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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The origins and evolution of the concept of musical
genius have rarely been treated in reference works.
The idea of musical genius grows and changes in close
association with the evolution of music itself so that
the history of the idea is inseparable from the history
of music and the concept of the musician as it devel-
oped from Greek antiquity.


The concept of the musician has changed throughout
the history of Western civilization. Greek poets


endowed individual musicians with the magical power
of affecting men and gods—Arion, Timotheus, and
above all Orpheus are archetypes of the magic musi-
cian. In all ancient civilizations music and magic are
closely connected. But the Greek writers on music
ignored the magical and slighted the practical aspects
of music. Their customary definition of the musician
is confined to his speculative, theoretical function.

Aristoxenos (ca. 354-300 B.C.) defines a musician as
one who commands the “knowledge” of the science
of music (Macran, pp. 95, 165). Aristides Quintilianus
(probably fourth century B.C.), in Book I, Chapter 4
of his treatise on music, precedes the various definitions
of music with the following statement: “Music is the
science of melody (μέλοσ) and all elements having to
do with melody” (Winnington-Ingram, p. 4)—a defini-
tion easily understandable in the light of the purely
melodic and rhythmic nature of Greek music, and
echoed by Bacchius Senex (probably fourth century
A.D.) almost word for word (Meibomius, p. 1).


Boethius (ca. A.D. 480-524), transmitter of ancient
Greek philosophy, aesthetics, and theory of music to
the Christian West, follows Greek tradition when, in
the last chapter of Book I of his De institutione musica,
he defines a musician as he “who masters the musical
art not through mechanical exercise but after theoret-
ical investigation through the power of speculation”
(Friedlein, p. 224). Boethius admits the existence of two
other kinds of musicians, performers and composers.
To performers he denies any competence to judge and
understand music because of the merely mechanical
character of their work (quoniam famulantur), and
because they bring no rational powers to bear on music
but, on the contrary, are utterly devoid of the capacity
for thought; the composers share the same fate because
in composing they are not motivated by philosophical
speculation, but by some natural instinct: non potius
speculatione ac ratione, quam naturali quodam
instinctu fertur ad carmen
(Friedlein, p. 225).

The concept of the instinctus naturalis as the
motivating force animating the composer is used by
Boethius in a pejorative sense. A philosophy that places
ratio at the head of all human faculties, that considers
sensory experience as uncertain and as the source of
error and illusion, cannot give anything but a low place
to natural instinct. “It is much greater and nobler to
know what one does than to do what one knows,” says
Boethius (Friedlein, p. 224).


The contempt for practice and the one-sided exalta-
tion of theory flow from Boethius' treatise into the
medieval philosophy of music and the arts. It is
formalized in consigning the work of the practical
musician, as of any other practicing artist, to the artes
rather than to the artes liberales. The
mechanical arts, definable as those activities that need
the human hand for their execution, were considered
the province of the lower classes; the liberal arts,
definable as those that need chiefly the human mind
for their exercise, were the province of the free man.
Farming, hunting, navigation, medicine were thrown
together with painting and sculpture as mechanical
arts, much to the distress of the artists. The distinction
between mechanical and liberal arts goes back to
classical antiquity, but the sharpness with which
Boethius and, following him, most medieval writers on
music downgrade the performing musician seems to
express more a medieval than an ancient view. It is
well conveyed in the famous jingle attributed to Guido
of Arezzo (ca. 992-1050) that was quoted at least until
late into the sixteenth century:

Musicorum et cantorum
Magna est distantia.
Isti dicunt, illi sciunt,
Quae componit Musica,
Nam qui facit, quod non sapit,
Diffinitur bestia.

(“There is a vast difference between musicians and
singers. The latter merely perform, whereas the former
understand what makes music. For he who performs
what he does not understand is a mere brute.”)

Boethius seems to have been the first to use the term
quadrivium, joining music with the mathematical arts
of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Without these
four disciplines the philosopher cannot find the truth.
The mathematical arts or sciences were considered the
most noble because they contained “the greater cer-
tainties of the intellect”; the language arts of the
trivium—grammar, dialectics, and rhetoric—were held
to be of a lower order due to the implied reference
to the senses and human emotions, from which spring
deception and uncertainty.

Music, as taught at medieval universities, was
accepted as a part of the quadrivium and constituted
the theoretical consideration of an art whose every
element—rhythm, melody, harmony—was reducible to
mathematical proportions. The speculative character
of the medieval concept of music is further reflected
in Boethius' division of music into musica mundana,
musica humana,
and musica instrumentalis—follow-
ing ancient models—music of the spheres (macrocosm),
the harmonious conjunction of body and soul (micro-
cosm), and music properly speaking, the art of sound pro-
duced on instruments, which includes the human voice,
called instrumentum naturale (Johannes Affligemensis
[Johannes Cotto], in his De musica cum tonario [ca.


1120]; Waesberghe [1950], p. 57). The distinction sur-
vived at least into the Renaissance. Pietro Aron
differentiates between stormento naturale, the voice,
and stormento artificiale, the instrument properly
speaking (Aron, Libro II, Opp. XI).

Although medieval writers on music held with
surprising tenacity to Boethius' and Guido's views, they
could not suppress occasional marvel at the natural
talent of untrained musicians. Aribo Scholasticus (ca.
1070), one of the most original and independent medi-
eval thinkers on music, proves Man's inborn gift for
music by pointing to jongleurs who, though devoid of
all knowledge in the art of music, joyfully sing popular
songs, free of error, observing accurately the position
of tones and semitones, and ending correctly on the
appropriate final tones. While appearing to follow
Guido's definition, Aribo expands it significantly, ex-
pecting of the professional musician not only that he
master the whole science of modes and intervals, but
also that he know how to judge what is right, how
to amend what is wrong, and how to compose perfect
melodies himself (Waesberghe [1951], p. 46). Thus
Aribo includes in his definition the composer, excluded
in Boethius' definition of musicus. Moreover, in his
scheme of things he creates a place even for the
untutored musical talent by distinguishing between the
natural and the professional musician (the chapter
referred to is entitled De naturali musico et artificiali).
The terminology is related to the distinction between
musica artificialis et naturalis introduced by Regino
of Prüm (d. 950); but musica naturalis was for the latter
a vast concept encompassing the harmony of the
spheres, the human voice, and the voices of animals,
whereas musica artificialis was confined to the music
thought out by human art and ingenuity and played
on instruments (Pietzsch [1929], pp. 63-66). Aribo adds
the new element of fresh and unprejudiced observation
of musical performance, correct according to the
canons of the art, although executed by illiterate

Boethius called the composer poëta, from the Greek
ποιητής, originally meaning maker, producer, contriver,
and later confined to the author of a poem. The term
poeta for composer, revealing the unity of poem and
melody, of word and tone in the medieval view, sur-
vived into the Renaissance. But as early as the twelfth
century we find the term compositor used by Johannes
Affligemensis in the combination cantuum compositor
(Waesberghe [1950], p. 119). The esteem of the com-
poser increased in medieval writings to the degree that
the compositional process was conceived to be rational
rather than, as Boethius thought, prompted by natural
instinct. Adherence to rules was taken to distinguish
a good composition from a poor one, a good composer
from a bad one. Odo of Cluny, tenth-century abbot,
in his dialogue on music, has the master say: “A rule,
certainly, is a general mandate of any art; thus things
which are singular do not obey the rules of art” (Strunk,
p. 115). A clearer subordination of individuality in art
to rules is hard to find. “Any art,” says Johannes of
Garlandia, “is a collection of many rules. The term
art derives from the word arto, artas, which is the same
as restringo, restringis, to restrict, because it limits us
and constrains us lest we do otherwise than it teaches
us” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 477).

