Last Updated 27 Jul 2020

Are Musicians Born or Made?

Category Music, Voltaire
Words 5160 (20 pages)

For nearly 2,000 years philosophers have wondered whether artists are born or made. In the case of musicians, the existence of thousands of music schools would seem to argue that musicians can be made, like engineers. Arguing against the importance of all that activity are the curious exceptions: famous musicians who cannot even read music. The latter include the most famous male pop singer of the 20th century and one of that century’s most famous orchestral conductors.

The earliest important discussion of this question presents the problem well, found in a treatise, “On the Sublime,” is by a 1st century AD writer named Longinus. Nothing else can be documented about the man, but this treatise was well-known through the Renaissance and deeply influenced such writers as Dryden and Pope. Longinus begins by emphasizing the importance of learning. First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art [craft] of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it.

Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art. But I maintain that this will be found to be otherwise if it be observed that, while nature as a rule is free and independent in matters of passion and elevation, yet is she wont not to act at random and utterly without system.... Moreover, the expression of the sublime is more exposed to danger when it goes its own way without the guidance of knowledge, -- when it is suffered to be unstable and unballasted, -- when it is left at the mercy of mere momentum and ignorant audacity. It is true that it often needs the spur, but it is also true that it often needs the curb.1

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However, in another place, when he is thinking of the great gifts of the orator, Demosthenes, he wonders if such a great performer can be the result of learning. There are some, he seems to conclude, whose success can be explained only by a God-given ability. But Demosthenes draws -- as from a store -- excellences allied to the highest sublimity and perfected to the utmost, the tone of lofty speech, living passions, copiousness, readiness, speed (where it is legitimate), and that power and vehemence of his which forbid approach.

Having, I say, absorbed bodily within himself these mighty gifts which we may deem heaven-sent (for it would not be right to term them human), he thus with the noble qualities which are his own routs all comers even where the qualities he does not possess are concerned, and overpowers with thunder and with lightening the orators of every age. One could sooner face with unflinching eyes a descending thunderbolt than meet with steady gaze his bursts of passion in their swift succession.

In the end Longinus retreats from having to make a choice between a studied craft, which he calls “art,” and that talent which is a gift of nature. The highest achievement, he reasons, requires both. Since freedom from failings is for the most part the successful result of art, and excellence (though it may be unevenly sustained) the result of sublimity, the employment of art is in every way a fitting aid to nature; for it is the conjunction of the two which tends to ensure perfection.

When the Church defeated Rome and began its process of reinventing, so to speak, the Roman citizen, it began by attempting to eliminate as much of the pagan world as possible, in the process burning the books of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc. The church also attempted to remove emotion from the life of the Christian and as a subordinate part of that idea they warned the Christian about being enthusiastic about art.

The rationale of the Church was: God created the artist, therefore you should love God and not the artist, much less the art object. Because of this position, during the long Church dominated period we call the “Dark Ages,” books which discuss art and the artist are rare. With the Renaissance, however, this subject is widely discussed, beginning with the important 16th century treatise, the Dodecachordon of 1547, by Heinrich Glarean. Glarean (1488 - 1563) of Switzerland was a man of many talents as is testified to in numerous letters by Erasmus, who gives the impression that he was unusually proficient in all the Liberal Arts. In letters of recommendation, Erasmus calls Glarean a mathematician, meaning four branches of the Liberal Arts.

It was from this perspective that Glarean was interested in music3 and our guess is that he probably did not think of himself as a performing musician, although on one occasion he so impressed Maximilian I in his singing of a poem that he was made poet laureate. Such a widely talented man is never universally popular and in the fictitious, satirical “Letters of Obscure Men,” of 1515, by Crotus Rubeanus and Ulrich von Hutten, Glarean is described as, very headstrong man.... A terrible man, a choleric, for ever threatening fights -- and he must be possessed of a devil.

Glarean first clearly frames the question: who should receive the higher praise, the composer who has his gift through birth or the man who has studied counterpoint and who composes multi-part music upon the original melody?

As we were hastening to the end of this very toilsome book, this not entirely inconsequential thought came to our mind about a matter which I say has been considered in doubt a long time now among men of our times, that is, which is more deserving of praise, the invention of a theme or the addition of several voices; namely, so that the uninitiated may also understand, whether it is of more value if one can invent a natural tenor, which affects all minds, which takes hold of a man’s heart, in short, which so clings to our memory that it often steals upon us without our even thinking, and into which we break as if awakened from sleep, as we commonly see concerning many tenors; or if one adds three or more voices to the tenor invented in the aforementioned way, which voices, so to speak, embellish it with imitations, canons, changes of modus, tempus, and prolatio....

Having presented the question, Glarean’s own view seems to be that talent comes with birth, not study. It is interesting that he mentions the factor we have pointed out at the beginning, the success of untrained artists. He concludes by presenting the subordinate questions which he implies are necessary to answering the main question. Here is an example of this matter, so that one may comprehend so much the better what we say. Whoever first invented the tenor Te Deum laudamus or any other as Pange lingua, may he not be preferred in talent to one who afterwards composed a complete Mass according to it? First, indeed, to say as a preface, we cannot deny that this happens to each through the power of his talent, and through a certain natural and native capacity rather than through art.

The reason for this seems to be that very frequently those who are untrained in music are also surprisingly proficient in inventing tenors in our vernacular, whether Celtic or German, and further, that many who are proficient in adding voices likewise have learned music badly, to say nothing of other disciplines. Therefore, it is clear that neither talent is really possible for a man unless he is born to it, and, as it is commonly said, unless he received it from his mother.

This is likewise true of painters, also of sculptors, and preachers..., in short, of all works dedicated to Minerva.... But indeed, if as Aristotle asserts, a man is truly deserving of praise who discovers the principles of any discipline, for it is very easy to add the rest (he says), I do not see why the first artist, the simple creator of a simple melody (now called a tenor) ought to be inferior to one who does not invent as easily as he adds to what has already been invented. Indeed, we see in the various disciplines that the first inventors always have merited the most praise. Thus Hippocrates is considered superior to Galen, even though Galen surpassed him with a thousand books.... Let everyone direct his attention to the following points as the most worthy of our consideration, namely, which of the two is older, which is more useful, and, finally, which yields to the other.

In a letter sent to his publisher, Giraldi Cinthio,6 he indicates that he wrote his treatise, Discorso intorno al comporre dei romanzi of 1549, to refute attacks on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which he considered a great heroic poem. While his treatise is thus about the 16th century heroic poem in general, which he calls the Romance, Giraldi is equally concerned with establishing poetry as an art. In so doing, he presents one of the most important treatises on Beauty to be found in the 16th century.

7 He begins by stating the all men have the genetic materials necessary to fine writing. But, he follows this by writing that “Nature produces the poets, but art makes the orators,”8 His point apparently is in attempting to make a distinction between genius and (learned) skill. By “elocution,” Giraldi means the manner of expressing with fitting words the thought which the poet has in mind. Here he presents a unique and curious analogy.

Since elocution has the same place in composition as the skin does in the human body, the poet ought to put his effort on this part, under which stand all the others, as nature does on the skin of the body. Just as nature, a judicious creatress (by virtue of the intelligence which rules her) of that which she produces, took great care to make the skin soft, pliable, and delicate, and to give it the grace of proper colors so that it appears pleasing to our eyes and makes delightful all that is under it, so the poet should put much talent and study on everything pertaining to words. Since they clothe our ideas and carry them from the intellect to the eyes, they ought to be adorned with all the beauty that the industry of the writer can give them.

Although in this, no less than in other particulars, one ought to shun such superfluous diligence, lest what one would make good becomes bad, and lest excessive desire to embellish results in fastidiousness. Negligence neatly practiced is sometimes better than too much diligence.9

This last sentence requires a note of explanation. For the Italian Renaissance (upper class) man, one of the personal characteristics held to be important was that he never exhibit effort. “Studied negligence” was the goal. This can be easily understood in the example of chess playing, where it was held that the gentleman could play but that he should not appear to be very good, for if he were good it implied study, practice and work, all of which were not appropriate to the gentleman. Giraldi contends that epic poetry must be in rhyme. This is only fitting for heroic matter and “it carries in itself the sweetness of sound and gravity with measure and with the other qualities that belong to the sublime.”

10 Later he adds that words must not only convey thoughts, but in themselves, “pleasurable beauty.” It is interesting that he warns the poet to remember that his goal is to find words for the thoughts, and not thoughts for the words. He pauses to comment on the ancient question of the relationship of learned Art and genius which is a gift of Nature. Here concludes that both are necessary. Of these two, however, the one so needs the other that each is of little value alone. Indeed, art without nature produces such impoverished verses that they seem to have suffered for ten years from the hectic fever. Nature without art makes them like fat peasants who are of good color and health but withal have no gentility.

