Beethoven and the Crucial Difference Between Genius and Talent
“Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit…”
By Maria Popova
The question of whether talent and genius differ in degree or in kind is an abiding one, and often discomfiting for any creative person to contemplate — we don’t, after all, like to consider that we might be merely endowed with talent but bereft of genius. And yet examining the relationship between the two can be a source of tremendously vitalizing insight into the creative spirit in its multitude of manifestations. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. Schopenhauer likened talent to hitting a target no one else can hit and genius to hitting a target no one else can see. “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius.
Another illuminating distinction between genius and talent comes from biographer Jan Swafford in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (public library) — his fascinating account of an artist marked by the tragic and triumphant genius of being an outsider, whom Swafford describes as “utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.”
With an eye to Beethoven’s unmistakable genius, Swafford writes:
Genius is something that lies on the other side of talent… Talent is largely inborn, and in a given field some people have it to a far higher degree than others. Still, in the end talent is not enough to push you to the highest achievements. Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to make use of not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, an ability to astonish not only your audience but yourself.
Reflecting on the cultural history of genius, Swafford adds:
My sense of the idea is closer to that of the eighteenth century: I believe in genius, but not in demigods… For me, the idea of spending one’s life chasing something impossible is simply normal, necessary, even a touch heroic. It is what artists do all the time.
He quotes Beethoven himself, who wrote in a poetic passage from his 1812 letter to Emilie:
The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.
Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly fascinating Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness, then revisit Beethoven’s stirring letter to his brothers about how music saved his life and the secret to his superhuman vitality.
Published June 6, 2017