Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Mimicking Mozart? A lesson in (or against) genius

Mimicking Mozart? A lesson in (or against) genius

I'm in mourning this week. I feel bereft at the news of the death of playwright, Sir Peter Shaffer. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing his hilarious Black Comedy performed in the two schools of which I've been head, and his serious masterpiece Amadeus similarly. I've written about both this week in a blog for Voice of the North, which you can read here.

In that blog I touched on the very nature of genius. In Amadeus, Shaffer examines the nature of genius as exemplified by Mozart but views it from the perspective of the vastly talented composer Antonio Salieri, a man without a great gift for music but cursed with a clear insight into what a real gift is (and in the play we witness the pain of his understanding).

It's only a play though, and inevitably, when we consider someone like Mozart, we tend to focus entirely on the nature of genius. There's no doubt that he had a phenomenal musical gift, but he wasn't born that way. When we hear his very youthful works (written at the age of six, seven or eight, though probably with a lot of help from his professional musician dad), we perceive a talent developing. There's no doubt there is a gift: but it is similarly beyond question that he developed that gift by doing almost nothing but music throughout his childhood as his father dragged him around the courts and concert halls of Europe as a child prodigy. That now oft-quoted concept of 10,000 hours' work to develop a prodigious talent is certainly applicable to Mozart.

So, was the genius born or made? The answer is that it is not as simple as that. And it's the wrong question anyway!

Here at RGS we undoubtedly have many boys and girls with significant talents. But all the talent in the world will not make success without its serious application to a context, and without the hard work required to develop it. 

Thus in schools - and, I'd dare to suggest, for parents at home - it's not helpful to praise children, as they unlock and develop their potential, for being terribly good at something. It is without exception more productive to praise the work that they're putting in, the originality of the solution they propose to a problem, the way they have overcome the difficulties they've encountered.

Those are the parts of the process that provide real growth. That's why we are focusing so strongly (at RGS) on helping our students to develop resilience, which is a mixture of the qualities of sticking at things, learning from (rather than feeling defeated by) failure, planning the solution to a challenge, mapping out and enacting the next stage. Parents and students will hear more and more of this from us as we increasingly build it centrally into our teaching and learning in the school.

So where does that leave Mozart? Arguably, if you believe his (largely fictional) sad and early end in the play Amadeus, Mozart enjoyed his early fame: felt trammelled and straight-jacketed by working full time for the Archbishop of Salzburg, and set off to Vienna in search of fame and fortune.

He achieved both at first - but arguably (and that's where the history isn't entirely clear) fell out of favour with both the court and the concert-going public, dying in poverty.

Did he need more lessons in resilience? Would a greater measure of that quality have aided him in coping with the difficulties and recasting his approach, even the music he wrote, to remain at the forefront of the Viennese cultural world?

In truth, he probably did fall short. So we can learn even from that acknowledged genius, and become ever better at helping out students to develop those powerful personal qualities that underlie all lasting (as opposed to ephemeral) success.

Meanwhile I'm sorry there won't be any more Peter Shaffer plays. He was a very, very special writer.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster