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Defining Genius: Biography, Author, and Artwork

Genius is a term that is often bounded about, but, despite much thought, I’m not actually sure what it means? Indeed, what do you have to do to be a genius? What constitutes a work of genius? And is there a different between a genius and work of genius?

Mozart, for instance, is often thought of as a genius; but what is it about Mozart that makes him a genius? Some might say it stems from him being a child prodigy, Mozart performing to the courts of Europe from a young age, writing a symphony at the age of 8, and an opera by 11. Yet, it is Mozart’s later works that are more often performed today; while Mozart may have written Apollo et Hyacinthus at the age of 11, it is the works he wrote in his late twenties and thirties that stir us today, and it is these works we probably think of when we think of Mozart. Indeed, although many might know passages from Don Giovanni, few would know the music to Apollo et Hyacinthus.

To my mind, the term genius appears to be not just tied to the works of an artist, but their biography as well. Indeed, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and John Lennon have all been called musical geniuses, but would they have been branded as such if they hadn’t died at such a young age and, moreover, could later output (should they have not died) have had a bearing on their status as a genius? Could it have even been detrimental?

Our concept of genius I think stems from an evaluation of the artwork with respect to the biography of the producer, which may explain why works by anonymous authors, excepting a few, have rarely received the title of works of genius. It seems we need to know something about the origins and production of a work to understand it as a work of genius.

This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than when a work has been misattributed. Indeed, there are numerous examples of where a work originally attributed to a particular composer or writer is later found out to be not the work of the said genius, but a relatively unknown author or composer. And it seems to me that following that revelation, the works often loses some of their sparkle. Perhaps this is a result of what appears to be our innate need for narrative, our want to understand and locate objects within some kind of story. Works with no author seem harder to understand because they lack context.

For me, although Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus may not be the work of genius that Don Giovanni is (some may disagree), it is certainly the work of a genius. And, perhaps, it is only because Mozart wrote an opera at the age of 11 that we can consider his Don Giovanni to be a work of genius. Confusing perhaps, but that for me is the nature of genius, a concept which is not easily pinned down or defined and arises from the interaction between artwork and author.

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