Garlandia, the thirteenth-century theorist, speaks for
a polyphonic art, in which the plain chant serves as
cantus firmus, that is, as the basis over which the other
voice or voices sing their counterpoints. The thirteenth
century saw the emergence of polyphonic music that
emancipated itself from dependence on the Gregorian
chant. The conductus, set to freshly written texts of
a spiritual, moral, or political nature, is the first form
of polyphony in which all parts are written by the
composer himself without the aid of a cantus firmus.
At about 1260 Franco of Cologne described the com-
position of a conductus as follows: “He who wishes
to write a conduct ought first to invent as beautiful
a melody as he can, then... use it as a tenor is used
in writing discant” (Strunk, p. 155). Franco, in postu-
lating invention first, then contrapuntal elaboration,
doubtless follows Cicero's venerable division between
invention, disposition, and elocution. His precepts are
those of a craftsman, who, absorbed in producing a
beautiful piece of work, is utterly unconcerned about
the inner processes that lead to the work of art.

In a remarkable passage, Johannes Grocheo (ca.
1300) distinguishes between the composing of
polyphony based on a cantus firmus and freely con-
ceived polyphony, specifically between organum and
motet on the one hand and the conductus on the other.
The process of composing over a cantus firmus he calls
ordinare; for the projection of free polyphony he re-
serves the term componere:

But I say “order,” because in motets and organum the tenor
comes from an old, pre-existent chant, but is subjected by
the artificer to rhythmic mode and measure. And I say
“compose,” because in the conductus the tenor is a totally
new work and is subject to mode and duration according
to the artificer's will

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 490).

Yet, even this fine and rare distinction does not amount
to anything more than a recognition of two different
procedures by one and the same craftsman. It does not
mean recognition of two types of musician, or two
types of creativity. But it does stress, for the first time
in the theory of polyphonic music, the concept of the
“new”—as yet without showing any overt preference
for it.



It is not until the last quarter of the fifteenth century
that this neutrality is abandoned. In the writings of
Johannes Tinctoris, the Flemish composer and theorist
who emigrated to Italy, the composer is defined as the
creator of a “new” musical work: Compositor est
alicuius novi cantus aeditor
(Parrish, p. 14). Unques-
tionably, there were musicians and connoisseurs in the
Middle Ages who enjoyed novelty in musical composi-
tion, for there was a constant, if slow-moving, stream
of novelty from chant to sequence and rhymed offices,
from Saint Martial's incipient polyphony to the masters
of Notre Dame, from Perotinus to Machaut. But it
would be hard to find a source of medieval theory
stressing novelty or originality as the qualities that
make a composer. Even though the fourteenth century
spoke of an ars nova, Philippe de Vitry, in his treatise
by that name, and Johannes de Muris, in his ars novae
deal in a matter-of-fact manner with the
notational signs of the new rhythmic language of the
ars nova without a word of appreciation of the new
art itself. Yet, the violent critique of the novus cantandi
by Jacobus of Liège (ca. 1330) as cantandi
lascivia curiositas,
in which “the words are lost, the
harmony of consonances is diminished, the value of the
notes is changed, perfection is brought low, imperfec-
tion is exalted, and measure is confounded” (Strunk,
p. 190), furnishes eloquent proof that the new art was
considerably more than a new notation.

This raises the question why the theorists of the ars
were so reticent in their appraisal of the new
art. The answer is that ideas change at a slower pace
than practices—and this for two reasons: the extraor-
dinary strength of tradition gives the stamp of approval
to what is known and accepted; but the new has not
only to fight for recognition, it has as yet to seek the
rational and ideological basis for its existence. In the
Middle Ages, where auctoritas—the authority of the
ancients, of the Church Fathers, of tradition—was
regarded as a pillar of the cultural edifice, it was doubly
difficult for the new to assert itself. Interestingly
enough, the ars nova sought to justify itself through
studied alliance with the old. The new motet, even
when displaying secular texts of amorous character in
the vernacular in its lively upper voices, carried a
Gregorian melody in the slow-moving tenor. The new
many-voiced chansons adhered to the formal patterns
of the old troubadour and trouvère songs.

In a situation where the artist himself does not dare
to make a clean break with tradition, the theorist
cannot be expected to come forward with a clear
position and rationale of the “new.” This explains why
it is the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries rather than
the thirteenth and fourteenth that emphasize the
importance of novelty, of newness in art. For it is this
great period, the “Renaissance,” that witnesses the
creation of a music new in most of its fundamental
aspects—expansion of the tonal system, both external
(increase of the tonal space) and internal (complete
chromaticization of the scale), tuning, simultaneous
instead of successive composition of parts in a
harmonic complex, liberation of the composer's imagi-
nation by freeing the polyphonic work of art from ties
to cantus-firmus construction, expression of human
affects replacing decoration of the divine service as
the chief goal of music.

It takes an innovative epoch to develop an aesthetics
in which innovation is made the touchstone of creativ-
ity. When Tinctoris, in the proemium to his Propor-
tionale musices,
extols the Franco-Flemish composers
and disparages the English, he uses the concept of
innovation as a yardstick: “The French freshly invent
new songs every day, whereas the English keep writing
in one and the same style—surely a sign of a wretched
talent” (quod miserrimi signum est ingenii; Lowinsky
[1966], p. 133).

Even two generations later, while commenting on
the preceding statement of Tinctoris, Sebald Heyden,
writing in Germany—the pace of innovation being
slower in the North than in Italy—felt he had to defend
the new music against the reproach of novelty:

The fact that it is a new art and quite unknown to ancient
Greeks does not render it less worthy of praise and admira-
tion than any other arts, however ancient they may be....
What is that invention of the ancients with which the art
of printing, thought out in our times, and by us Germans,
could not contend in fame? Equally far be it that the novelty
of our music be a reason to hold it in contempt rather than
to praise it

(Heyden, Dedication).

With much greater confidence, and considerably
deeper insight, Othmar Luscinius (Latinization of the
German “Nachtigall”) confronts the question of the
new and the old in his Musurgia (1536). A humanist,
a friend of Conrad Peutinger, Erasmus, and Glareanus,
expert in Greek and writing a polished Latin, but also
a brilliant organist, Luscinius looks back at the music
of 200 years earlier, examples of which he had studied.
He exclaims:

O God, how cold these compositions are when compared
to those of our day! Each epoch has its own laws, its own
taste. And how strange that we find in matters of music
a situation entirely different from that of the general state
of the arts and letters: in the latter whatever comes closest
to venerable antiquity receives most praise; in music, he
who does not excel the past becomes the laughing stock
of all

(Luscinius, pp. 97-98).

Luscinius cites a four-part setting of lines from the
Song of Songs, Tota pulchra es amica mea, by a con-


temporaneous Dutch musician, Nicolaus Craen, “by
Jove, a man of outstanding genius” (vir me Hercle
praestantis ingenij
). The work (printed in Petrucci's
Motetti C of 1504 and not published since) breathes
the air of freedom that characterizes more and more
the music of the Renaissance. Instead of choosing the
liturgical text Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula
originalis non est in te,
Craen goes back to the original
text of the Bible, Tota pulchra es amica mea et macula
non est in te.
Instead of taking the continuation of this
verse, he assembles his text freely from the lines of
various chapters. The old technique of building a mu-
sical edifice on the ground plan of a cantus firmus is
abandoned. All four voices are freely invented by the
composer with the manifest intent to echo the enthusi-
astic voices of the lovers and to bring to life the
emotional tone of the poem. Luscinius remarks with
what felicity Craen neglected the precepts of the older
generation, and how much praise he deserves for side-
stepping the rules of the past. Indeed, no one ought
to be censured for so doing, provided that it be done
properly in every respect (si modo decenter ex omni
parte fiet
), that is, provided there is a sense of whole-
ness, a sense of “style” to his enterprise.

