Camille Saint-Saëns, someone said, was “The greatest composer who was not a genius.”

I’m not sure who said it, but I know that (from an early age) Saint-Saëns could do amazing things like play any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas from memory. That became his party trick. He was a child prodigy, and the great white hope of French music. I am not a huge fan of Saint-Saëns, I saw his Organ Symphony as a teenager and thought it was awesome, but now I think it’s boring. Tastes change (this says more about me than the composer). I think he wrote some pretty enjoyable music (like the fine piano concertos), and even some light and witty (very French) stuff like Carnival of the Animals. Early on, he was associated with progressive tendencies and was a good friend of Liszt, but later he became very conservative, booing at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Edgard Varèse was a student of his, and they had a pretty uneasy relationship.

I’ve also heard that he simply walked out once he heard the opening bassoon line of Le Sacre du Printemps. Who knows what is apocryphal and what isn’t?

Its clear to me that genius is always applied to a particular creative quality (even a counterfeit one, such as the case of Andy Warhol, the charlatan who conned others into believing he was a genius) or personal force rather than a mere superior form of intellect, the latter being the contemporary definition.

Some people are polymaths, or Renaissance people, and do a number of things well. This does not make them geniuses. A genius in art: creates exceptionally beautiful and/or deeply meaningful works; and often changes the history of their art by the sheer power of their work and its making plain ideas which are floating unarticulated in the collective culture of the time. (Some other geniuses like Bach and Rembrandt bring up the rear, summing up the art of their time better than anyone else and may be completely out of fashion by their middle or old age.) Their ability to do arithmetic or trigonometry, negotiate a contract, fly a glider, make love, cook, garden, lead a political movement or whatever else, has nothing whatsoever to with their artistic genius. If a physicist were good at all the things I mentioned but only mildly important in his original work in the field of physics, would that rank him with Einstein as a genius in physics? Would all the other physicists and scientifically aware people who are looking or waiting for ways out of the conundrums that physics now finds itself in, care in the least about this guy’s ability to fly a glider or cook fucking pasta? If Beethoven could have done multiplication, would more orchestras play his symphonies than do now?

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, but is considered a genius not because he was a polymath but because he painted great paintings, on the level of genius, and changed art history. Without that quality he might be considered a very prescient inventor and a pioneering anatomist and geologist, but would probably not be considered a genius. The fact that he only completed less than a dozen or so paintings underlines the fact of his genius because it is unmistakable even from these few examples. It may also show that his polymathism – he could never keep his wandering mind on one thing for long, even a paid commission – actually possibly undermined his genius.

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