Therefore, he concludes, that poet who has as his guide both Nature and Art cannot help but succeed. His definition of Art which follows consequently focuses on both Beauty and Nature. By art I mean here not the intricacies and the entanglements of which I spoke above, which with metaphors, enigmas, and monstrosities would turn authors into alchemists; which precepts can make it appear that a man has seen and read much, but are not likely to teach; but that which gives us light, not shadow; makes our way pleasant, not painful; easy, not intricate; level, not steep; that which leads us not through briars but through flowering meadows; that which teaches us without so much tortuousness and such monstrosities of words and images. Like arranged flowers, after we have chosen them from the green fields of poesy, our compositions ought to be set in order with marvelous beauty.

Marco Girolamo Vida was born in Cremona some time before the beginning of the 16th century, at which time his first poems appear, and died in 1566. His poem on chess (Scacchiae Ludus) brought him to the attention of Leo X. After the death of Leo X, Vida remained in the papal court of Clement VII, who made him Bishop of Alba in 1532. Holding this office, Vida participated in the council of Trent. In his treatise on poetry, De Arte Poetica, of 1561, Vida has observed that there are some who fervently desire to be poets, yet, in spite of all, are not successful. They, apparently, have the training, but not the gift. These men, he recommends, might find a suitable career as lawyers! How oft the youth, who wants the sacred fire,

Fondly mistakes for genius his desire,
Courts the coy Muses, though rejected still,
Nor Nature seconds his misguided will!
He strives, he toils with unavailing care,
Nor Heaven relents, nor Phoebus hears his prayer.
He with success, perhaps, may plead a cause,
Shine at the bar, and flourish by the laws.

One of the important Italian Renaissance writers, Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556), was much concerned with respect to the character of the artist. He also considered the question of the nature of Art and the artist, he concluded that the essential gift is one of genetics and not instruction. The truth is that art is an innate gift for considering the excellencies of nature that comes to us when we are babes in swaddling clothes. That which is learned later may be called art, but it is not legitimate, whereas you could not call that art bastard which the spider uses in weaving his web.

We might note that to another correspondent he states that neither the gift nor the skill is of any importance without heart.

To GiorgioVasari (1511 – 1574) we are indebted for his revised Lives of 1568, which provides important biographical information regarding 16th century artists. Vasari summarizes his views on our subject of whether the artist is born or learned by declaring, Very great is the obligation that is owed to Heaven and to Nature by those who bring their works to birth without effort and with a certain grace which others cannot give to their creations either by study or by imitation.

With the Baroque Period we begin to find German commentary which is related to our question, that is are musicians the product of training or Nature? One philosopher that we appreciate was Johann David Heinichen (1683 – 1729), a composer in Dresden. In his mind, there was a natural connection between the learned rules of music and the talent which comes from Nature, for he believed the important rules were all drawn from Nature herself.

All arts and sciences have rules and must be learned through rules, if we do not wish to remain simple naturalists, ie., half-ignorant. But we must not err excessively on the side of rules; furthermore, we should not accept so crudely the equivocal word: Rule, as if we would serve as high sounding rule makers, prescribing laws even to Nature, according to which she must limit herself to auctoritate nostra. No! All of our useful rules must be derived from Nature; and we must investigate on all levels the will, preference, and character of this mistress and learn from her cum submissione.

Heinichen conceded the importance of that which is learned about music, believing that the essential abilities needed for successful composition include natural aptitude and diligence, as well, of course, as knowledge of the basic conceptual information on writing music. However, as he quotes Andreas Werkmeister, rules alone do not suffice.18 If one has no musical aptitude 1,000 rules could be illustrated with 10,000 examples and still the purpose would not be achieved.

We have seen above Heinichen’s contention that all useful rules must be derived from Nature. But he seems hesitant to take on the burden of discussing the full dimension of Nature’s contribution. For one reason, while he finds Nature’s gifts unquestionably important, he finds that these gifts vary from composer to composer. One can as little describe the differences in musical talent as one can describe the differences between all ingenuities. Generally, however, one can say that the good talents of composers differ only in degree. For Nature gives to one an animated, clear, burning spirit, but to another a tempered, modest, or even affective nature. The latter is better suited to to the devout church style, the former, however, more to the theatrical....

Another very important German writer took a similar position. Johann Mattheson not only found that the gifts of Nature varied from man to man, but that sometimes Nature left her gifts incomplete! One sometimes encounters fine minds without true desire and love for it; thus one encounters nothing more seldom than the required diligence and necessary, untiring industry, joined together with these two things, natural ability and real desire: because commonly not a little laziness and idleness, lasciviousness, comfortableness, and the like, tend to go side by side with innate gifts and inclinations. A so-called natural disposition without ambition or love is like a buried treasure.... Desire and diligence without natural ability is really the worst of all....

This partiality which Nature demonstrates in passing out her talents led Mattheson, in another place, to comment on the treatment of students.

