Apr 5, 2014

Mozart: Genius and Creativity

“This was music I’d never heard before,” says Salieri, whose face melts into ashen jelly. “It seemed to me the voice of God.” From the initial production of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ at the National Theater in London in 1979, through all of the refinements that preceded the play’s New York premiere in 1980, and now, in the even more extensive rewriting and adjustments made by Mr. Shaffer for Milos Forman’s handsome, music-filled screen version (Amadeus 1984), one thing has remained constant and exhilarating . That is Mr. Shaffer’s ability to celebrate genius—in this case, that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—in a fashion that is simultaneously illuminating, moving and just. It’s a major achievement, especially in films where genius is usually represented and dramatized as some kind of ill-humored, social eccentricity (Vincent Canby, NYT)—see also How Amadeus was translated from play to film (Michiko Kakutani), and here's the movie script.
Adopting Howard Becker’s typology, we could interpret Salieri as the “integrated professional” and Mozart as the “maverick”—although only recognized mavericks are “true” mavericks, and once you are recognized you become part of conventional art world .
“The four modes of being oriented to an art world—as integrated professional, maverick, grassroots artist, or folk artist—suggest a general scheme for interpreting the way people can be oriented to any kind of social world, no matter what its focus or its conventional round of collective activities. Insofar as the world has built up routine and conventional ways of carrying on those activities its members usually engage in, people can participate in it as fully competent members who know how to do easily and well whatever needs to be done. Most of what is done in that world will be done by people like that—the generalized analogue of integrated professionals. If the activity is one that every member of the society, or every member of some large subcategory engages in, the folk artist may provide a closer analogue. Some people, knowing what is conventional, will nevertheless choose to behave differently, with predictable ensuing difficulties in involvement in the world’s collective activities. Some few of the innovations such people propose may be taken up by the larger world from which they have differed, making them into honored innovators (at least in retrospect) rather than cranks. Some will not know of the world’s existence, or care much about it, and invent the whole thing for themselves—the generalized version of the na├»ve artist. In this way, we might say (with rather more warrant than it is usually said) that the world of art mirrors society at large” (Becker 1976, 717).

Mozart vs. Salieri

Norbert Elias (1993) sees Mozart as a paradigmatic example of the passage from craftsmen’s art to artists’ art. Mozart’s curse was being “born into a society which did not yet know the Romantic concept of genius, and whose social canon had no legitimate place for the highly individualized artist of genius in their midst” (19). Mozart’s decision to become a free-lance artist, giving up his secure job with the archbishop of Salzburg, was taken in a period when “the social structure actually offered no such place for outstanding musicians” (29). Caught up in an unplanned social process and unable to support himself, Mozart would spend his remaining days in and out of poverty. Yet out of his suffering, Elias insists, Mozart created some of his most profound works, including Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and several of his late piano concertos (Kapsis 1994). Craftsmen’s art is produced for high-status patrons by low-status artists. Here the taste is subjugated to the patron, and art works are not revered in themselves. Artists’ art is instead created for anonymous buyers and marketed through dealers and impresarios. The artist has greater social status and more independence from the canons of taste of a small group of patrons. Art works, in a certain sense, becomes art works: admired in themselves and not merely as they reflect on the magnificence or taste of the patron.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1999) creativity is as much a cultural and social as it is a psychological event. Thus, creativity is the result of a cultural and social system who is making judgments about individual’s products. Csikszentmihalyi points out two prominent aspects of this system: a cultural, or symbolic, aspect (domain) and a social aspect (field). The creative process can be understood only at the intersection ,where individuals, domains, and fields interact: “For creativity to occur, a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the domain to the individual. The individual must then produce a novel variation in the content of the domain. The variation then must be selected by the field for inclusion in the domain” (313).

You can find below some passages from Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (1996) where Mozart appears; and Csikszentmihalyi’s advice to cultivate curiosity.

