Mozart: A Theory of Prodigies
By: J. Marlando
There is a great number of folks who swear that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was and remains the best composer ever born. He was certainly the Elvis Presley of his day and, incidentally, Mozart also lived a short lifetime.
It is well known that Wolfgang Amadeus (which means “lover of God) Mozart wrote his first symphony at age four. His father, Johann George Leopold Mozart was an excellent musician and composer himself. Actually, Leopold earned a degree in Philosophy in 1738 but seemingly he was not suited for academics and turned to music as a career in 1740. In 1747 he married Anna Maria Pertl. In the years following she gave birth to seven children with only two surviving infancy—Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna. Anyway, it is strongly suspected that Leopold helped his son with his symphony but even so, for a four year old to compose anything that makes musical sense is quite amazing. Wolfgang was, as said, a prodigy.
By the age of six the entire Mozart family was touring Europe and entertaining kings, queens and other royalty. Of course young Wolfgang was the center of attention. And, starting at that juncture in his life he was destined to compose 600 works not excluding three operas, over forty symphonies along with minuets, sonatas and concertos. Music poured out of him!
The question is from whence was it pouring?
The goal of this article is to attempt an answer to this question.
A VIEW OF SAVANTS
Savants are described as “wise and scholarly” persons but typically when we hear the term we think of a “slow” person who has an amazing talent for doing something. This is usually a correct description but, for the record, these types of talented individuals are cast into their roles by the savant syndrome.
I believe that it is essential to contemplate people with savant syndrome before attempting to explain Mozart’s incredible talent.
There are of course vast lists of amazing savants but I have chosen three to demonstrate how some persons have become so amazingly talented:
A fellow by the name of Tommy McHugh was in his bathroom getting ready to go to work (he was a carpenter) when he felt a sudden pain in his head. Quite suddenly he began bleeding from his nose, ears and eyes. It is said that it took surgeons five hours to stop the bleeding but Tommy survived. Soon enough he was feeling a compulsion to create—he began pouring out poetry and he started painting. He had never felt any urge to do either before the strange occurrence on what began as a very normal day. Here’s Tommy and here’s samples of his art.
Alonzo Clemons on the other hand had shown at least some artistic talent as a very young child; he loved molding in clay even at two years old. But then, at age three Alonzo fell and suffered a serious head injury that left him in what might be described as a constant dazed state. The boy was not even able to dress himself and the doctors graded him to have an IQ of only forty. However, something magical or mystical happened whenever a clump of clay was placed in front of him; he became alert and driven. When he began to sculpt his health improved even to the point of having a part time job. Yet his drive for sculpting, especially animals, remained his love.
His genius is apparent
A most intriguing story is that of Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who had just had a conversation on a public pay phone and was in the process of hanging up when lightening hit the booth, blazing its dose of electricity through the phone and into Tony’s head.
Lucky for Tony the lady who had been waiting to use the phone was a nurse. Her CPR saved his life.
Soon after the accident he was driven to listen to classical piano. Listening was not enough to quench his sudden need for music so he went out bought sheet music and began teaching himself to play the piano. When we realize that he never revealed any desire to play music before the lightening incident. This too is extremely thought provoking. There was a problem, however. His playing other compositions became anxious challenges for him as he kept hearing melodies in his head…which, as it turned out, were his own. He began writing songs and in fact released a CD of his music in 2008. The most popular song from the album has title, “The Lightening Sonata.”
Years ago I worked with a composer by the name of Mark who had lost his eyesight at birth. He was genius at the piano keyboard but also he had the uncanny ability to remember radio news broadcasts which he could repeat verbatim. Many more than a decade in the past! For example, you could say Dec 10th, 1959 and he would quote the newscast from the depth of his psyche without hesitation. Other known savants include Kiyoshi Yamashita often called the “Van Gogh of Japan” and Kim. A mathematical savant who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and was the inspiration for the character Dustin Hoffman played in the movie, Rain Man.
One psychiatrist, Darold Treffert who has been studying savants for over forty years says that most savants have special prodigious memory. This would certainly apply to my ex-composer and his uncanny memory of newscasts. This would apply to Alonzo Clemons who can look at an animal and “remember” every detail that he has seen.
The “memory” theory only goes so far in terms of “recall.” For example, my composer friend recalling those news casts. Interestingly enough this and his amazing musical talents were the only “savant characteristics” that he had—everything else in his life was as normal as life is for any other sightless person. The apparent implication is that we all have somewhere in the deepest corridors of our brains all our experiences—what was it that someone said, we hold in our memories every spider web we’ve ever seen?
So what is again obvious is that serious trauma can somehow open the deepest chambers of our psyches by closing off the present (At least to one extent or another) and creating a narrow pathway to some obscure pocket of information. No one, for example, would or probably could memorize 20 years of radio news broadcast and yet Mark could rattle them off word for word by simply hearing someone challenge him with a date. (I can’t recall what the news report on my car radio said this morning but I do not doubt that it is locked away in my brain someplace).
But what about extraordinary talent, music to mathematics, painting to sculpting by people who have never had a conscious thought or desire to master any art and yet after some head trauma are all of a sudden driven to create.