Natural stupidity or innate simplicity is among the failures of the intellect which no one can rightfully punish, though it can be deplored or at best ridiculed. Desiring to make youngsters intelligent with thrashing is not only futile, but godless. Many examples verify that beatings make heads ten times more dumb than they were previously. This is and remains abysmally characteristic of education in almost every guild and apprenticeship.

The great German composer, Georg Telemann (1681-1767), found that of the poets he worked with, some were talented but lacked the learning to successfully complete their assignment. Just as not everyone is born a poet, so every poet cannot write texts adaptable to music, and especially sacred music. It would be desirable for experts to explore this question.

Another German writer of the Baroque, Johann Birnbaum, placed more importance on the learned facet of the artist. Indeed, his was a rather unique opinion that one of the fundamental roles of the artist was to perfect and shape Nature into its most ideal state. If art imitates Nature, then indisputably the natural element must everywhere shine through the works of art. Accordingly it is impossible that art should take away the natural element from those things in which it imitates Nature -- including music. If art aids Nature, then its aim is only to preserve it, and to improve its condition; certainly not to destroy it.

Many things are delivered to us by Nature in the most misshapen states, which, however, acquire the most beautiful appearance when they have been formed by art. Thus art lends Nature a beauty it lacks, and increases the beauty it possesses. Now, the greater the art is -- that is, the more industriously and painstakingly it works at the improvement of Nature -- the more brilliantly shines the beauty thus brought into being.

The opposite view was taken by the great French philosopher, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648). He studied mathematics, physics, the classics and metaphysics at the Jesuit College of Le Mans. After becoming a Jesuit priest, and a member of the Minorite friars, Mersenne began teaching Hebrew, philosophy and theology at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1619. His residence became a required stopping place for every intellectual visiting Paris, which, together with his correspondence with persons throughout Europe, including Galilei, Huygens and Descartes, made him a virtual one-man academy. His studies and experimentation in music resulted in his Harmonie universelle (1636), a work of encyclopedia proportion organized in five treatises.

It was the conclusion by Mersenne that composers are born and not made through “Art.” Whatever rules we could give for composing fine and beautiful melodies on all kinds of subjects and texts, it appears that they cannot bring this to pass until we are induced by the favorable genius and natural inclination of those who write excellent ones without having learned or established any other rules than those which their imagination furnishes.... I shall be of the opinion of those who say that the genius of music is like that of the poet, the painter, the orator, and of several other craftsmen, to whom nature, or rather the Master of Nature, has dispensed certain gifts to which art cannot attain.

He was also of the opinion that to some degree the beautiful singer is born and not made. This should be ascribed to the order of Divine Providence, which makes use of all kinds of conditions, as it does of as many voices, to compose the great concert of this universe, whose beauties and charms we will never understand except in Heaven.

François Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known as Voltaire,27 was the son of a successful attorney and a lively and intelligent woman who hosted a minor salon in Paris. His father advised him, “Literature is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger.” The son responded by becoming one of the most prolific writers of the Baroque, supporting his family and dying wealthy.

Voltaire arrived in Paris in 1715 as France was in transition from the era of Louis XIV to the regency for the young Louis XV. His brilliant wit, and sharp tongue, soon brought him to the attention of high society and earned him several visits to the Bastille. One comment remembered from this time followed an announcement that the regent, for reasons of the economy, had sold half the horses of the royal stables. Voltaire suggested it might have been better if he dismissed half the asses at court!

In one place Voltaire seems to take the position that learning must be everything in the artist, for the reason that Nature has rendered all men equal physically. Yet all nations..., even the Hottentots and Kaffirs, pronounce the vowels and consonants as we do, because the larynx in them is essentially the same as in us -- just as the throat of the rudest boor is made like that of the finest opera-singer, the difference, which makes of one a rough, discordant, insupportable bass, and of the other a voice sweeter than the nightingale’s, being imperceptible to the most acute anatomist; or, as the brain of a fool is for all the world like the brain of a great genius.

In another place, however, he takes the position that those with real individual genius in the arts possessed something beyond learning or emulation. It must be confessed that in the arts having genius as their basis, everything is the product of instinct.

By “instinct” here, Voltaire apparently meant that the true genius is born and not made. Here he seems to suggest that “learning” is replaced by “taste.” We use the word “genius” indifferently in speaking artist, or a musician.... Now an artist, however perfect he may be in his profession, if he have no invention, if he be not original, is not considered a genius. He is only inspired by the artists his predecessors, even when he surpasses them....