Nothing characterizes more sharply the new respect
for the artist and his work than the Renaissance
theorist's habit of referring to a specific work by a
specific composer. Glareanus, who printed in his
Dodekachordon (1547) no fewer than 121 polyphonic
compositions, exceeded all of his colleagues in this
regard. Medieval theorists, on the other hand, rarely
name composers or refer to specific works, save for
the demonstration of notational practice. They seem
hardly interested in a composition as a work of art
marked by individual aesthetic traits. The new rank
accorded to the creative artist in the scheme of things
musical is also expressed in other ways. Tinctoris
dedicated a treatise to the two composers he admired
most, Ockeghem and Busnois (Coussemaker, IV, 16).
In one of his tracts he called the former optimi ingenii
(Coussemaker, IV, 152). Even the musical
performers, relegated before to the realm of artes
now receive a new appreciation. Their
virtuoso feats and their appeal to the emotions cause
them to be listed by name and to have their art
described in critical detail. Again, Tinctoris leads the
way by dedicating one of his writings to a singer of
the Papal Chapel (Coussemaker, IV, 41).

But one of the most interesting developments is the
emergence of music critics from the ranks of the noble
amateurs or the intellectual elite. Their critiques of
the great performers of their time were often published
in book form. Luigi Dentice, a Neapolitan nobleman
(Dialoghi, 1553), and the Florentine mathematician
Cosimo Bartoli (Ragionamenti accademici, 1567) have
left us delightful samples of the beginnings of concert
reviews—concerts, to be sure, given in the private
circles of princes, popes, and academies (Lowinsky
[1966], pp. 140-41).

The significance of these and other reports lies in
the growing kinship between the composer and the
performer of the Renaissance. The latter, following the
example of the former, places his art more and more
into the service of the expression of human affects.
Many are the stories of the miraculous emotional effect
made by great lutenists and clavecinists of the sixteenth
century—stories that recall the ancient myths of
Orpheus and Timotheus and that place the performer,
held in contempt in the Middle Ages, closer and closer
to the creative sphere by virtue of his personal, pas-
sionate involvement and the resulting original inter-
pretation of the music performed.

The art of singing and playing itself becomes the
subject of theoretical interest; whole books appear on
the singer's and player's art of improvising embellish-
ments. Here is an area where the newly won freedom
of the performer clashes with that of the composer,
for few were the composers who enjoyed having their
works “embellished.”

The emphasis on composer and performer indicates
that the Renaissance returned music to the sense of
the ear. Music, in the Middle Ages, was like a window
through which the philosophical mind gazed at the
universe to perceive its harmonious order. In the
Renaissance it was in the first place an object of aes-
thetic enjoyment. “The ear is the true teacher,” wrote
Adrian Petit Coclico in 1552 (Bukofzer, fol. B2v). But
Tinctoris already had taken the decisive step from the
medieval emphasis on music as number to the new
stress on music as sound when in one of his famous
eight rules of counterpoint he said: “This, however,
is in my opinion to be left entirely to the judgment
of the ears” (Lowinsky [1965a], p. 365).

The realization of the individuality and originality
of a composer leads quite logically to the downgrading
of the rules and to a new appreciation of talent and
inspiration. The Bolognese composer, choir director,
and theorist Giovanni Spataro wrote to a Venetian
musician in a letter of 5 April 1529:

The written rules can well teach the first rudiments of
counterpoint, but they will not make the good composer,
inasmuch as good composers are born just as are the poets.
Therefore, one needs almost more divine help than the
written rule; and this is apparent every day, because the
good composers (through natural instinct and a certain
manner of grace which can hardly be taught) bring at times


such turns and figures in counterpoint and harmony as are
not demonstrated in any rule or percept of counterpoint

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 481).

Spataro transferred the aphorism “The poet is born,
not made” (poeta nascitur non fit), which became so
popular in the poetic theory of the Renaissance, to the
composer. Characteristically, he uses the term instinto
to designate the irrational power in a great
composer that guides him in the regions uncharted by
rules. Whereas Boethius conceived of natural instinct
as of a lower form of consciousness, Spataro opposes
it to rational learning as a higher, and almost divine,
form of awareness. In this he was preceded by
Baldassare Castiglione, who in his Il Cortegiano (pub-
lished 1528, completed 1514) has the Count uphold
the independence of a great artist against Signor
Federico's insistence on imitation of the great masters.
The Count asks Federico. “Who should have been
Homer's model, and whom did Boccaccio and Petrarch
imitate?” and he goes on to say that the true master
of these great writers was their genius and their own
inborn judgment (Ma il lor vero maestro cred'io che
fosse l'ingegno ed il lor proprio giudicio naturale
). And
he persuades Signor Federico to the point where the
latter is willing to admit that, in the choice of genre,
and the display of style and temperament, every artist
should follow his own instinct (s'accommodi allo
instinto suo proprio;
Lowinsky [1964], p. 482 n. 74).

In the same vein, the Florentine music theorist Pietro
Aron, a friend of Spataro who figures in the latter's
correspondence, writes in his Lucidario (1545):

Experience teaches that some who have practiced the art
of composition for a good part of their lives are surpassed
by others who have been composing for a short time only.
Wherefore one may believe that good composers are born
and cannot be made through study and long practice but
rather through heavenly influence and inclination: graces,
to be sure, that heaven grants to few in large measure....
As we see that one and the same figure and form treated
by different sculptors in marble or in other material has
much more perfection in the one than in the other as their
creators differ from one another in excellence, likewise, I
say, it happens in this our harmonic faculty, which many
of our composers possess. Each one of them knows the
material, i.e. the musical intervals, and gives them a fitting
harmonic form which differs in excellence, in sweetness and
loveliness according to the composer's individual skill and
natural grace

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 483).

Pietro Aron almost anticipates the brilliant formulation
in which Giordano Bruno, in his Eroici furori (1585),
condemns the pedantic makers and watchers of rules:
“There are as many kinds of poetic rules as there are
kinds of poets” (Thüme, p. 26). Bruno in turn comes
close to Kant's definition of genius, which will be
discussed below.

“Invention” and “originality” now become so essen-
tial that Glareanus, in his Dodekachordon (1547), can
pose the question: “Shall we not consider him who
invented the melody of the Te Deum or the Pange
a greater genius than him who later composed
a whole Mass on it?” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 479). Pur-
suing this question, Glareanus says:

In both [the melodic inventor and the contrapuntist] this
is to be ascribed more to the energies of genius, and to
some natural and inborn talent than to craftsmanship. And
this can be proved through those who never studied music,
and nevertheless show a miraculous ability in inventing
melodies, as is apparent in our vernacular [folk song], the
Celtic [French] or the German; but also through those who
are masters of counterpoint although they were often poorly
taught—to say nothing of the other disciplines. From this
it appears certain that neither is possible for a man unless
he is born for it, or, as the people say, unless his mother
gave it to him—which is just as true for the painters, the
sculptors, and the preachers of the Divine Word (for about
the poets there can be no doubt) and for all works dedicated
to Minerva

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 479).

The word translated here as “genius” is the Latin
ingenium. Edgar Zilsel has pointed out that the term
ingenium as characterizing extraordinary inborn talent
was unknown in the Middle Ages (Zilsel, pp. 251ff.).
The word was used in many senses ranging from art
and intrigues (see the Italian inganno) to legal docu-
ment and instrument of war (“engineer”). Only in the
Renaissance did it assume the meaning of outstanding
talent; it was so used by Alberti, Leonardo, Aretino,
and countless other writers of the period. However,
the weight of Glareanus' statement rests not on the
interpretation of ingenium, but on his distinction be-
tween extraordinary natural talent and craftsmanship,
and on his insistence that the former far exceeds the
latter in importance.

