Reconciling Genius

In Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Amadeus’, composer Antonio Salieri confronts and rages at the fact that “a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy” can produce the most sublimely beautiful music. This tension between Mozart’s personality and his ability to create beautiful music is a central trope in the play. As audience, we share Salieri’s shock, and curiosity, yet we are also complicit in Mozart’s behaviour, laughing as he blows real and metaphoric raspberries at those around him, and weeping with delight and wonder when we hear his music.
Adam Gillen at Mozart in the National Theatre’s revival of ‘Amadeus’ (photo Marc Brenner)
We want to believe, and hope, that those who create beautiful things – music, art, poetry – are also good, kind, beautiful people.
Why would God choose an obscene child to be His instrument? It was not to be believed! This piece had to be an accident. It had to be!
– Antonio Salieri/Amadeus/Peter Shaffer
Creative people are different. They can be emotional, highly-sensitive dreamers who see the world differently. They think outside the box,  are often outliers and risk-takers in a society filled with cautious conformists. They can be arrogant, self-absorbed and anti-social. Because we value and revere creative genius, we tend to excuse these people for their maverick tendency because it is seen as part and parcel of their creative being and drives their creative impulses. But when their actions and attitudes overstep our moral code, offend our sense of propriety or damage others, it can be difficult to reconcile their beautiful creative outpourings with their personality and behaviour.
We confront this tension – and moral panic – when we discover those who have supposedly devoted their lives to the creation and recreation of beauty are not nearly as pure nor good as we imagined they should be. Recent revelations about the unsavoury and deeply inappropriate behaviour of, for example, conductors Charles Dutoit and James Levine – two people highly acclaimed for their remarkable ability to bring wonderful music to life – present us with a dilemma: do we choose to stop listening to these people’s recordings because of what they’ve done, recordings made before their proclivities were made public? Does their behaviour negate the cultural value or beauty of their work? (well yes, because it can render them hypocrites and make us suspicious of their intentions). In this unpleasant scenario, we are placed in the difficult position of loving and/or respecting the art and despising the man behind the art because of what he did.
I listened earlier this evening to a recording of Poulenc’s first piano concerto conducted by Dutoit. I realised as I was listening I was trying to eradicate the idea of there being a conductor present on the recording at all, seeking refuge instead solely in the melody crafted by the composer.
– Jon Jacob/Thoroughly Good
Can we ever listen again without prejudice?
Fortunately, Peter Shaffer’s portrayal of Mozart is highly fictionalised. Unfortunately, talented people do terrible things. Sometimes, their fame or position, or the environment in which they work encourages or disguises such behaviour, or those around them choose to overlook it. Sadly, the revelations about Dutoit and Levine are probably just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.