“If someone becomes outstanding, we want to believe that unmistakable signs of greatness were there early for all to see. Whether it is the Buddha, Jesus, Mozart, Edison, or Einstein, genius must have revealed itself in the earliest years of life. In fact, it is impossible to tell whether a child will be creative or not by basing one’s judgment on his or her early talents. Some children do show signs of extraordinary precocity in some domain or other: Mozart was an accomplished pianist and composer at a very early age, Picasso drew quite nice pictures when he was a boy, and many great scientists skipped grades in school and astonished their elders with the nimbleness of their minds. But so did many other children whose early promise fizzled out without leaving any trace in the history books. Children can show tremendous talent, but they cannot be creative because creativity involves changing a way of doing things, or a way of thinking, and that in turn requires having mastered the old ways of doing or thinking. No matter how precocious a child is, this he or she cannot do. Mozart in his teens might have been as accomplished as any musician alive, but he could not have changed the way people played music until his way of making music was taken seriously, and for this to happen he had to spend at least a decade mastering the domain of musical composition and then produce a number of convincing works. But if the real childhood accomplishments of creative individuals are no different from those of many others who never attain any distinction, the mind will do its best to weave appealing stories to compensate for reality’s lack of imagination.” (112)
“Training, expectations, resources, and recognition are to no avail, however, if the young person has no hope of using his or her skills in a productive career. In our culture, a huge number of talented and motivated artists, musicians, dancers, athletes, and singers give up pursuing those domains because it is so difficult to make a living in them. In a study of American adolescents, we found that almost 10 percent of thirteen-year-olds wanted to be architects when they grew up. At a rough guess, this is probably a thousand times what the field of architecture can accommodate. It is not realistic to expect a great deal of talent to be attracted to a domain, no matter how important it is, if there is little chance of practicing it. The people who succeed in the smaller fields are like Vera Rubin, to whom not being an astronomer was “unthinkable.” After hope, one also needs to have real opportunities to act in the domain. It has been said that the great musical creativity that blossomed in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in large part due to the fact that each aristocratic court that ruled the many principalities had to have an orchestra to amuse itself and to show its superiority over the others. There was constant interest in and competition for new musical talent. A Bach, Handel, or Mozart had no difficulty in having his music performed and then evaluated by an eager crowd of connoisseurs. If there are fewer creative classical composers now, it is probably not due to a lack of talent but to a dearth of opportunities to display it.” (237)
"The important thing to remember is that creative energy, like any other form of psychic energy, only works over time. It takes a certain minimum amount of time to write a sonnet or to invent a new machine. People vary in the speed they work—Mozart wrote concerti much faster than Beethoven did—but even Mozart could not escape the tyranny of time. Therefore, every hour saved from drudgery and routine is an hour added to creativity.” (251)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) tells us that curiosity is the starting point of creativity. How can interest and curiosity be cultivated, assuming that you feel the desire to do so? Here's some advice from Csikszentmihalyi.
Try to be surprised by something every day.
Try to surprise at least one person every day.
Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others.
When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it
Wake up in the morning with a specific goal to look forward to.
If you do anything well, it becomes enjoyable.
To keep enjoying something, you need to increase its complexity.
Make time for reflection and relaxation.
Find out what you like and what you hate about life.
Start doing more of what you love, less of what you hate.
Develop what you lack.
Shift often from openness to closure.
Aim for complexity.
Find a way to express what moves you.
Look at problems from as many viewpoints as possible.
Figure out the implications of the problems.
Implement the solution.
Produce as many ideas as possible.
Have as many different ideas as possible.
Try to produce unlikely ideas.


Becker, Howard. 1976. “Art Worlds and Social Types.” American Behavioral Scientist 19, 6: 703-718.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1999. “Systems Perspective on Creativity.” In Handbook of Creativity, edited by R. Sternberg, 313-35. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 313–35.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 1996. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper.

Elias, Norbert. 1993. Mozart: Portrait of a Genius. Oxford: Polity.

Kapsis Robert E. 1994. “Musical Genius: Theme and Variations.” Contemporary Sociology 23, 3: 432-434.

Sadie, Stanley. 2006. Mozart: The Early Years, 1756–1781. New York: Norton.

Solomon, Maynard. 1995. Mozart: A Life. London: Hutchinson.