Glareanus' statement recalls Aribo's admiration for
the musicus naturalis; it anticipates the romantic idea
of the genius of folk song and folk singer as well as
the modern system of the arts. It antedates by fifty
odd years Jacobus Pontanus' poetics (1600) that con-
tains “the most explicit comparison between poetry,
painting, and music that I have been able to discover
in Renaissance literature” (Kristeller, p. 517). In fact,
Glareanus adds to painting, poetry, and music, dis-
cussed by Pontanus, sculpture and eloquence.
Glareanus' source of inspiration—considering that he,
like Luscinius, knew Greek—was probably Plato's Ion
in which Socrates is presented as speaking of precisely
the same combination of arts: painting, sculpture,


music, poetry, all of which are related to Ion's profes-
sion, the recitation of Homer, for which Glareanus
substitutes eloquence in the divine service.

The stress on originality brings with it the apprecia-
tion of individuality. A German publisher, Hieronymus
Formschneider, in a print of three-part compositions
of 1538, excuses the lack of author attributions with
the remark that each of the composers has his own
outstanding style easily recognized by the connoisseur.
Theorists discuss the individual style of composers—
again Glareanus leads his contemporaries in the sharp-
ness of his critical judgment—and poets sing the praises
of composers as creators of a recognizable personal
idiom of expression.

One hears an echo of Glareanus' ideas in the dialogue
on music, Solitaire second ou prose de la musique
(1552), by the French poet and humanist, Pontus de

... as poetry takes its source from natural talent and the
inspiration of the sacred choir [of Muses] of Parnassus, so
Music, too, requires natural gift, impelled by the same
enthusiasm. It may take more talent to invent a single
melodic turn of phrase for the expression of a conceit to
write the “air” or the “theme” of a chanson, than to place
two, three, or more counterpoints against a cantus firmus
and to write what one calls figured music, or a finished
composition (chose faite), though the latter requires more

(Tyard, p. 132).

As the sixteenth century progresses, the irrational
aspect of the compositional process gains increasing
attention. Spataro used the term instinctus naturalis
to account for the marvelous inventiveness and
originality of great composers. Other writers change
this term to inclinatio naturalis. Hermann Finck, in
a treatise published in 1556, which, significantly,
stresses the importance of an expressive rendering of
the text, reserves the title of musicus for the composer:

But only composers deserve that title. I consider those as
composers who, as the learned agree, were carried to that
field of study by natural inclination, and who cultivated
their natural talent from tender youth on through art,
practice, and varied and frequent exercises.... And if it
is of importance in the other disciplines who your first
teacher and mentor is, certainly in this art it is of greatest
significance that he who by nature burns with a love of
music use an experienced teacher and devote himself totally
to imitating him

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 487-88).

To early and rigorous training Finck adds three
irrational elements in his characterization of the
composer: natural talent, natural inclination, and en-
thusiasm, for this is surely what he intends to convey
with his expression, “by nature burning with a love
of music.” And all three elements—talent, inclination,
enthusiasm—carry the adjective naturalis or a natura.
Not training and practice alone make the composer,
but an inborn quality that cannot be rationally
accounted for except as a gift of Nature.

What is translated here as enthusiasm is not what
Plato had in mind when he spoke of the furor poeticus,
a concept that has played a significant role in the
literary criticism of the sixteenth century (Weinberg,
I, Ch. VII). Finck's “enthusiasm” shares with Plato's
furor poeticus the element of emotional intensity with
which poet or musician embraces his chosen art, but
what separates the two concepts of Finck and Plato
is the element of rationality. Plato believes that once
the poet is inspired—and without inspiration he has
no invention—he is out of his senses and out of his
mind. “For not by art does the poet sing, but by power
divine” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 488). But the Renaissance
theorist, however strongly he may stress irrational
elements, never abandons the idea of a rational and
practical mastery of the musical craft as an indispensa-
ble basis for the work of genius. Indeed, Finck stresses
the necessity for the young genius to grow up in the
workshop of an older master, whose compositions he
should take as models for his own.

This is apparent even in those formulations in which,
finally, the instinctus naturalis and the inclinatio natu-
are elevated to the impetus naturalis. Lampadius,
Protestant cantor in Lüneburg and author of a textbook
on music published in 1537 (Compendium musices),
describes the process of composition in these words:

As poets are stirred by a certain natural impulse to write
their verses, holding in their minds the things that are to
be described, so the composer must first contrive in his mind
the best melodies and must weigh these judiciously, lest
one single note vitiate the whole melody and tire his
listeners. Then he must proceed to the working-out—that
is, he must distribute the contrived melodies in a certain
order, using those that seem most suitable

(Lowinsky [1964],
p. 489).

We have here one of the earliest descriptions of the
process of composition as we conceive it today.
Lampadius distinguishes three phases: melodic inven-
tion (the musician is stirred by some inward power),
careful evaluation (the aesthetic judgment passes on
the work of inspiration), and finally elaboration (the
composer proceeds to work out the purified melodic
ideas—he selects, he rejects, and he organizes). This
is much the same working process as we will find
described by Roger North and, more articulately, by
Friedrich Nietzsche.

Dedications and prefaces to sixteenth-century prints
of music reflect the change of ideas. When the Parisian
music publishers, Adrian Le Roy and Robert Ballard,


in the dedication of a print of motets by Orlando di
Lasso of 1564, wished to pay tribute to the genius of
the youthful composer, they called him a natura factus
magis, quam disciplina institutus,
“more a product of
nature, than of professional training” (Van den Borren,
p. 836).

Medieval theory does not admit that a composer may
at times disregard rules with impunity, indeed that this
may make him a better composer. This idea begins
to take shape in Renaissance writings. We saw how
Luscinius praised Nicolaus Craen for sidestepping the
traditional rules. Zarlino, too, in his celebrated Institu-
tioni harmoniche
of 1558 (p. 235), states that poetic
license is allowed to the composer as well as to the
poet. “Poetic license” becomes an integral part of the
concept of genius. It is not by chance that the most
advanced definition of genius should occur in the
treatise of a man claiming to have been a pupil of
Josquin des Prez and to report the master's method
of teaching, Adrian Petit Coclico's Compendium
(1552). Josquin des Prez was to the Renaissance
musician the very incarnation of musical genius. Here
is what Coclico reports on Josquin's method:

Josquin did not consider everybody cut out for the study
of composition; he decided that only those should be taught
who were carried by a singular natural impetus to that most
beautiful art, for he used to say that there exist so many
lovely compositions that hardly one in a thousand could
compose anything as good or better

(Lowinsky [1964], p.

And again, when enumerating the requirements for the
student of composition, Coclico lists in the first place
the ability to improvise a counterpoint and in the
second place

that he be led to composing by a... certain natural impetus
so that neither food nor drink can please him before he
has finished his musical work. For when the inner impetus
urges in this way one can achieve more in one hour than
otherwise in a whole month. Useless are composers who
lack these singular raptures

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 492).

Coclico's ideas are formulated in a framework of
decided opposition to the whole philosophy of medie-
val theory. In a complete reversal of the medieval
hierarchy of musicians Coclico pronounces as “kings
of music” not the theorists but those who combine
theory with practice, who understand thoroughly the
art of composing, who know how to embellish a com-
position and how to express all emotions in music.

The two ideas of music as expression and of musical
genius go together historically and conceptually. The
Renaissance theorists who come closest to the modern
concept of genius are the same ones who stress the
idea that music serves to express human emotions. Not
only do these two concepts go hand in hand, they
converge in their attitude towards “the rules.”

