The Myth of Genius

This is a subject that has haunted me over the last few months. Many of us look at the music of great composers like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven and the scores of books written by the likes of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. Man has achieved so much, but most of us don’t. Why? Most of us would say that we lack talent or inspiration.

There is a false letter going about attributed to Mozart, saying that he had his entire works in his head and that it sufficed to write it all down effortlessly. Have you any idea how much work there is just in copying out a few bars of music, even in short score? Modern computer music programmes make the copying easier, more editable, but the music has to exist in the first place. In reality, like writing a book, it takes an idea and long planning, and then the meat is laboriously put onto the skeleton. The themes have to be sketched out, subjects and counter subjects, the form of the piece. Prior to all that, the composer has to have a solid knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, as the writer must be able to write in his own language correctly and according to the laws of grammar and spelling. Mozart related that the process was laborious, trying everything out on a keyboard. I proceed in the same way, deciding what I want to do, planning it and working it all out.

I am not naturally a hard worker, so I have paid for it in my life. I have not achieved what I could have achieved, and no doubt there will be the laws of karma to suffer. Perhaps the Lord will grant me a few more years. Much of my time has been taken up with sterile religious polemics, but the experience was a necessary part of my life. From the time when I ceased to live by the Church, I had to earn my living in different ways. I recovered old church organs in England and installed them where someone was willing to pay me for the job. I was seen as some kind of genius, but not a bit of it. You just have to have a level of training in organ building, and then go about it with method and concentration. You keep at it until the job is done, and then you have the satisfaction of doing the opening recital or hearing a better organist do it. Since then, I have become a writer.

When I was a little boy, I had an essay to write each weekend, just a page and a half of a schoolboy’s exercise book. It would be a story from my imagination or a description of a family day out, just a couple of hundred words. How difficult it was to get me down to the job! Any excuse would do. Now I translate technical and industrial documents of ten thousand words in two or three days, admittedly with professional translating tools, and I have to meet the customer’s deadline. If the job doesn’t get done, I will lose the customer. The choice is mine, doing this kind of work, or working in some crappy job for a boss who does the motivating – and not always very pleasantly. Self motivation…

I know a film with a Monsignor in Rome during the war working at the Holy Office. A priest asked him, “How do you get through it all”. The gritty Irish prelate answered, “I used to work on a farm. You start early and you stay late“. My own work is just like that. You have to put the hours in!

The trick in life is deciding what we are and why we’re here. We can’t do everything in life. Advancing age is also a limitation. OK for now, but in twenty years time I might get arthritis in my hands or go blind – or simply die. Then what? Get on with things whilst we still can! There must be a sense of urgency. What are we good at and what interests us? What characterises our world view? What kind of people, either historical or in our own time, most inspire us? We need time alone for our work, and with other people to recharge the batteries of our “vocation”.

As a musician, I have always been blessed with the gift of good sight reading. I can take a score, if it does not require too much in the way of keyboard technique, and play the piece. My technique is limited, because I ceased to work at it from a certain stage, and the result will be full of bum notes and errors of notes and rhythm. It’s the same with singing. I have sung in choirs for decades, but real singing involves the use of the diaphragm and stomach muscles to give power and support to the voice together with the use of the sinuses and head to produce the characteristic voice quality of each person. It takes practice, and the days go by between one lesson and the next… If no work is done, no progress is made. With composition, I have only written short pieces for SATB voices, but it all goes flat when I neglect to work. I resolved to work on fugue writing from about this time last year, and I have done too little.

I haver had to learn the hard way and with regrets that I am doing in my fifties what I should have done in my twenties: write books, compose significant pieces of music, learn to sail a boat and work with the sea. I read pieces in the blogosphere about those who regret the state of the liturgy in the “mainstream” Churches, often beautifully written pieces, but from a tormented soul who allows his life to slip away as I have done.

Anything worthwhile comes with perseverance and concentration, just hard work. The trick is knowing what we want to do in life and what we can do, what is within our reach. A seminarian vainly aspires to be the Pope or the Archbishop-Primate, but hard work and dedication will get him to the priesthood. There are the thousands of mistakes to correct and the steps back for the number of steps forward. Fragments often have to be abandoned because the motivation is gone, but they should be kept all the same and used when the weather is fair again. We have to learn to fail in order to succeed. Never regret experience of life – O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem. O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

To create, we need to be nurtured in the culture of those who have created before us. There are whole libraries of books to read, music to play on our instruments or to sing, recorded music and live concerts to listen to. One early lesson to me was to take a distance from religious polemics and the conflicts that plague us by working at our contribution to human culture and art.

I am very lucky that I have a publisher who wants me to write something for them. I won’t say anything about it yet, but it is a great privilege for me and a challenge to work constantly and conscientiously at the task until the job is done. Blogging is easy. The pieces are very short and need little in the way of preparation and planning.

I also have a Veni Sancte Spiritus to write for next month. It will be a simple alternation between the plain chant and faux-bourdon verses. Still, it’s got to be done. Yes, we do need a certain amount of talent and training in the job. We learn to write English at school, and I had plenty of classes in musical form, harmony and counterpoint. The essential is a sense of vocation and dedication, and this brings the motivation for the effort and suffering. We often doubt the value of what we do, but we must go forwards. Put the mediocre stuff aside, store it for a better day, and get on with what’s white-hot and going.

There are no short cuts, no magic or blinding revelations, at least not for me. I have my moments of “writer’s block” which are really sins of sloth and acedia. The beached ship has to use the tide, currents and the sheer effort of the crew to get free. We have just to pull our fingers out and get on with it, just as when I was writing those two hundred words each Sunday with all the motivating effort coming from my despairing parents!

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