The Myth of the Composer-Genius

The following is an abridged version of a lecture given at the Overnight Composers Series at SUNY Fredonia. A complete version of this lecture can be read as a two-part blog post at

Take a moment to picture a composer-genius in your head. What do they look like? Chances are, they are a male of European descent, someone like Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Or maybe even Stravinsky, Schönberg, or Boulez. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the Western canon of Classical music presents a lineage of composers who received the artform from their forefathers and advanced it through innovation and experimentation. This lineage also either implicitly or explicitly excludes women and people of color.

Our response to this may be to elevate these excluded individuals to the pantheon of genius—to find seats at the table for composers like Joseph Bologne, Nadia and Lili Boulanger, William Grant Still, Florence Price, and many others. This is a lofty and noble idea, and indeed many efforts toward diversity and inclusion seek to do just that: convince audiences and patrons that there is no less genius in a symphony by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, than in one by Mozart, one of his contemporaries. However, perhaps it is time to rid ourselves of the concept of genius entirely.

Florence Price

Florence Price

To clarify, I have no interest in disproving that composers of the Classical canon were geniuses. I have not searched dusty archives and found long-lost IQ tests taken by the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Rather, I argue that the persistence of this label is unnecessary to appreciate music by these individuals, and that it is a dangerous myth that great art can only be the product of genius. Such a myth is not only harmful to those of us who write music—poisoning us with constant imposter syndrome and anxiety that our work will never be enough—but it has allowed musical culture to become ossified around the work of a select few composers–those worthy enough to be elevated to the status of genius.

The entire concept of genius is intellectually suspect at best. In her article, “Modernist Composers and the Concept of Genius,” musicologist Anna Piotrowska points to Enlightenment philosophers such as Kant for codifying genius in art. In his “Philosophy of Art,” within the larger Critique of Judgment, Kant himself writes, “Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art.”

Philosophers such as Plato and Longinus viewed the artist-genius as one gifted by the muses. Seclusion from the outside world allowed them to commune with the divine and create art that yielded deeper truths about human existence. Later thinkers such as Cesare Lombroso went even further and connected genius to mental illness. It is not his training, years of focused work, or the propagation of his music by powerful patrons, publishers, and tastemakers that make the genius’ art great—it is the fact that he is chosen, gifted either by the divine or by nature to create the masterworks that we enjoy.

"Practice" by Sarah Scribbles

“Practice” by Sarah Scribbles


Yet even the most casual of examinations into the lives of many composers show the high levels of training and patronage which propelled them to greatness. Mozart was a child prodigy trained by his father Leopold, who also transcribed and edited the young composer’s earliest works. Beethoven’s training and aural skills allowed him to continue to compose after his hearing loss. If we choose to see these men as mere conduits for the divine art, then we are choosing to ignore their years of hard work, their years of struggle, and all of the teachers, mentors, friends, and loved ones who helped them achieve their greatness.

Piotrowska and fellow musicologist Peter Kivy point to the 18th and 19th centuries as the height of the adoration of composer-geniuses. Names such as Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and especially Beethoven appear as the usual suspects. Yet, of the genius status of Beethoven, Piotrowska argues, “Beethoven’s patrons—mainly aristocratic ones—were not without ulterior motives: they managed to sustain their role as cultural leaders, who…could also still define the boundaries of what good, great music was… The myth of a genius-artist was not born…it was socially constructed in order to support not the artists themselves, but their patrons.”

The myth of the composer-genius devalues the skill of the composer and portrays the ability to compose as a gift rather than learned. In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell profiles the work of psychologists and neurologists like K. Anders Ericsson, Michael Howe, and Daniel Levitin, who studied the link between talent and concentrated practice. Their research showed that to master a skill, it takes around 10,000 hours of concentrated practice. Even in the case of Mozart, we see a composer who did not hit his stride until he was 21. Genes, brain chemistry, or divine intervention seem to be unlikely candidates in the formation of musical artistry. Rather, it is more likely that training and financial and social capita are the greatest factors in artistic success. Understanding this is crucial to achieving equity in music performance, dissemination, and education.

Inside Carnegie Hall--Photo by Troy Tolley Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Inside Carnegie Hall–Photo by Troy Tolley Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Concert music seems stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not only that, American orchestras are stuck in 18th and 19th century Europe. A survey by the Baltimore Symphony of the 2014-15 seasons of twenty-one major orchestras showed that only 10.6% of works performed were by Americans. 37.8% were by German or Austrian composers, and 19.2% were by Russians. Only 11.4% of the repertoire were by living composers, and a measly 1.8% were by female composers. No data was offered on ethnicity.

In our service to dead European geniuses, we have neglected our own music. Some argue that modern music simply doesn’t sell. If orchestras are to continue to exist, then we must give the patrons what they want: more dead white men. However, we see orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic thrive while presenting innovative seasons with incredible gender and racial diversity without abandoning the classics. We must free ourselves from the slavery of the canon and return our operatic and concert houses to their function in the times of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn: cultural centers for the music of the current times.

By turning the concert hall into a museum for the Classical canon, the myth of the composer-genius keeps concert music dead, white, and male. It is pretty clear that not all of the prerequisites for being a “genius” are skilled-based. The effect of the exclusion of women and people of color from the pantheon of genius is obvious. Their work is not performed, heard, and valued at the same level of white men. After all, if we have the work of geniuses, why bother with anyone else? While such a statement seems hyperbolic and outlandish, that very argument was made in the pages of British magazine, The Spectator in the article, “There’s a good reason why there are no great female composers” by Damian Thompson. Mr. Thompson wrote this article not in 1715, 1815, or even 1915, but 2015.

Kinds of Kings composer collective

Kinds of Kings composer collective

Now, more than ever, we must question if the concept of genius fits within the just society most of us hope to one day achieve. We must question if our morals are worth sacrificing for the sake of genius. Yes, Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite (who borrowed heavily from the very Jewish composers he publicly insulted), but he was a genius! Yes, Carlo Gesualdo killed his wife and her lover in a jealous rage, and was found innocent due to his nobility, but he was a genius! Yes, Hector Berlioz stalked Harriet Smithson for years, and would later go on to be unfaithful to her in their marriage, but he was a genius who created his great Symphonie Fantastique for her! Genius affords privileges not granted to common folk. Their work can live on despite their detestable views and actions, and it is up to us to “separate the art from the artist,” even when those detestable views are central to their art.

We face many challenges in music, and shedding the weight of genius is certainly not going to fix them all, but maybe it is a starting point. Perhaps if we are able to separate ourselves from the myth of genius, then we will no longer see orchestral seasons with no works by living composers, women, or people of color. Perhaps the way we teach music will be more balanced and equitable. Perhaps our schools of music will be more diverse, both in its student and faculty bodies. Perhaps our audiences will be larger and more diverse. Perhaps we can dispense with the anxieties of imposter syndrome or masterpiece syndrome. Perhaps we can concentrate on the joy of making music.