In transcending the rules, genius opens new vistas
and music gains new dimensions of expressiveness. Any
musical device, to reach the sphere of emphatic
expression, must verge on the limits of the permissible
or, indeed, pass beyond them. Any work of genius will,
of course, transcend all ordinary limitations. Yet, the
extraordinary and the impermissible need the ordinary
and the permissible as background without which they
lose their significance and their effect. This is why
Zarlino advises the composer not to persist too long
in the use of licenze, for he understands that a series
of breaches of rules will never amount to a work of
art. Genius knows how to endow the breaking of a
rule with that same sense of necessity that the rule
itself embodied; the disregard of convention is not the
goal, but a by-product of his work.

The Renaissance is the first epoch in European intel-
lectual history that recognized that neither observation
of rules nor practice and experience suffice to make
the good composer, that great composers will find
felicitous turns and figures not demonstrated in any
textbook, that there are artistic elements of manner
and grace that defy definition, and that rules, teaching,
practice, and experience are all superseded by the
inborn talent, the ingenium of the individual, who is
driven to his art by a natural impetus so strong that
it overcomes hunger and thirst, so powerful that it may
put the composer into a state of ecstasy, and that in
such a state of heightened awareness and activity the
composer's mind can achieve more than in long periods
of ordinary work. For all this the composer, according
to some writers, must enjoy divine help and heavenly

The Renaissance drew a clear line of demarcation
between craftsman and genius. Glareanus even goes
so far as to elevate the nature of genius above that
of talent—a question that occupied the attention of
later thinkers a great deal. He already suggests the
classical definition found in eighteenth-century writings
by attributing greater ingenium to the inventor of new
melodies than to the contrapuntal elaborator of a given
melody. Invention and originality distinguish genius
from talent. Talent imitates; genius assimilates and

The Renaissance replaces the medieval definition of
creation as making something out of nothing with the
concept of creation as making something new, some-
thing that the world had not seen or heard before,
something fresh, original, personal. Nothing illuminates
more sharply the heightened confidence of the Renais-
sance writer in man's unlimited abilities than the belief
that the artistic genius reaches up to God Himself,


sharing with Him in the joy of creation. Had not Julius
Caesar Scaliger, in the opening chapter of his Poetices
libri septem
(1561), called the poet “another God”
(alter Deus), and Shaftesbury later a “second maker”?
No wonder, then, that the epithet divus, applied in
the Middle Ages only to saints, was transferred by the
secular urban society of the Renaissance to secular
celebrities. Aretino appears to have been the first to
use the term in a letter to “the divine Michelangelo”
(Zilsel, pp. 276ff.). It is precisely in the same period
that the term divinus enters into writings on music.
In 1542 the Venetian Sylvestro Ganassi del Fontego
speaks of the Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert,
master of the choirboys in the Emperor's chapel, as
huomo divino in tal professione (Lowinsky [1964], p.
484). And in the second part of the same work pub-
lished one year later, he calls the chapel-master of San
Marco in Venice, Adrian Willaert, nuovo Prometheo
della celeste Armonia.
The same Aretino who had
called Michelangelo “divine” speaks in his Marescalco
of Willaert as sforzo di natura, “miracle of nature”
(Lowinsky [1964], p. 484). All of these expressions point
to a concept of creativity based on the new ideas of
originality and inventiveness. Insofar as Man is creative
in this new sense he partakes of God's nature and may
therefore properly be addressed as “divine.”

To the medieval mind such thought was blasphe-
mous. “God alone creates,” pronounced Saint Thomas
Aquinas; “no mortal being can create” (Summa Theo-
)—a position that followed logically from his
definition of creation as creare ex nihilo: “To create
means to produce something out of nothing.” Earlier,
Saint Augustine in his De Trinitate had maintained:
Creatura non potest creare, “the creature cannot cre-
ate” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 477).

The Renaissance is the first period in the history of
music in which composers are viewed as individuals
endowed with an extraordinary personal and psycho-
logical constitution. The same agent who, in writing
to Ercole of Ferrara about Isaac and Josquin, conceded
that Josquin was the better composer, also remarked
that as a person he was difficult, both in his relations
with other musicians and with his patron, that he
composed only when it pleased him and not when
commanded. From Serafino dall'Aquila's sonnet of
1503 addressed to Josquin we know of the master's fits
of melancholy and despair. We hear from Manlius not
only of his outbursts of temper during rehearsals, from
Glareanus the anecdotes of his witty musical responses
to forgetful or demanding patrons, but also of his
unending search for perfection that made him go over
his compositions again and again, changing, polishing,
refining (Osthoff, I). A picture emerges of an altogether
original character, endowed with a strong tempera
ment and a deep sense of obligation to his genius, an
individual utterly unwilling and unable to compromise
in matters of his art.

The anecdotes concerning Josquin and his noble
patrons also suggest that a new relationship between
artist and patron is in the making: here are the begin-
nings of parity between the aristocracy of talent and
the aristocracy of blood and rank. The incredibly fa-
miliar tone of Orlando di Lasso's letters to his patron,
Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, with whom he drank,
played, and joked, is an illustration of this new rela-
tionship between an artist and a prince in the latter
part of the century.

Carlo Gesualdo, finally, is a representative of the free
artist. Born a prince, and hence economically and
socially independent, he was in his own employ, as
it were, accountable only to himself. The freedom of
his style is a reflection of his independence as well as
of the fierce and uncontrolled temperament that led
to the well-known tragic events of his life.

Josquin, Lasso, Gesualdo, however different they
were in character and as artists, share one essential
quality: they are musical geniuses whose extraordinary
gifts are matched by extraordinary personality; they
exhibit immense strength of feeling, spontaneity,
originality, independence as personalities and in their
social relationships; they are great individuals, and each
one of them was hailed in his time as the foremost
representative of an expressive style of music. At the
same time Josquin, Lasso, and Gesualdo conformed to
the psychological image of the Renaissance concept
of genius. The famous Problem XXX,1 of Aristotle—or
Pseudo-Aristotle—begins with the question: “Why is
it that all those who have become eminent in philoso-
phy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly
melancholics?” (Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl, p. 18).
Problem XXX,1 was well known in the Renaissance.
It was taken up by Marsilio Ficino, celebrated for his
attempt to reconcile Plato and Christianity. It was he
who “gave shape to the idea of the melancholy man
of genius and revealed it to the rest of Europe” (in
his three books De vita triplici, 1482-89; Klibansky,
Panofsky, and Saxl, pp. 255ff.). And indeed, our three
great composers fit surprisingly well into this picture:
Josquin, the loner, the temperamental conductor, the
ceaseless refiner of his works, writing when his inner
voice compels him, a deep melancholic in life, and
in his music a “specialist” in melancholy; Lasso and
Gesualdo, preoccupied with the idea of Death in their
work as no composers before them, the former suffering
from a mental collapse two years before his death, the
latter involved in the double murder of his wife and
her lover, an event that cast an ineradicable shadow
over his whole creative life (the murder took place


in 1590; the first publication of Gesualdo's music oc-
curred in 1594).

A new personal style in music and a new image of
the musician as a person different from the common
run of people seem to emerge more or less simulta-
neously. This appears from censures as well as from
anecdotes about musicians that begin to circulate in
the sixteenth century. Joachim Vadian, poet and
humanist at the court of Maximilian I, in a eulogy
(1517) of the composer and organist Paul Hofhaimer,
criticized the musicians who “believe themselves to be
lacking in genius, unless their demeanor is frivolous
and dubious, and who act as if seized by Platonic
madness” (Moser, p. 44). Antonfrancesco Doni, in his
entertaining and witty dialogue on music (1544),
expressed a view of the artistic personality that must
have been current for some time in the literary circles
of Italy: “Musicians, poets, painters, sculptors, and
their like are all real people, attractive, and often
cheerful, though at times eccentric when the fancy
strikes them” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 486). Doni proceeds
to tell humorous stories about the clash between artists
and ignorant and presumptuous Philistines—plebei, as
he calls them—stories that prove that the Renaissance
created not only the image of the “artist,” but also
its foil, that of the “Philistine.”


