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Peculiarities of the Genius of Famous Musicians.

That genius and insanity are allied has been a long-accepted fact among scientists. By insanity of the kind represented in the cases of famous musicians the reader should not paint a picture of the kinds of mental disorders that one ordinarily finds in the insane asylums of our country. The insanity of the genius is manifested in the very evident tendencies to think and act in a way contrary to the conventions laid down by the greater body of men and women.
No man has investigated this subject with more thoroughness or more detail than has Cesare Lombroso, the famous Italian physician, alienist and philosopher. His famous book, "The Man of Genius," from which many of the following illustrations are taken, is one of the most striking and interesting works upon the subject.
Lombroso, however, is not infallible. One of his worst blunders is that of trying to prove that musical genius is hereditary by citing a few cases. Lombroso mentions Palestrina, Dussek, Hiller, Beethoven, Bellini, Mozart and others, calling particular attention to the famous Bach family as follows:
"The Bach family, perhaps, presents the finest example of mental heredity. It began in 1550, and passed through eight generations, the last known member being Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, Kapellmeister to the Queen of Prussia, who died in 1845. During two centuries this family produced a crowd of musicians of high rank. The founder of the family was Veit Bach, a Presburg baker, who amused himself with singing and playing. He had two sons, who were followed by an uninterrupted succession of musicians who inundated Thuringia, Saxony and Franconia during two centuries. They were all organists or church singers. When they became too numerous to live together, and had to disperse, they agreed to reunite on a fixed day once a year. This custom was preserved up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and sometimes one hundred and twenty persons of the name of Bach met on the same spot. Fétis counts among them twenty-nine musicians."
This is very true, but what of cases of musical genius like those of Schumann, Wagner, Dvorak and many others where there was little indication of music in the parents?
The peculiar effect of music upon the sensitive organs of hearing and the consequential excitement of the whole nervous system may, in some cases, account for the extraordinary behavior of some musical geniuses. Lombroso says upon this subject:
"The first time that Alfieri heard music he experienced, as it were, a dazzling in his eyes and ears. He passed several days in a strange but agreeable melancholy. He concludes with Sterne, Rousseau and George Sand that there is nothing which agitates the soul with such uncontrollable force as musical sounds." Berlioz has described his emotions upon hearing beautiful music; first a sensation of voluptuous ecstasy, immediately followed by general agitation, with palpitation, oppression, sobbing, trembling, sometimes terminating with a kind of fainting fit. Malibran, on first hearing Beethoven's Symphony in C minor, had to be taken out of the hall. Musset, Concourt, Flaubert and Carlyle had so delicate a perception of sounds that the noises of the streets and bells were insupportable to them; they were constantly changing their abodes to avoid these sounds, and at last fled in despair to the country. Schopenhauer also hated noise."
Genius is often associated with melancholy. Schumann, Wolf, MacDowell, and, more particularly, Chopin in his later years, were addicted to melancholy. Lombroso describes the case of the Polish master thus:
"Chopin, during the last years of his life, was possessed by a melancholy which went as far as insanity. An abandoned convent in Spain filled his imagination with phantoms and terrors. One day George Sand and her son were returning from a walk. Chopin began to imagine, and finally believed, that they were dead; then he saw himself dead, drowned in a lake, and drops of frozen water fell upon his breast. They were real drops of rain falling from the roof of the ruin, but he did not perceive this, even when George Sand pointed it out. Some trifling annoyance affected him more than a great or real misfortune. A crumpled petal, a fly, made him weep. Chopin directed in his will that he be buried in a white tie, small shoes and short breeches."
Schumann was also afflicted by melancholy bordering upon insanity:
"At forty-six he was pursued by turning tables, which knew everything; he heard sounds which developed into concords, and even whole compositions. For several years he was afraid of being sent to an insane asylum; Beethoven and Mendelssohn dictated musical compositions to him from their tombs."
Many composers adopted peculiar methods for composition; Rossini and Thomas, like our own Mark Twain, chose to compose while lying in bed. Donizetti, after a fit of savage anger, in which he had beaten his wife, composed, sobbing, the celebrated air, Tu che a Dio Spiegasti l'ali. This is considered a remarkable instance of the double nature of personality in men of genius, and at the same time of their moral insensibility. Mozart claimed that musical ideas were aroused in him apart from his will, like dreams. Hoffmann, the composer of much worthy music, said to his friends, "When I compose I sit down to the piano, shut my eyes and play what I hear." Haydn, it is said, liked to dress himself in a special full court costume preparatory to composing, and Beethoven had so many idiosyncrasies that a special article could be devoted to them. So extraordinary was his behavior at times that his landlords were obliged to request him to move. He was so absent-minded that often on returning from an excursion in the forest he was found to have left his coat upon the grass. He often went out without his hat. Mozart was also burdened with a similar fault. In carving meat he often cut his fingers so badly that he would be obliged to assign this task to some one else.

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You are reading Peculiarities of the Genius of Famous Musicians. from the August, 1910 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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