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The Possessor and the Possessed

The Possessor and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Idea of Musical Genius

Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Possessor and the Possessed
    Book Description:

    The concept of genius intrigues us. Artistic geniuses have something other people don't have. In some cases that something seems to be a remarkable kind of inspiration that permits the artist to exceed his own abilities. It is as if the artist is suddenly possessed, as if some outside force flows through him at the moment of creation. In other cases genius seems best explained as a natural gift. The artist is the possessor of an extra talent that enables the production of masterpiece after masterpiece. This book explores the concept of artistic genius and how it came to be symbolized by three great composers of the modern era: Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven.Peter Kivy, a leading thinker in musical aesthetics, delineates the two concepts of genius that were already well formed in the ancient world. Kivy then develops the argument that these concepts have alternately held sway in Western thought since the beginning of the eighteenth century. He explores why this pendulum swing from the concept of the possessor to the concept of the possessed has occurred and how the concepts were given philosophical reformulations as views toward Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven as geniuses changed in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13511-4
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. I Time out of Mind
    (pp. 1-12)

    Vienna celebrated Haydn’s seventy-sixth birthday with a performance ofThe Creationin his honor. The aging master was carried into the Great Hall in a chair, to the accompaniment of fanfares and cheers—fitting tribute to his genius—and seated beside the Princess Esterhazy. “When the passage [inThe Creation], ‘And there was Light,’ was reached, Haydn (as Carpani, who was an eye-witness, relates) ‘raised his trembling arms to Heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony.’”¹ Another version of the incident has it that he spoke words to the effect that “Not from me, from thence comes...

  5. II Greatness of Mind
    (pp. 13-21)

    The “inspiration” or “possession” picture of genius is a perennial favorite. But it is ill-suited to certain of what we take to be paradigmatic cases. If, for example, you think of genius as epitomized by Beethoven’s vow to “seize Fate by the throat . . . ,”¹ the “Platonic furor” will hardly serve; for according toit, Fate,rather, is seizingBeethovenby the throat. Beethoven is its passive victim. Hardly our image of “Beethoven the Creator.”

    But the Beethovenian concept of genius too had its precedent in an ancient text, one that made a very big noise in the...

  6. III Breaking the Rule
    (pp. 22-36)

    By the purest of coincidences the year 1711 is doubly significant for the argument of my book. It is the year of Handel’s first musical triumph in London, where he remained for fifty years the dominant figure on the English musical landscape. And it is the year that Joseph Addison published in theSpectator(Monday, September 3) a modest little paper on genius that, along with the paper on taste of the following year, and the eleven papers called “On the Pleasures of the Imagination,” to which it was prefixed, arguably constitute the inauguration of the modern discipline of Aesthetics...

  7. IV The Saxon or the Devil
    (pp. 37-56)

    If you are interested at all in the history of musical scholarship, then you may know that what is generally considered the first “modern” history of music, Charles Burney’sGeneral History,began to appear, volume by volume—there were to be three—in 1776. It was a landmark in the historical study of Western music—arguably its inauguration.

    Lesser known, but of no small significance nevertheless, is the Reverend John Mainwaring’sMemoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel,published in 1760.¹ It is the first book devoted solely to the life and works of a musical composer....

  8. V The Genius and the Child
    (pp. 57-77)

    Immanuel Kant is responsible for two nineteenth-century concepts of genius. Directly, in his own treatment of genius in theCritique of Judgment,he is responsible for the Romantic version of the Longinian genius, which finds its prime exemplar in Beethoven. Indirectly, as I shall argue in this chapter, he is responsible, through the thirdCritique,for the Romantic version of the Platonic genius, which I identify, as will become apparent at the close of this discussion, with the child-genius, exemplified for the Romantics, needless to say, by Mozart.

    The identification of genius with the childlike I lay at Schopenhauer’s door....