The Renaissance created the concept of genius and
determined the basic outlines of its evolution through
baroque and classicism to romanticism. We have been
told by a well-known music historian and Bach scholar:

It is characteristic of baroque mentality not to make the
slightest fuss about a great artist's genius.... Nowhere...
is there a hint of the select nature of the great artist or
of the divine origin of his creative gifts. These are concepts
created by romanticism. In Bach's time we find no talk of
“depth of feeling,” “originality,” or “personal approach,”
and certainly not of a composition expressing an attitude
towards life and the world. These ideas lay outside the
baroque world of thought

(Schering, pp. 85-86).

In reality, the first theoretician of opera, Giovanni
Battista Doni (1594-1647), had already coined the
classical formulation of the contrast between counter-
point as a craft and dramatic music as the creation
of genius:

Counterpoint requires art and exercise rather than natural
inclination, since it consists of many rules and observations
and is based on practice acquired by long use. But in
dramatic music he who is wanting in natural disposition
should not even try to undertake it. Never will he achieve
perfection, even though he may arrive at mediocrity through
long study and knowledge acquired thereby, things equally
needed by those singularly privileged by Nature. The
composer of dramatic music, therefore, must be very inven-
tive and versatile, he must have a quick mind and a strong
imagination: qualities that he has in common with the poet,
wherefore it is said poetae nascuntur, Oratores fiunt, poets
are born, orators are made. Thus we may compare to orators
those composers who ordinarily take the cantus firmus or
subject from others and, weaving over it an artful counter-
point, draw various melodic lines from it, which often have
something dry or labored, in that they lack a certain grace
and naturalness, which is the true spice of melody. This
is what today's musicians have noted in Soriano, who, while
most experienced in counterpoint, never had talent to write
beautiful and graceful melodies, wherefore he devoted him-
self to the writing of canons and similar laborious composi-
tions.... Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, on the other hand,
who was truly born for music, and with a gift for musical
expression, and who could clothe with his musical gifts any
poetic subject, never attended, as far as one knows, to
canons and similar labored exercises. Such should be, then,
the genius of the good composer, particularly for that genre
of musical compositions which should bring to life all inner
affects of the soul with vivid expression

(Lowinsky [1964],
pp. 338-39).

Doni could not have chosen apter personifications
for his concepts of craftsman and genius than Pale-
strina's disciple, Soriano—famous for his 110 canons
over a Marian hymn—and the princely composer,
Gesualdo, who, for the sake of truth of sentiment,
broke every rule in the book.

In another passage Doni comments on the dilemma
in which “modern” composers find themselves with
regard to tradition:

One will think it was not permissible to depart from the
rules left behind by the predecessors, another will be more
daring and follow these modern composers like the Prince
of Venosa, indeed he will spontaneously invent new things.
This is why Monteverdi seeks more the dissonances, whereas
Peri hardly departs from the conventional rules

[1964], p. 340).

The stylistic separation between counterpoint and
expressive music goes back to Monteverdi's famous
distinction between the old and the new style or, as
he phrased it, the prima and seconda prattica of the
beginning of the seventeenth century. But Monteverdi
had not yet said—perhaps he implied it—that it took
less genius to write in the old style. He merely postu-
lated greater liberty for the seconda prattica, the new
expressive style of music.

If testimony is needed that concepts such as “depth
of feeling,” or “composition as expressing an attitude
towards life and the world” or the “divine origin of
creative gifts” are indeed part of baroque mentality,
a reading of Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument (1676)
should provide it. Mace, a clerk at Trinity College in
Cambridge, although no more than a fine craftsman


and mediocre composer, entertained the most sublime
ideas of music, its power and origin:

Musick speaks so transcendently, and Communicates Its
Notions so Intelligibly to the Internal, Intellectual, and
Incomprehensible Faculties of the Soul; so far beyond all
Language of Words, that I confess, and most solemnly affirm,
I have been more Sensibly, Fervently, and Zealously
and drawn into Divine Raptures, and Contem-
by Those Unexpressible Rhetorical, Uncontroulable
and Instructions of Musicks Divine Language,
than ever yet I have been, by the best Verbal Rhetorick,
that came from any Mans Mouth, either in Pulpit, or else-

Those Influences, which come along with It, may aptly
be compar'd, to Emanations, Communications, or Distilla-
of some Sweet, and Heavenly Genius, or Spirit;
and Unapprehensibly (yet Effectually) Dispos-
the Soul, and Mind, of All Irregular Disturbing, and
Unquiet Motions; and Stills, and Fills It, with Quietness,
and Peace; Absolute Tranquility, and Unexpressible

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 333-34).

Such raptures are not confined to the peculiar tem-
perament of an eccentric musician, as one might think
Mace to have been. One of the sturdiest, worldliest
gentlemen of seventeenth-century England, a man of
wealth, power, and fame, Samuel Pepys, discourses in
a surprisingly similar vein about his musical experience.
Having heard a concert of wind music for The Virgin
he wrote in his diary:

... [it] is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a
word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick,
just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife;
that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at
home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all
night transported

(Weiss, p. 64).

Another Englishman, Roger North (1653-1734),
Attorney-General to James II, and one of a lengthy
series of English amateur musicians and writers on
music, insisted that

good musick must come from one by nature as well as art
compleately made, who is arrived at a pitch to throw away
the lumber of his rules and examples, and act upon the
strength of his judgment, and knowledge of the subject
matter itself, as if it had bin bred and born in him ab origine

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

Anticipating Rousseau and later romantic writers,
North saw music's finest jewel in melody, or as the
English were wont to call it, “ayre,” of the invention
of which he said:

But as for securing an Ayre, if it must be above the indiffer-
ent, it is like securing witt in poetry, not to be done; and
after all will be found to flow from a genius, and not without
some accidents or rather felicitys of fancy, as well as sound
judgment, to make it sublime

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

The term génie is also part of the vocabulary of
French musical theory of the baroque. De la Voye, in
his Traité de musique (1656), after having dealt with
elementary theory, counterpoint, and fugue, concludes
his treatise with these words:

The other artifices of music, such as recitatives, echoes, the
variety of movements, the order of cadences, the beauty
of the melodies, the mixture of modes, the natural expression
of the words and passions, they depend on the genius and
the invention of the composer

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 332).

The greatest French theorist of music in the age of
the baroque, Jean Philippe Rameau, was accused by
the partisans of Jean Jacques Rousseau of nurturing the
belief that the composer needed not genius but only
the science of harmony. However, in his Traité de
published in Paris in 1722 when Rousseau
was a boy of ten, Rameau speaks constantly of le génie
et le goût.
“There is a world of difference,” he observes,
“between a music without fault and a perfect music”
(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 329-30), and with this remark
Rameau demolishes the notion of the artist as a crafts-
man whose excellence can be measured by his success
in following the rules of his craft. In speaking of mel-
ody he remarks:

It is well-nigh impossible to give rules concerning it
[melody], inasmuch as good taste has a greater part in it
than anything else; thus we leave it to the happy geniuses
to distinguish themselves in this genre on which the whole
strength of sentiment depends

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 330).

As happens so often, the critics had not read what they
criticized. Rameau defends the composer against the
pedantic guardians of the rules who, he says, become
deaf if you want to show them the good effect of
freedom, license, and exception in a music composed
apparently against the rules.

