When we look at the so-called “miraculous gifts” of musical prodigies, it is easy to get caught up in the nature vs. nurture debate: are these prodigies born or made? But we won’t be entering here into the discussion as to whether genetics or education plays the greater role. Instead, there may be a secondary element to this debate that is often overlooked, an element that intrinsically ties together these two conflicting sides. That element is nothing less than destiny.
You don’t have to be a believer in fate to see that the influence of a supernaturally approved predestination could be surprisingly strong in these young people’s lives. Of course, I am not postulating here the existence of a higher being. Indeed, whether a divine power exists or not is utterly irrelevant; what is important is the following question: how does believing in a divine master plan shape a child’s development, and how do the parents and mentors of children that have been “touched by the finger of God” deal with their precocious child? To explore this question more closely, let’s examine the role of destiny in the early lives of three legendary musical prodigies.
Wolfgang A. Mozart
It is not difficult to understand why Mozart’s profound precocity elicited the belief that his musical inspiration came directly from God. For Mozart’s father, his son was nothing less than “a God-given miracle”. This belief would have been often communicated to the young Mozart, leading him to most certainly grow up believing in this divine intervention, and perhaps even seeing himself as a “chosen one”. Undoubtedly, this would have had a significant impact on his motivation, as well as that of his father who consecrated so much of his time, energy, and monetary resources to his son.
In Paganini’s case, it seems that the supernatural influence was more diabolical than divine. His mother was prone to prophetic visions and dreams, which instigated Paganini’s otherworldly image. It was even rumoured that when the young Paganini was only six years old, his mother sold his soul to the devil to ensure that he became the world’s greatest violinist. Throughout his life he was given such notorious titles as “fallen angel”, “magician of the south”, and even “witch’s brat”. This supernatural fascination with Paganini began in his early childhood, and was certainly fuelled by not only his mother, but also his tyrannical father. Paganini would have been educated to believe in his uniqueness, and so would those who came to see him, thus mirroring back to him this same belief. Paganini was not only considered by those around him to be a prodigy and genius, but also a confidant of the Devil, or even a demigod, placing him outside the realm of mere mortals.
For Gould, the belief in a divine purpose came not from his parents, but from within himself. After attending a concert by the celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann when he was just six years old, Gould, highly impressed, fell into a slumbering fantasy, whereby he recalls becoming magically transformed into Hofmann himself, and hearing himself (as Hofmann) playing. This fantasy must have been extremely vivid; Gould remembered the sensation of “playing as Hofmann” for the rest of his life, and it fuelled in him the understanding that he could and would ultimately reach that level of proficiency. For the young Gould, this youthful delusion seemed to act as “proof” of his musical destiny. While no exact mention of God was given, we are nonetheless left with the impression of the intervention of a higher order, and that a predetermined future had already been planned for Gould.
When a child believes or is led to believe that they are predestined to succeed, any setbacks are viewed not in a negative light, but as temporary hurdles that will be overcome. The anxiety and self-doubt felt by most young musicians at certain points of their musical development would be tempered, and inner conflict about the possibility of ever making it to the top all but dissipated. The sense of a predestined future – whether real or perceived – ultimately bestows on children, their families, and mentors nothing less than a powerful motivational momentum. When you have destiny on your side, you become unstoppable.
Featured image credit: Nicolo Paganini, by Richard James Lane, 1831. National Portrait Gallery: NPG D5451. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.