Poussin, who was a great painter before he had seen any good pictures, had a genius for painting. Lully, who never heard any good musician in France, had a genius for music.... Genius, conducted by taste, will never commit a gross fault.... Genius, without taste, will often commit enormous errors; and, what is worse, it will not be sensible of them.30

In another place, he adds,

The gift of nature is an imagination inventive in the arts -- in the disposition of a picture, in the structure of a poem. It cannot exist without memory, but it uses memory as an instrument with which it produces all its performances.

The primary characteristic of this “gift of nature,” that the artist is born
with, Voltaire finds to be the quality of his imagination. Active imagination, which constitutes men poets, confers on them enthusiasm, according to the true meaning of the Greek word, that internal emotion which in reality agitates the mind and transforms the author into the personage whom he introduces as the speaker; for such is the true enthusiasm, which consists in emotion and imagery.... In general, the imaginations of painters when they are merely ingenious, contribute more to exhibit the learning in the artist than to increase the beauty of the art.... In all the arts, the most beautiful imagination is always the most natural.

Two examples from English literature take the position that the successful artist is the product of both birth and art (learning). We have an interesting poem in honor of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson, in which the poet observes that “though the matter of poets be Nature,” it is the art of the poet which must shape it. In a reflection on Shakespeare’s own labor, Jonson notes, For a good poet’s made, as well as born.

And such wert thou.33

A similar reflection is made by Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674). Man is composed here of a two-fold part;
The first of Nature, and the next of Art:
Art presupposes Nature....34

And now, it might be interesting to consider what some of the great composers have written on this subject. First, there are some isolated thoughts from the diary of Robert Schumann, which has been dated about 1833. It is the curse of talent that, although it labors more steadily and perseveringly than genius, it does not reach a goal; while genius, floating on the summit of the ideal, grazes from above, serenely smiling. …..

It is not a good thing to have acquired too much facility in any occupation. …..
The youthful works of masters who have become great, are looked upon with very different eyes than are the works of composers who promised as much,
but did not keep their word. …..
Dare talent permit itself to take the same liberties as genius? …..
Talent labors, genius creates.
Few strikingly original works of genius have become popular.

These comments on talent as opposed to genius by Schumann remind us of one of Wagner’s essays where he quotes Schopenhauer, Talent hits a mark we all can see, but cannot lightly reach; whilst Genius attains a goal we others do not even see.35

Our original question was, “Are musicians born or made?” When you look at the sketch books of Beethoven, it is perfectly obvious that even so great a composer as he had to go to great efforts to “make” his compositions. In looking at these sketches one sometimes feels that if he had a gift, it was the gift of knowing what to reject. His birth gift was Taste, not counterpoint. Mozart is another matter. As Schumann pointed out one time, the only way you can be a Mozart is to be born a Mozart.36 But, if you have to be born a Mozart, then what is going on in all those thousands of music schools around the world? It is an interesting question.

It is even a more interesting question from the following perspective. You go to hear, let’s say, a piano recital. You are moved, you are inspired, and you say, “That was really musical.” What you are referring to in that moment is not taught in those music schools. What then is being taught in all those music schools? In our view most of this activity is centered in two areas: [1] A great amount of time is spent by music schools in the teaching of grammar. In no other field and in none of the other arts is such a disproportionate amount of time spent on grammar as opposed to meaning and purpose.

Can one imagine, for example, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Fonda at the Lee Strasberg Actors Studio in New York sitting around discussing grammar? In what music school is there even one comprehensive course in aesthetics? In what music school is there discussion on what music meant to Beethoven? Who will talk about music and character development? Who tells students why classical music is important and popular music is not? Who explains to students the difference between inspired music and educational music? Who takes on the responsibility for explaining to students that music education is about commerce, but not art? [2] The other great field of activity in music schools is the instruction of students on how to become players of instruments, including the vocal instrument.

But what studio teacher, as a part of the necessary technique, explains to the student how to move the emotions of the listener? In how many studios is the word “listener” even mentioned? What studio teacher brings up the subject of earning a living? One day students will ask that question and the house of cards will collapse. To conclude, surely everyone understands that one cannot learn, in any music school anywhere, to become a Mozart. That is not only a gift of God, but a gift God rarely dispenses. But there are other gifts, some of which are genetic, gifts of God to everyman. First and foremost among these is the ability to understand music as a listener without going to those music schools. And then there are the gifts which come from participation in music.

Surely anyone whose means of making a living includes the performance of music, whether professional, community or school, must feel a recipient of a gift of the gods. You could be a dentist! How much would they have to pay you to stand and look into other people’s mouths all day? And finally there are those people who may not have the opportunity to perform, but understand the importance of music to society and give of themselves to make it happen. It was of them that Mendelssohn once wrote, The smallest real service to art…seems a blessing sent by God.

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