Today the word ‘genius’ in music has suffered inflation to the point that it has become a rather flattened term. It can refer as facilely to a skilled hip hop artist as it can to, say, a composer like Igor Stravinsky. I guess we use the term genius today for what was formerly meant ‘talent,’ although ‘talent’ is another label that has become flattened to the point of having little distinction. So by describing Mozart as a genius, we encounter a basic problem. Many people consider Michael Jackson to have been a genius too. But I don’t believe we mean the same thing.
In one respect, though, there is the eerie notion that Mozart could have ended up with a life like Michael Jackson’s. Both Mozart and Jackson’s talents manifested at a ridiculously early age. Both their fathers were exploiting them at age 5. Like Michael Jackson, Mozart might have had a career as the greatest entertainer of his generation. As a child he was wowing royal audiences throughout Europe with his amazing feats, playing the piano upside down and backwards, blindfolded, and with his nose. He could have built a reputation as the ‘Kaiser of Pop’ in the 18th century.
That it didn’t happen is what is extraordinary. Mozart eventually discarded his persona as an entertainer and worked unflaggingly to be regarded as a master composer. With all his unusual abilities and tendency towards distraction, it is something of a marvel that he was able to concentrate so fully on composition. Part of the reason for his success was probably the influence of his father. Where Michael Jackson’s father was a steel mill worker and former boxer who played in an R&B band, Mozart’s father Leopold was one of the leading violinists of his day. For all the complexity of the father-son relationship, Leopold was first and foremost an outstanding musician, and he became Mozart’s outer and inner critic. He knew when his son was ‘cheating’, so to speak, using his talent as a crutch instead of working towards true excellence and his highest potential. This father role is laid bare in the letters we have between them. The ghost of Mozart’s father, embodied in the ghost statue in his opera Don Giovanni, is that of the truth-caller. In the pablum of we today’s super-hero movies, Leopold taught Wolfgang that with his great musical powers came great responsibility.
A person’s choice of mentors is often revealing. When reading about the life of Michael Jackson or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one can’t help but be taken by the loneliness they both felt in their lives. They had really no peers to whom they could relate. For that reason, the fact that each found older friends/mentors is interesting. Michael Jackson had a well-known friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. What other entertainer but she could fully understand and relate to the life of a superstar lived under the harsh microscope of daily media scrutiny, with the tabloids oscillating wildly between labeling them angels or freaks? Taylor was the perfect mentor for Michael Jackson the top entertainer. Mozart, on the other hand, formed a well-known friendship with Joseph Haydn. Haydn was not an entertainer or world traveler like Mozart. But he was a composer who had taken his talent to the greatest heights; he was by this time a revered kapellmeister. Who else but Haydn could fully understand Mozart’s music and Mozart’s desire to develop it even further? Haydn was clearly a huge inspiration for Mozart. Mozart studied Haydn’s quartets very carefully, composed six of his own dedicated to Haydn, and then invited Haydn to come over to hear them. His father wrote home and to all posterity Haydn’s comment: "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."
What higher validation could Mozart or his father ever receive?
But the question for Leopold was always security and prestige. Today composers compete for top university teaching appointments. In Mozart’s day, composers competed for top music director positions at courts for aristocrats who loved music. Leopold himself became a Kapellmeister, as they were called, for the prince archbishop of Salzburg. He worked unceasingly to help Wolfgang secure a similar position. And that goal, which he never actually achieved, in many ways determined the trajectory of Mozart’s life.