20th Century Perception of Genius and Disability

10 Dec

Perception of Genius and Disability

            Western classical musicians and composers have received many forms of reviews and critiques from all sorts of musicians and musicologists alike. Some of the more famous ones including Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Haydn, and others have been put into a category of genius. This category is frozen in time, and their achievements as musical phenomenon’s will never change. However, through the interpretation of these musicians and understanding their backgrounds, one can deduce the thought process that went into this label. Being a genius in the musical world, especially one of the previously mentioned artists, means that the individual has a complete mastery of his or her instrument, and that their virtuosity in their chosen field is so comprehensible that their technique and knowledge is without a doubt the characteristic of a genius. However, some of these composers had disabilities that they were born with or that developed during their careers. Three specific musical composers in the 20th century also showed similar praise of critics and fans alike and had physical disabilities that caught the attention of the general public. The topic of disability is very interesting, especially in this situation. Often times a musician’s disability can cloud the eyes of society to the point where the ability to overcome their disability is what makes the musician a genius, not their actual music itself. Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder are three musicians who transformed jazz, rhythm, and blues genres for the entire world. The early 20th century was extremely developmental for music, and individuals such as these three musicians were at the forefront of this musical shift. These musicians all have physical disabilities, however that is not what made them geniuses. By looking at trendsetting and revolutionary artists such as Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder, it is possible to explain how public society might mistakenly label these individuals geniuses based on their ability to overcome their disability, rather than acknowledging their true musical talent and “unorthodox” playing styles.

            In order to define “genius”, one must examine a composer who is notorious for their virtuosity and known for their vigor and composition. Franz Liszt was a composer and performer, widely regarded as one of the most talented virtuosos of his time and a certified genius by many musical critics and musicians. For example, “First and foremost, Liszt was a colossal pianist, the most awesome virtuoso of his era, who in his playing and his compositions for piano pushed the boundaries of technique, texture and sound.”1Tommasini, Anthony. “For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness.” The New York Times. August 23, 2011. Accessed December 08, 2020.[1]

**Piece performed by Martha Argerich, widely regarded as a legend and genius in classical piano.

A huge part of Liszt’s virtuosity was his ability to take a composed piece and give it life or turn it into something that was more than just notes written on a page. Berlioz wrote that Liszt had solved Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and given life to a piece that puzzled so many other devout musicians. The following quote points to the fact that Liszt’s genius was more than the ability to compose musical scores, “A combination of showman and genius, superstar and, later in life, a devout cleric.”2Tommasini, Anthony. “For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness.” The New York Times. August 23, 2011. Accessed December 08, 2020.[2] Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Django Reinhardt lived up to the same character traits, regardless of their disability. Ray Charles commented on how his disability did not hinder him from becoming his true self, “I was going to do what I was going to do anyway…. So, blindness didn’t have anything to do with it. It didn’t give me anything. And it didn’t take nothing.”3Shrumm, Regan. “Five Things to Know About Ray Charles.” Smithsonian Music. October 22, 2018. Accessed December 08, 2020[3] These three musicians composed and performed their own type of music with complete mastery of their instrument while setting a trend for future generations of artists. Sara Haefeli wrote about geniuses and how public society responds to talented musicians, “…We start to realize that none of the ‘geniuses’ were born that way. They were all trained, products of a specific time and context. It’s not a special ‘spark’ that made their music, and we don’t need to be geniuses to listen.”4Haefeli, Sara. “The Problem with Geniuses.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020.[4] This quote summarizes the fallacy that geniuses and virtuosos are not just born with the ability to compose and perform amazing music. It takes years of hard work and diligent hours mastering an instrument. Ray, Django, and Stevie were not all born with their disabilities and worked hard to continue their musical career after they were affected by their disabilities.