Nothing shows Rameau's appreciation of imagina-
tion in the composer's work better than his plea for
freedom in the writing of what is usually thought of
as one of the strictest and most rational forms of music,
the fugue, which he called

... an ornament of music which has only one principle,
good taste; the very general rules governing it [the fugue]
that we just outlined do not suffice in themselves to insure
perfect success in it. The various feelings and events that
one can express in music constantly produce novelties that
cannot be reduced to rules

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 330, n. 29).

Aside from genius, a composer, according to
Rameau, also needs good taste. With le goût another
irrational element enters our discussion, one that can-
not be measured, prescribed, or fixed in rules. Yet it
is to some extent rational—and in that regard typically
French—in that it resides in aesthetic judgment rather


than in emotion, an essential attribute of genius in
German and Italian writings. The irrational concept
of empathy, the dramatic composer's ability to put
himself in the place of his characters and re-create
them in tones by the sheer force of sympathetic imagi-
nation—and Rameau was a composer of opera him-
self—is already a part of Rameau's aesthetics. At the
end of Chapter 20, Book Two, on the propriety of
harmony, he says:

For the rest, a good musician must surrender himself to
all the characters that he wishes to depict, and, like a skilful
comedian, put himself in the place of the speaker, imagine
himself in the localities where the events to be represented
occur, and take part in them as much as those most involved
in them, be a good orator, at least within himself, feel when
the voice should rise or fall more or less, so as to shape
his melody, harmony, modulation, and motion accordingly

(Lowinsky [1964], p. 331).


No statement on musical genius had a more profound
impact on the world of art and letters than the article
on génie by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire
de musique
(1768)—the first dictionary of music to deal
with the concept. Because of its seminal significance,
the entire article follows in translation:

Don't ask, young artist, “what is genius?” Either you have
it—then you feel it yourself, or you don't—then you will
never know it. The genius of the musician subjects the entire
Universe to his art. He paints all pictures through tones;
he lends eloquence even to silence. He renders the ideas
through sentiments, sentiments through accents, and the
passions he expresses he awakens [also] in his listener's heart.
Pleasure, through him, taken on new charms; pain rendered
in musical sighs wrests cries [from the listener]. He burns
incessantly, but never consumes himself. He expresses with
warmth frost and ice. Even when he paints the horrors of
Death, he carries in his soul this feeling for Life that never
abandons him, and that he communicates to hearts made
to feel it. But alas, he does not speak to those who don't
carry his seed within themselves and his miracles escape
those who cannot imitate them. Do you wish to know
whether a spark of this devouring fire animates you? Hasten
then, fly to Naples, listen there to the masterworks of Leo,
of Durante, of Jommelli, of Pergolesi. If your eyes fill with
tears, if you feel your heart beat, if shivers run down your
spine, if breath-taking raptures choke you, then take [a
libretto by] Metastasio and go to work: his genius will kindle
yours; you will create at his example. That is what makes
the genius—and the tears of others will soon repay you for
the tears that your masters elicited from you. But should
the charms of this great artist leave you cold, should you
experience neither delirium nor delight, should you find that
which transports only “nice,” do you then dare ask what
is genius? Vulgar man, don't profane this sublime word.
What would it matter to you if you knew it? You would
not know how to feel it. Go home and write—French music

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 326-27).

It is easy to see why poets, musicians, and
aestheticians were stirred by Rousseau's concept of
genius. This was not an ordinary dictionary article; this
was a dithyrambic ode, every word of which echoed
Rousseau's own intense musical experiences in the
Venetian opera houses during his days as secretary to
the French Embassy in Venice.

Creative activity engendered by enthusiasm, fire,
imagination, and above all, by the ability to feel, and
feel passionately—all of these essential elements in the
romantic concept of genius hail from Rousseau.
Rameau's careful balance between craft and inspira-
tion, rules and good taste, technical mastery and genius,
is scornfully thrown aside by Rousseau in exchange for
a one-sided emphasis on emotion and empathy. Being
himself the very model of an untutored genius given
to passionate outbursts of tears, he would never have
dared to set his own hand to composing libretto and
music of his operetta, le Devin du village (1752),
without the profound conviction that feeling, more
than anything else, is needed to create music that goes
to the heart. “A student of three months could write
the 'Devin'”—Rousseau said later—“whereas a learned
composer would find it hard to embark upon a course
of such decided simplicity” (Lowinsky [1965b], p. 201).

One element is conspicuously absent in Rousseau's
definition of genius: musical originality. Rousseau was
primarily a man of letters; as a musician he was decid-
edly an amateur. Music was for him a means to enhance
the emotional appeal of the spoken word, of the drama.
This agreed with his belief (Essai sur l'origine des
1753) that in the beginning word and tone,
speech and melody, were one. Nor were his democratic
convictions that led him to espouse a style of folk
song-like simplicity designed to foster appreciation of
musical originality.

Thus we find ourselves facing the paradox that the
eighteenth-century apostle of feeling could think of
genius without the attribute of originality—indeed, it
is in “imitating” Metastasio that a musician becomes
a genius—whereas the century's most detached and
rational thinker, Kant, conceived of originality as the
chief attribute of genius.

Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment (Kritik
der Urtheilskraft
), calls genius “the talent (natural gift)
that gives the rules to art” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 328).
This is an ingenious, indeed, an elegant definition in
its studied avoidance of opposition between rule and
inspiration, talent and genius. Kant succeeds, never-
theless, in making a sound distinction between them,


especially as he goes on to say that genius “is a talent
to create that which escapes all definite rules: it is
not natural skill for what can be learned according to
any rule; hence, originality must be its first attribute.
... Everyone agrees that genius must be opposed
completely to the spirit of imitation” (Lowinsky [1964],
p. 328). Thus Kant manages to avoid the emphasis on
emotion that was contrary to the nature of his
analytical mind, and yet to stay basically within the
framework of thought of his time. It has been remarked
(Serauky, p. 162) that there is an irreconcilable contra-
diction between Kant's definition of genius as rejecting
“the spirit of imitation” and his belief that music is
the art of imitation of human emotion—an idea current
throughout the eighteenth century and developed par-
ticularly by Charles Batteux in his Traité des beaux
arts, réduits à un même principe
(1746). Kant uses the
term in two meanings: imitation of one artist by an-
other in a specific artistic medium, and imitation as
a re-creation of human emotions in tones. There is no
contradiction between these two ideas. Notwith-
standing his emphasis on originality, Kant did not
escape the criticism of the emerging romantic move-
ment led by Herder, who printed excerpts from Kant's
definition of genius together with devastatingly sarcas-
tic glosses.

The eighteenth-century literary movement of Sturm
und Drang
was keenly interested in the nature of
genius in general and of musical genius in particular.
All of its exponents were fired by Rousseau's ideas.
Christian Friedrich Schubart, poet, musician, keyboard
player, famous for his improvisations, philosopher,
imprisoned for his ideas as a free thinker, wrote in his
essay Vom musikalischen Genie words reminiscent of

Musical genius is rooted in the heart and receives its im-
pressions through the ear.... All musical geniuses are
self-taught, for the fire that animates them carries them
away irresistibly to seek their own flight orbit [Flugbahn].
The Bachs, a Galuppi, Jommelli, Gluck, and Mozart
excelled already in childhood through the most significant
products of their spirit. Musical harmony lay in their soul
and they soon threw away the crutch of art

[1964], p. 326).

But unlike Rousseau, Schubart added: “Nevertheless,
no musical genius can reach perfection without culti-
vation and training. Art must perfect what Nature
sketched in the raw” (Lowinsky [1964], p. 326).

Schubart, in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der
(1784-85), eulogizes Rousseau, his ideas on
music, and his Dictionnaire de musique. Rousseau's
inspiration also hovers over Johann Gottfried von
Herder's essay “Von Musik” in which Fontenelle's
Que me veux-tu, Sonate?”—the opera composer's
defiance of “mere” instrumental music, of “academic”
art—made famous by Rousseau's enthusiastic approval,
is quoted without indication of its source.

