel that recently we have thrown around the word ‘genius’ as if it were to have as common an inference as ‘clever’, or could apply to any crazy idea which works out to be brilliant. In a sense, the latter description is exactly what it takes to be recognised as a genius in our history, but what specifically does it take for a great composer to be a genius? Is there a definitive cognitive make-up or does each case have to be tackled separately, and a certain amount of intuition decides above any measurable specifications.
To look at how the brain of a genius works it is important to understand areas of cognitive development that provide an insight in to why their brains are exceptional. Psychologists are constantly trying to measure and calculate models to test intelligence, but are always found to be flawed in their inability to measure the innate creativity we see in so many geniuses. Studies show that in cases of autism, inter and intra-personal intelligence that usually develop in early childhood is delayed. The immense amount of repertoire that Bach and Mozart composed under the age of 15 shows that perhaps with geniuses, the development of their brain is atypical and the relationships between domains are unlike others- hence the extraordinarily early advancements of a prodigious child genius.
The influence of family and possibility for hereditary genius provokes a strong debate, especially when looking at the case of J.S.Bach and Mozart. David Lykken, in his study ‘Genius and the mind’ writes, very boldly; ‘there have been families of geniuses, of course’. Examples he claims are the Bachs and the Darwins; both of which were made up of a web of distinguished specialists in music and science respectively.
My personal reflection is that perhaps when one inherits personality traits from a parent, these can affect the chance of the child pursuing their genius and succeeding in reaching their potential. For example, all three composers challenged, questioned and contested the traditions of what ‘music’ was, or should consist of. At first their music may have seemed offensive with its unusual harmony, changing roles of instruments in the ensemble etc. but this must have taken courage and confidence to pursue enough for the world to not only accept, but admire. If Bach had been timid or reclusive, the congregation would simply have deemed his music as ‘wrong’ and he would never have continued to believe in his divergent ideas about music. Without the strength of character and self-assurance to make your innovations believed to be superior to others, a composer fades in to the background with every other society deems to be ‘wrong’.
Bach was certainly supported by his largely musical family who therefore understood and pushed for the dedication to practice at home. But without the inherent potential to be an outstanding musician, continuously being made to intensively practice would not have achieved anything. Had he not had the determined personality, he wouldn’t have put in the hard work that it took to satisfy the demand for cantatas that was put upon him. This was the initial motivation that made him produce epic amounts of music, but his extensive mastery of a range of different genres demonstrates not only his own inquisitive nature to explore all elements of music, but also the skill that meant he excelled in all. His particularly faultless aural skills stood out tremendously and as with every other area of musical intelligence, it excelled that of any other musician. J.S.Bach did everything on an extraordinary scale and with absolute faultlessness, rendering him, in my eyes, an infinite genius.
Again, the affluence of Mozart’s musical father meant that he was always around music-making and talking to musicians as well as having the encouragement to practice for hours on end. Mozart noticeably had the character traits of a stereotypical intellect; not only was he determined, but he was tactless and spoke out impulsively, which could perhaps imply underdevelopment in the interpersonal cognition. These are sometimes signs of autism that come with intense intelligence in a specific field, demonstrated frequently by intellectual savants. His aural skills (similar to Bach’s) were incredible, setting him above other musicians with an almost supernatural, inexplicable mystery. As is seen in most of the Great composers, he wrote with flair and flawlessness in multiple areas of composition and performance, overall affirming his exquisite musical genius.
The question of someone’s genius may be defined by separate people very differently. For example there is no denying that innovators such as Einstein and Isaac Newton changed the way that we look at the world and the science that defines the mechanics of everything happening around us. However the Great composers were geniuses in a field that is equally as complex and intricate for those interested in more than just listening to music. They were masters of harmony, instrumentation, musical form and structure, poetic translation through music and so much more. Every modern band or music-maker today subconsciously owes so much to these innovators who developed a world through which personal expression and communication was made possible for millions all over the world. Maybe one day I’ll invent a machine that plays G sharp minor perfectly for you in every exam and I’ll be up there with the Greats.