The second theme that this analysis will explore is virtuosity. Genius and virtuosity often times go hand in hand. In order to be a genius, one must gain the title of virtuoso, or have complete mastery of their instrument(s) to the point where it looks as easy to play as it is to take their next breath. Being a virtuoso is more than being able to play musical pieces, it’s a connection between body, mind, and soul of the piece and the ability to convey this feeling to the audience. Below are clips from Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say” and Stevie Wonders’ “I Wish” and “Isn’t She Lovely.”

In both of these videos, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are using their body to express the feelings that they have during the songs that they are performing. For example, “The male piano virtuoso seems unnaturally and hyperbolically able-bodied, playing faster and louder than ‘ordinary’ men, so his impressive sound-body seems very sound.”5Page 200 Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.[5] Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say” was actually composed during a live performance. The story behind the song is that the manager of the venue Charles was performing at would not pay him until he played till the end of the scheduled performance.6Kahn, Brandon. “Flashback: Ray Charles Strikes Accidental Gold With ‘What’d I Say’.” Rolling Stone. July 01, 2019. Accessed December 09, 2020.[6] After playing all of the songs on their setlist, Charles had to come up with something to fill in the remaining time. He came up with a song that would eventually be titled “What I’d Say.” This type of improvisation is a fantastic example of what makes a virtuoso a genius. Regardless of the influence of Charles’ disability, he was able to come up with a hit song on the fly, making it seem like he was trying to express some form of himself through his instrument. While there are many different ways that the public may describe someone as “disabled”, we can establish through the examples of Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles’ music playing that it is because of how they play their instruments that gave them the title of genius, not because of any sort of overcoming of their disability. While it is an amazing feat, especially because of the fact that vision is such an important part of life, it is important to note that they did not get to their level of musical mastery simply by overcoming their lack of vision. It was through hours and hours of learning how to play their instruments, and acquiring the skills needed to show feeling and meaning through their composition and performance, much like Franz Liszt did in his performances and musical scores. While there are many different ways that the public may describe someone as “disabled” from the sources that described Franz Liszt’s performances in the previous paragraphs, one can argue that Ray Charles and Stevie wonder exhibit similar traits because of how rigorous they play their instruments and the ability to show complete mastery and improvisation. Mark Mitchell described the effect that a pianist can have on the audience if their entire body is involved, “…though muscles are not unimportant part of virtuosity, they mean little if unallied to soul.”7Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.[7] This really incorporates Charles’ and Wonders’ performances, from swaying back and forth to the beat, to moving their head up and down, they are truly becoming part of the music they are making, encompassing the true meaning of virtuosity as they play along.

The final theme of this essay will encompass the two previous subjects of virtuosity and genius while highlighting the underlying theme of disability. Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Django Reinhardt are all composers and musicians that have been described so far as virtuoso’s and geniuses, however they also have disabilities. So why do individuals of the general public think of their disabilities before their impact that they have had on music history? Unfortunately, some members of the general public would argue that their disability is what makes them a genius. In reality, this fallacy is far from the truth. The public likes to paint this picture of disability, because it sells better, and that an artist with a disability needs to “overcome” the hardship of having a disability in order to become a genius. Specifically, these three artists have worked just as hard on their techniques as other virtuoso’s that came before them, regardless of their ability to see or the ability to have full range of motion with their fingers.

Django Reinhardt is seen playing guitar with his band “The Quintet of the Hot Club of France.” This jazz band was an instant hit, and Django was on his way to becoming one of the most influential jazz guitarists of all time. Reinhardt lost the use of his pinky and ring finger and had to adapt to a different playing style. Regardless of his disability, he demanded respect through his vigor and expertise and showed complete mastery of his instrument. Ivan Raykoff talks about disability in Dears of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist, and how musicians are able to express themselves through feeling, not by the physical features of their bodies. For example, “Like Gender and sexuality, disability is not something you are, it’s something you do.”8Page 216, Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.[8] For movie producers, disability is more of an opportunity to paint a picture of extreme hardship. It is as if society can only understand the disabled individual through their suffering. For example, “…And the movie producer has to show their suffering, and only through suffering the right kind of inspiration could emerge.”9Page 216, Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. With gender, each body has unique and biological strengths and weaknesses. Take opera for example, men and women are casted based on their biological differences and their abilities to sing at different pitches. A huge part of this stems from the past; outdated views of what it means to be a person with a disability, “Beethoven’s disability forms a large part of our concept of him as the quintessential romantic Hero, as it is a tragic flaw he must overcome to produce his great art.”10Shaver-Gleason, Linda. “Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist.” The Avid Listener. July 29, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. Society cannot compare Reinhardt, Charles, and Wonder to able-bodied musicians, however from the evidence provided through the media, they can clearly show an example of their genius, regardless of their disability.

