How one extraordinary talent may be the key to genius


What is a genius? We use the word frequently but surely, to guard its meaning, we should bestow it seldom.

Arturo Toscanini

To me, a genius is a person whose gift contains an element of the inexplicable, not to be accounted for by heredity, upbringing, background, exertions and talents, however noble. Thus, we can’t account for the extraordinary imagination of Chaucer, the vintner’s son, brought up at a military-minded court. Equally, where Shakespeare got or acquired his magic is a mystery. By contrast, Jane Austen, though one of the greatest of novelists — and my personal favourite — is a straightforward case of a clever girl, brought up in the congenial environment of a reading family, with its jokes, theatricals, verse-writing and wide acquaintance, who used her natural wit and sharp gift of observation, helped by her appreciative but critical siblings, to create a new kind of realistic fiction. No mystery there, whereas Dickens, coming from nowhere and nothing, to explode his Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers as a superbly self-confident young master, is an enigma. We can’t explain it, any more than we can explain why Kipling, at 18, wrote so truthfully and enchantingly about the secrets of human hearts, of both sexes and many races.

When I was 12 or 13, and first making incursions into the musical repertoire, my idea of a genius was Arturo Toscanini. He was then conducting New York’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra he virtually created and which was disbanded after his retirement. I contrived to hear him conducting all Beethoven’s symphonies, either on records or on the wireless, and they are still my ideal of how they should be played; rightly so, for his fidelity both to the score and the spirit and intention of the composer was his lifelong object, achieved so comprehensibly that he changed the art of conducting for good. He looked the part too: not tall, in fact, though he seemed immense at the rostrum, but gloriously handsome with fierce, penetrating eyes and an expression of such masterful intensity as to make you gasp; a terror to the idle, incompetent, insincere or anyone who did not take great music with total seriousness.

Toscanini came from Parma, where they certainly had always taken all the arts seriously. His father was nothing much: a tailor by trade who made a bare living, or less. His chief interest in life was politics. He had been a follower of Garibaldi, and his proudest possession was his red shirt, worn as a militant irredentist. His family was lucky if they got enough to eat. On the other hand, in his tailor’s shop, men used to congregate to read aloud poetry and dramas and to sing opera. It was an age and a place where art was more important than a full stomach or a comfortable dwelling. When young Toscanini showed signs of musical talent, even his father, lazy though he was, stirred himself to get the boy into the local conservatoire, and eventually succeeded, Arturo specialising in the cello. He was then nine, and he was there nine years. It was then (1877) a fearsome place, dirty and insanitary; cold in winter. The food was disgusting, often fish bought cheap because it was going rotten, and the nastiest wine. There was only one water closet and no baths: the boys, who wore military uniform, went once a year for a bath at the town hospital. They slept on palliasses of straw, changed infrequently, and the dormitory stank. The boys were rarely allowed out. Discipline was strict and punishments severe. When Toscanini failed to button up his uniform properly, he was locked up in a small room with his cello. After some hours, he called the custodian and asked permission to go to the lavatory. He was told: ‘No! Control yourself!’ In the end he was obliged to pee into his cello, and when this was later discovered, he was further punished.

Yet Toscanini emerged at the end of nine years an accomplished musician with an extraordinary knowledge of the repertoire. His memory was prodigious, perhaps the best in the whole history of music. It was this particular gift, assisted by ceaseless industry and application, and by huge self-discipline and concentration, which pushed him into the magic circle of genius. At 18, his first job was with a third-rate travelling opera company which toured Brazil. In Rio, the local conductor, a Brazilian, had to be sacked for incompetence. His Italian substitute, from the company, was booed even before he could begin to conduct, and he fled from the theatre. In despair the manager turned to 18-year-old Toscanini, still playing cello but known to be an all-rounder. The young man took over. The opera was Aida — long, difficult and exhausting. He used no score. He knew it by heart. He soon had the audience hushed, the company playing and singing their best, and the evening was a triumph. Here was a victory of genius over circumstances, and though Toscanini’s subsequent ascent to the rostra of La Scala and the Metropolitan was by no means smooth, his destiny was fixed.

So his memory was the means whereby he dragged the musical world into a new era of conducting and authenticity — beginning with the first proper performance of the cliché-encrusted Trovatore at La Scala.

I don’t know of any other case in which memory played so important a part in the evolution of a genius. At 18, it seems, Toscanini already knew 50 operas by heart, and the number eventually rose to over 100. He never wore glasses, either from vanity or more likely because he could not find a pair to suit him. Perfect memory of a score was therefore indispensable to him. It was also a godsend, for if a conductor can avoid constant reference to a score, and all the business of turning pages, he can concentrate on the players and singers much more intently and comfortably. And it goes without saying that he knows the score in a way which mere familiarity through reading will never permit. It meant that Toscanini could go straight to the heart of great music to grasp the composer’s intentions. So his memory was the means whereby he dragged the musical world into a new era of conducting and authenticity — beginning with the first proper performance of the cliché-encrusted Trovatore at La Scala. No wonder the aged Verdi once sent him a telegram, after a performance of Otello, which read simply: ‘Grazie, grazie, grazie.’

The way in which a particular single gift, like Toscanini’s memory, heightened to an almost unimaginable pitch, becomes the key to genius, can be illustrated by other examples. Vermeer, for instance, had such unwavering control over his brush that he put the paint on the canvas without appearing to do so with any physical action of his own. It is as though it floated down to settle with total accuracy on the place designated by his mind. This skill, without parallel in the history of painting, was the key to his particular genius, which was to render stillness and make it living, even dynamic.

Some writers have a particular skill in bending and twisting words to a special purpose. What raised Mark Twain from being merely an exceptionally resourceful (and ruthless) writer to the genius level was his skill with dialects: he uses seven, all distinct and perfect in Huckleberry Finn. Again, it is hopeless to single out the special skill in Shakespeare, because he had so many. But if one had to choose, I would say it is his brilliant dialogue: terse, direct, exciting to speak and hastening on the action at a terrific lick — as for instance in Macbeth, act two, scene two. Dialogue of this quality has not been bettered in the four centuries since the play was written. Or again, in the case of Tchaikovsky, the sheer invention and beauty of the melodic line are the title deeds to genius. I often think of this, and the poor man’s sad, solitary death, a victim of harsh convention, when I sing that moving song, ‘None but the lonely heart’. We cannot explain genius but we can salute it.

Arturo Toscanini/NBC Symphony
Forza Overture by Giuseppe Verdi

New York City, 1944


Paul Johnson. "How one extraordinary talent may be the key to genius." The Spectator (February 13, 2008).

This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.


Paul Johnson, celebrated journalist and historian, is the author most recently of George Washington: The Founding Father. Among his other widely acclaimed books are A History of the American People, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, Intellectuals, Art: A New History, and The Quest for God: Personal Pilgrimage. He also produces brief surveys that slip into the pocket, such as his popular The Renaissance and Napoleon. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator, and the Daily Telegraph. He lectures all over the world and lives in Notting Hill (London) and Somerset.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Johnson

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