  9. VI The Little Man from Salzburg
    (pp. 78-96)

    There was a certain logical cogency in the course my argument took from the forming of the Longinian concept of literary genius in eighteenth-century Britain to the enshrinement of Handel as the musical embodiment of that concept. Handel’s career in England was roughly contemporaneous with the development of that philosophy of genius, as we have seen. His arrival in London coincided almost exactly with the publication of Addison’s influentialSpectatorpaper on literary genius, his death with the publication of perhaps the culminating document, in England, of the Longinian tradition, Young’sConjectures on Original Composition.The composer was there for...

  10. VII Giving the Rule
    (pp. 97-118)

    In previous chapters I have tried to show how Schopenhauer made Kant’s theory of disinterested perception into a theory of genius with clear affinities to Plato’s, and how the early Romantics applied it to the myth of Mozart, the eternal child, which surrounded that extraordinary prodigy, and his premature death. I now lay before you Kant’sowntheory of genius, and argue that it, rather, is to be characterized as a reexpression, albeit in highly original terms, of the Longinian concept, which we will then see, in the next chapter, was well-suited to the figure whose towering musical powers dominated...

  11. VIII An Unlicked Bear
    (pp. 119-148)

    It was once claimed that Wagner had generated more scholarly literature than any other human being in the history of arts and letters. Apparently Beethoven is not far behind.¹ Material on which to build a picture of Beethoven as the Longinian genius, in the Kantian mode, is therefore not wanting. On the contrary, it is overabundant.

    Ironically, the need to paint this picture is inversely proportional to the availability of the materials necessary to do so. For no image of genius in the history of the Western world is more familiar to the ordinary person than that of Beethoven, with...

  12. IX Mozart’s Second Childhood
    (pp. 149-163)

    Mozart was thoroughly “Beethovenized” in the first half of the twentieth century, culminating in 1956, the bicentennial of his birth. By that I mean that hismusicwas Beethovenized, which is to say, the music of Mozart’s that became most admired was just that music that could be seen to exhibit not the childlike or the playful but all those qualities of power and the infinite that Beethoven’s music was seen to exhibit in the Romantic characterization of his genius. In particular, it was Mozart’s compositions in the minor mode that were singled out—the C-minor and D-minor Piano Concertos,...

  13. X Odd Men Out
    (pp. 164-174)

    Any musical reader of the foregoing pages will not have failed to notice that two towering musical figures are absent from my narrative of the concept of musical genius in modern times. These are, of course, Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn. Why does our story so far not include these two familiar names?

    I think that musicians—which is to say, performers, theorists, and historians alike—are in agreement as to the foundations of the classical repertory, whether in the concert hall, the opera house, or the classroom. The first historical period from which this repertory is drawn...

  14. XI Beethoven Again
    (pp. 175-217)

    We all know people who have positions or reputations we do not think, on the basis of their real talents and abilities, they truly deserve. We say “She was in the right place at the right time,” “He knew the right people,” or “She had political connections” but that someone else, or five other people, deserve the job or reputation more. This is a common, everyday distinction—it is “common sense.”

    Perhaps it was “politics” or “the right connections” that made the musical reputations of Telemann and Graun greater than that of J. S. Bach. Both were offered the job...

  15. XII Gendering Genius
    (pp. 218-237)

    There is a tendency among contemporary thinkers to cast a baleful eye on the whole genius thing. It is seen as mystery mongering and politically reactionary: enfranchising certain groups to the exclusion of others (a point to which I shall return shortly), as well as perpetuating so-called elitist attitudes toward art at the expense of what are seen as the more “alive” and “relevant” forms of popular and mass culture. Genius has been getting a bad press—DeNora’s socio-political deconstruction being but one example.

    Who needs the concept of genius, anyway? The answer is that weallneed it, and...

  16. XIII Reconstructing Genius
    (pp. 238-254)

    According to an anecdote passed down to us as part of the Mozart legend, Mozart and another (lesser) composer were listening to a composition of Joseph Haydn’s. At one point, in response to a particularly arresting passage, the other composer said to Mozart in a critical tone of voice: “I wouldn’t have done it that way.” Mozart is supposed to have replied: “No, nor would I. And do you know why? It is because neither of us would ever have gotten such a good idea.”

    One fervently hopes the anecdote is true, for it casts such a favorable and touching...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 255-270)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-276)
  19. Index
    (pp. 277-287)