The videos and evidence provided above shine a light on these composers in a different way, and while the public should not compare them to the able bodied, it should call attention to their unique talents, and their ability to compose and perform their music like the great virtuoso’s and geniuses that came before them.

 

 

Works Cited:

Dell’Antonio, Andrew. “Intentional Inauthenticity: Performing Disabled Bodies, Disabled Bodies Performing.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/intentional-inauthenticity-performing-disabled-bodies-disabled-bodies-performing/.

 

“Django Reinhardt: Cream Suit on Stage ” BAMF Style.” BAMF Style. January 23, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://bamfstyle.com/2020/01/23/django-cream-suit/.

 

Dondoros, Chris. “Django Reinhardt’s Lasting Impact on Guitarists.” Reverb.com. January 22, 2018. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://reverb.com/news/django-reinhardts-lasting-impact-on-guitarists.

 

Haefeli, Sara. “The Problem with Geniuses.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.

 

“Ray Charles Biography.” THE TRUE STORY Goodread Biography. March 02, 2019. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://www.goodreadbiography.com/ray-charles-biography/.

 

Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

 

Shaver-Gleason, Linda. “Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist.” The Avid Listener. July 29, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/28/beethovens-deafness-and-the-myth-of-the-isolated-artist/.

 

“Stevie Wonder.” Encyclopædia Britannica. October 09, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stevie-Wonder.

 

Stimeling, Travis D. “Musical Virtuosity.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/musical-virtuosity/.

 

Tate, Cassandra. “Charles, Ray (1930-2004).” Charles, Ray (1930-2004). Accessed December 08, 2020. https://historylink.org/File/5707.

 

Tommasini, Anthony. “For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness.” The New York Times. August 23, 2011. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/24/arts/music/liszt-a-piano-virtuoso-whose-genius-was-interpretation.html.

 

Yanow, Scott. “Django Reinhardt: Profiles in Jazz.” The Syncopated Times. September 01, 2017. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://syncopatedtimes.com/profiles-in-jazz-django-reinhardt/.

 

Shrumm, Regan. “Five Things to Know About Ray Charles.” Smithsonian Music. October 22, 2018. Accessed December 08, 2020. https://music.si.edu/story/five-things-know-about-ray-charles.

 

Kahn, Brandon. “Flashback: Ray Charles Strikes Accidental Gold With ‘What’d I Say’.” Rolling Stone. July 01, 2019. Accessed December 09, 2020. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/ray-charles-whatd-i-say-origin-842880/.

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Tommasini, Anthony. “For Liszt, Experimentation Was a Form of Greatness.” The New York Times. August 23, 2011. Accessed December 08, 2020.
3. Shrumm, Regan. “Five Things to Know About Ray Charles.” Smithsonian Music. October 22, 2018. Accessed December 08, 2020
4. Haefeli, Sara. “The Problem with Geniuses.” The Avid Listener. July 24, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020.
5. Page 200 Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
6. Kahn, Brandon. “Flashback: Ray Charles Strikes Accidental Gold With ‘What’d I Say’.” Rolling Stone. July 01, 2019. Accessed December 09, 2020.
7. Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
8, 9. Page 216, Raykoff, Ivan. Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
10. Shaver-Gleason, Linda. “Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist.” The Avid Listener. July 29, 2020. Accessed December 08, 2020.

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