Rousseau is also the indubitable inspiration for the
romantic poet, composer, pianist, conductor, and music
critic E. T. A. Hoffmann and his conception of the
nature of musical creation:

To touch us, to move us mightily, the artist himself must
be deeply affected in his own heart. Effective composition
is nothing but the art of capturing with a higher strength,
and fixing in the hieroglyphs of tones [the notes], what was
received in the mind's unconscious ecstasis. If a young artist
asks how to write an effective opera, we can answer only:
read the poem, concentrate on it with all the power of your
spirit, enter with all the might of your fancy into all phases
of the action. You live in its personages; you yourself are
the tyrant, the hero, the beloved; you feel the pain and
the raptures of love, the shame, the fear, the horror, yes,
Death's nameless agony, the transfiguration of blissful joy.
You rage, you storm, you hope, you despair; the blood flows
through your veins, your pulse beats more violently. In the
fire of enthusiasm that inflames your heart, tones, melodies,
harmonies ignite, and the poem pours out of your soul in
the wonderful language of music.... Technical training,
through study of harmony in the works of the great masters,
and your own writing bring it about that you perceive your
inner music more and more clearly; no melody, no modula-
tion, no instrument escapes you, and thus you receive,
together with the effect, also the means which you now,
like spirits subject to your power, detain in the magic lines
of your score. To be sure, all this amounts to saying: take
care, my good friend, to be a very musical genius. The rest
will come by itself. But thus it is, and not otherwise

(Lowinsky [1964], pp. 323-24).

Musical creation as the volcanic eruption of a glow-
ing soul in the grip of ecstatic revelation, technical
study as the magical means to summon the spirits of
the art: this indeed is a truly romantic concept.

Whereas one will have difficulty finding an entry
on “genius” in modern musical dictionaries, it occurs
in nineteenth-century dictionaries such as Peter
Lichtenthal's Dizionario e bibliografia della musica
(1826) or in August Gathy's Musikalisches Conversa-
(2nd ed., 1840). Neither offers a history
of the concept, but both define it in terms derived from
Rousseau. Gathy, in addition, shows the influence of
the romantic writer Jean Paul, in whose writings we
come to the final inversion of the medieval hierarchy
of values. Boethius saw the highest human faculty in
ratio, the lowest in instinctus naturalis, with which he
credited the composer. In Jean Paul's Vorschule der
(1804; 2nd ed., 1813) the “unconscious” is the
great motivating power of the creative artist (Das
Mächtigste im Dichter... ist gerade das Unbewusste


Genius is guided by “divine instinct”—a term picked
up by Gathy. Each artist has his own specific “organ,”
the painter the eye, the musician the ear; “the
supremacy of one organ and one force, for example
in Mozart, operates with the blindness and assurance
of the instinct” (Miller, pp. 55-67). The divine instinct
speaks more clearly, more forcefully in the genius; it
is he who gives us the view of the whole—talent can
provide only views of details.

Jean Paul defines the limits of talent versus genius;
it remained for Richard Wagner, in DieMeistersinger
von Nürnberg
(1867), to create the immortal double
image of genius and craftsman: Walter is an ideal-
ization of genius, Beckmesser a caricature of the
craftsman. Walter personifies the artist whose creativity
rests on inspiration, and whose inspiration springs from
an imaginative mind and a generous and sensitive
heart, open to love and enthusiasm. Beckmesser's art
rests on the pedantic observation of timeworn rules.
His pedantry is at home in a small, petty, scheming
mind, equally incapable of noble emotions and of the
flight of fancy. Between these two extremes stands
Hans Sachs, his roots in the world of the mastersingers,
but his heart and mind open to Walter's freely inspired
art, in which, he confessed,

No rule would fit, and yet no error could I find
(Kein Regel wollte da passen, und war doch kein Fehler drin, Act II).

The opposition between conventional rule and fresh
inspiration, the idea that the genius, unlike the mere
craftsman, can transcend rules without committing
errors and that in so doing he can make new revela-
tions, is a leitmotif in the history of the concept of
musical genius.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who had turned from an ardent
admirer to a bitter critic of Wagner, restored the bal-
ance between inspiration and rational judgment when
he wrote the ironic words (Menschliches Allzumensch-

The artists have a vested interest in our believing in the
flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration, as if the idea
of the work of art, of poetry, the fundamental idea of a
philosophy shone down from heaven as a ray of grace. In
reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker pro-
duces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his
judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects,
selects, connects as one can see now from Beethoven's
sketchbooks where he appears to have slowly developed the
most beautiful melodies and to have selected them, as it
were, from many diverse starts.... All great artists and
thinkers were great workers, indefatigable not only in
inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, order-

(Gast, p. 163).

Nietzsche wrote these words only a few years after
Gustave Nottebohm had published his Beethoveniana
(1872), the first thorough presentation and discussion
of Beethoven's sketches. No wonder they impressed
Nietzsche. For if ever there was a representative of
musical genius, it was Beethoven, both as a man and
as an artist. As a man he was strong and sensitive,
gentle and irascible, generous and passionate, proud,
suspicious, love-seeking, frankly eccentric, and without
compromise in matters of art and of honor; as an artist,
he was creator of a new world of spirit and form, in
which passionate utterance was contained by the most
severe discipline of form, a novel dynamic form that
derived its inner laws from the new spirit of untram-
meled freedom of artistic expression. “There is no rule
that may not be broken for the sake of greater beauty,”
he once wrote.

Yet, the sketches revealed the titanic struggle that
this great master fought for the ultimate realization
of his ideas, which often began in a conventional, if
not banal, form to grow by degrees—at times it took
as many as thirty sketches—into exquisite original
thoughts. It was Nietzsche who, following Beethoven's
example, discovered an element of musical genius often
overlooked by writers from the Renaissance through
romanticism: endless patience and infinite striving
(Streben) or effort. One of the few writers remarking
upon this was Glareanus, when he spoke about Josquin
des Prez. And, indeed, there is a peculiar affinity be-
tween the personalities and the creative characteristics
of the great genius of the fifteenth century who came
out of the Middle Ages and moved toward the new
world of the Renaissance, and the composer of the
eighteenth century who moved from classicism to
romanticism, creating in the process a musical
amalgam of an utterly unique character (Grout, p. 183).

It remained for our own time not only to make light
of the whole idea of genius, both past and present
(Ricci, pp. 80 and 83), but also to replace feeling,
imagination, planning, and aesthetic principle with
mathematical formulas, computers, and “chance.” The
inherent paradox of this modern approach to composi-
tion lies in this: whereas aesthetic principles have been
abandoned in the process of composition, the results
are presented to modern audiences having no other
possible approach to the understanding of music than
one based on aesthetic perception. This unresolved
contradiction of modern music contains in itself the
seeds of its own necessary destruction. Either music
is to be heard, and then it must proceed from principles
of perception and aesthetics; or it proceeds from
merely intellectual and mathematical principles or
chance, and then it makes no sense to present as
sounding form what was not experienced as sound and


form. Once this dilemma has been resolved, musical
genius will return to the artistic scene and move from
its present underground to the center of the stage in
an affirmation of faith in the possibility of choice,
decision, and creation. The musician alone cannot do
it. The whole age will have to reconquer faith in the
humanity of Man and in the individuality of his art.


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Gast, ed., Nietzsches Werke, Erste Abtheilung, Vol. II
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Translations, unless otherwise indicated, are by the author
of the article.


[See also Creativity in Art; Empathy; Genius; Music as a
Divine Art;
Pythagorean Harmony.]