One Day U Note:
On Genius

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When I was thinking about attending One Day University, Craig Wright’s lecture on Mozart was the big draw. You might think it perverse, but I was not out to learn more about the interesting life and ineffable work of the Austrian prodigy. Rather, I intended to use my own accumulated knowledge of the composer as a yardstick against which to measure what Professor Wright had to say to laymen. If I came away feeling that we “students” were being talked down to (however agreeably), I would know that ODU was not for me.

What I got instead was a new way of thinking about genius generally and Mozart’s genius in particular. I must make it clear at the outset that a lot of what Professor Wright had to say slipped into a mind that was prepared not only to hear it but to amplify it. Bach and Beethoven were not discussed — I don’t think that they were even mentioned — but I found myself contrasting their genius, as enlightened by Professor Wright’s template, with Mozart’s. Even before the lecture was over, I understood, as I have never understood before, why music-lovers who prize the “Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) are either chilly about Mozart or convinced that it is Mozart who is chilly.

“Genius” is a term without much in the way of measurable underpinning. We don’t really know how to measure it in a way that makes the work of any two geniuses fully comparable. (IQ tests, for example, sidestep the entire problem of assessing work by subjecting test-takers to identical examinations.) The greater the genius, indeed, the greater our sense of uniqueness, of phenomenal sui generis. To speak of genius is to risk doing nothing but clouding the air with fragrant incense. “He’s a genius!” may be a powerful aesthetic reponse, but it is meaningless as a critical aesthetic statement. That’s why, notwithstanding the title of his lecture (“The Remarkable Genius of Mozart”), I did not expect to hear the “G” word bandied about by a music professor from Yale.

Little did I know! Very early in his lecture, Professor Wright pulled up a PowerPoint screen with the following bullet points (taken from my notes):

  • Processing genius (mathematics, chess)
  • Recombinative genius (inventions)
  • Creative genius

Genius, here, still stands for nothing more precise than “exceptional talent,” but there are now three ways of considering it, three independent parameters. The first two are easy to understand. We all know people who can add columns of numbers in their head; Professor Wright’s example was the savant who can tell you, almost at once, on what day of the week today’s date will fall in fifteen years. We know that people who are gifted at chess are often very musical as well; they perceive patterns where most of us see nothing but the pile-up of incident.

Recombinative genius (Professor Wright accents the third syllable) takes processing genius one step further, by imagining patterns that don’t yet exist but that can fashioned by rearranging the ones that do. Because this kind of genius produces novelties, we’re inclined to think of it as “creative,” but Professor Wright’s formulation helpfully cautions against that. Giving something old a new look (or putting it to a new purpose) is not quite the same thing as making something new.

What did Mozart create that was genuinely new? I can think of two things right off the top of my head. First: the classical concerto. This differs from its antecedents by featuring so vastly expanded an introductory section that it can easily outlast the entirety of a baroque concerto’s opening movement. Nor, of course, is the classical introduction merely longer. Its range is broadly diffused over a wealth of themes and moods. Once the solo instrument chimes in, the recombinative genius takes over, but the idea of an apparently sprawling but in fact finely-controlled orchestral commencement is itself creative, not recombinative.

The other profound innovation that comes to mind is the dynamic operatic ensemble, in which several characters not only sing at the same time but advance the action by doing so. This is nothing less than the pivot between the operas of Handel and Vivaldi that, for all their lovely music, appeal largely to enthusiasts; and the operas of Verdi and Wagner, the dramatic impact of which requires little or no experience on the listener’s part to make itself felt. The second half of the second act of Le Nozze di Figaro, for example, is nothing but a swelling series of ensembles, as more and more characters pile into the Countess’s bedroom.

It is this creative genius that marks Mozart apart from the other great composers. Like him, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms deploy all the patterning and recombinative genius that one could ask for; all three are seemingly inexhaustible founts of invention, and arguably to a greater extent than Mozart, who made frequent use of very ordinary materials. But their creative genius (it seems to me) is moral rather than musical. It may be just as “great” as Mozart’s, but it is of a different kind. This moral force, which anyone will sense in Bach’s Passions, Beethoven’s symphonies, or Brahms’s concertos, is built with the elements of the same kinds of genius that Mozart worked with, but the result is inspired by something that is not really musical in itself, something that, with respect to all three composers, I would call “piety.” Bach and Beethoven explicitly submitted themselves to the service of ideas of divinity. Mozart himself was a pious Roman Catholic, but his piety rarely inflects his church music, much less his secular work. That is what admirers of the “greatness” of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms find missing in Mozart.

A good deal of this thinking is, as I say, all my own, but it would not have been touched off without Craig Wright’s lecture. And this is what I mean by saying that, the more you bring to ODU, the more you’ll get out of it. What’s important at my time of life is not acquiring more raw information about Mozart — or about anything in the world — but rather organizing what’s already stuffed into the attic of my brain. Professor Wright’s talk introduced me to a tool that helps out with exactly that. I may not be using the tool altogether correctly; it may be wrong to characterize Mozart’s creative genius as musical. Many years ago, I wrote about what seemed to me to be Mozart’s penchant for balancing opposites (busyness and calm especially). But I am fairly certain that, whatever label we paste on Mozart’s creative genius, it won’t be the one that we apply to that of the other composers whom I’ve mentioned here.

Far from sighing, “Been there; Knew that,” when Craig Wright’s lecture was over, I felt that by itself it had been worth the price of admission. The rest of the program could be cake. Remarkably, however, it wasn’t.

4 Responses to “One Day U Note:
On Genius”

  1. 1904 says:

    Very interesting. You reminded me of the research on creativity that distinguished creative or Divergent thinking from normal or Convergent thinking in children, which sounds a bit like Wright’s recombinative genius. The example I recall is the “Ways to Use a Brick” test — most kids would make a list of things you’d build out of bricks (churches, houses, walls, post offices, castles), in other words their answers exemplified thinking which converged on the obvious or normal or predictable response. Then you’d have the child who gave not only the usual answers but proceeded to come up with more unexpected uses (you can use a brick as first base, as a hammer to squash something, you can heat up a brick and it would keep you warm, to weigh down the corner of your tent, you could drop it on someone’s head from up high, etc.) — answers which “diverged” from the expected, or norm. Is that a way of thinking about recombinative genius?

  2. RomanHans says:

    I always read these things with an eye on ME, and I learn here that I’m obviously not a genius. First, I’d accent the second syllable in “recombinative,” and second, I believe “artwork” and “opera that ends with all the characters piling into a Contessa’s bedroom” are mutually contradictory.

  3. Rob says:

    Of course, I take exception to the idea that Handel’s operas are not dramatic. Handel was in fact a dramatic genius. It’s just that the rules of the baroque theatre had a different definition of ‘action’ that was additive, rather than continuous. Mozart was a creative genius in that he saw outside this paradigm and changed the rules. Mozart and his Wagnerian followers’ dramas look familiar because we are still in this naturalistic paradigm from the Enlightenment.

    fyi: my webster’s says that the accent in recombinative only falls on the second syllable. I think his pronunciation is just Yale effeteness.

    fyi #2: R.J. if you loved the rococo show at the Cooper-Hewitt, you’ll really love the pietre dure exhibit at the Met. It’s amazing. And surprisingly large. And running for a surprisingly short time (until 9/1). I’d run not walk to it. Cheers!

  4. Nom de Plume says:

    I love the idea of rearranging what’s already stuffed into the attic of one’s brain. How recombinative! (Is it a British pronunciation? Is it recom-BIN-ative or recom-BINE-ative?) I’ve always felt that my genius (yes! genius!) is exactly that. Now it’s got a name.