But even more mysterious are the young children—like Mozart—who have simply not lived long enough to store much memory and are suddenly playing instruments or painting pictures.
We’ll return to Mozart in our attempt to answer these questions.
Where Talents Come From
Certainly a four year old child like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was when he already played well enough to create a symphony did not come from some buried memory. Even though we can assume that yes, music was in his genes. The dexterity to play—with even basic cognizance—would have been a miraculous unfolding of specialized talent.
There are only two explanations as far as I am concerned:
- We are all born with the same potential to be masters of any chosen talent, mechanics to music. The especially talented simply narrows in and focuses on his or her chosen trade. For the savant, however, that focus may not be voluntary (and generally isn’t) and the specialized talent typically arrives after a serious brain trauma of some sort. (In layman’s terms this could be because, if you will, of an unnatural chemical spill or a sudden blockage of electrical pathways or both in the brain—I don’t know—but something greatly narrows the brain’s focus to what I call a particular pocket of information.
(Remember I am speaking here of art, music, mathematics and other spatial skills not the amazing talents of exceptional memory as my friend and composer exhibited recalling radio news broadcasts).
2 .The brain serves as a pathway to universal mind that is omniscient giving a normal brain a transcendental function. This leads us back to the professor at the University of Adelaide, Paul Davies, who told us that, “Nature is a product of its own technology, and the universe is a mind. Our own minds could then be viewed as localized ‘islands’ of consciousness in a sea of mind.
In other words, what I am suggesting is that for one reason or another the (savant) brain loses its cosmic consciousness and, for lack of a better word, gets stuck in some narrow, localized brain state.
I would think that either one of these answers could be the beginning of understanding prodigal children, savants and those suffering from savant syndrome.
I will take this a step further in an attempt to clarify what I am struggling to share: If the reader ever saw the movie 2002 A Space Odyssey he or she will recall that the film starts out showing very ancient, prehistoric, club-swinging people-like creatures. Indeed, one throwing his club into the air and the camera follows it magically changing the image to:
This was the writer’s and director’s way of showing how far our kind had intellectually traveled between past, present and future.
It is my belief that the cave man already had all the information tucked away in the depths of his psyche to achieve all that our kind has and will achieve. The mindscape I’m offering might be best imagined by thinking about the transition between drinking from cupped hands to drinking from the cup, and throwing spears to firing missiles. In other words, I am suggesting that as subliminal levels we are all omniscient and have been long before our kind stepped out of the wilderness to build so-call civilization. (Granted this is pure theory but where does inventiveness and creativity come from anyway?)
In regard to all this, during an interview Bob Dylan said that he was amazed that he came up with the songs and lines that he did—his title “Blowin’ in the Wind” is actually the perfect metaphor for what I’ve been trying to explain. In any case, Bob Dylan said that he had no idea where his ideas came from or how he ever came up with them. There is not a writer, painter or artist of any kind who has not had the feeling of “how’d I come up with that?” And everyone in their own fields has had brilliant moments of invention or discovery that surprised them. The flaw is in the thinking “how’d I come up with that” in terms of one’s own creativity. Imagine instead of crediting the “I” for “coming up” with some concept or ability and instead being in connectedness with an universal reservoir of information that we all draw from; a collective consciousness so to speak.
Take Bobby Fischer. He won the United States chess championship at 14 years old and the title of Grandmaster, during the World-Champion cycle. At 15 years old he won the World’s Championship. How can this be explained beyond the idea that he had been hardwired for chess by some magician or sage? Well, we all see the nonsense in that supposition, so it becomes feasible to believe that he was somehow able to tap into the brilliance of the game and therefore play in the genius way that he played. There are long lists of savants and prodigies in the world to draw from who revealed the same kind of genius as Bobby Fisher and I will name but a few here:
*John Barriatier could speak German, Latin, French and Dutch at the age of 4; knew six languages at the age of 11.
Jeremy Bentham studied Latin at three years old and entered The Queen's College, Oxford, at 12 years old.
Aman Rehman made more than 1000 animated movies, beginning at three years old.,and, at 8, he became the youngest college-lecturer in the world
Barbara Newhall Follett began working on a novel at 8 and was published by age 12.
Balamurali Ambati graduated from high school at 11 years old, was a college junior by 12 years old, and a doctor at 17 years old
Jean Piaget (1896–1980) published a paper on the albino sparrow at 11 years old, and later became a psychologist
(born March 8, 1962) graduated with a Ph.D. in physics at the age of 15.
Daniel Tammet (born 1979) is a savant who can perform complex calculations in his head, doing so since the age of four
John von Neumann (1903–1957) a "mental calculator" by six years old, who could tell jokes in classical Greek.
William Rowan Hamilton, (1805–1865) a mathematician, read Hebrew at seven years old, and studied Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Sanskrit and four other continental languages at 12 years old
Let’s return to John Barratier for a moment, the four year old that could speak German, Latin, French and Dutch. The lad certainly did not draw this up from his past experiences and so memory is not involved. And, since everyone is genetically capable of language he was not preordained from some odd twist of DNA to rattle off foreign languages much less Latin.
An alternative answer would be perhaps he was reincarnated and had held on to certain parts of his old life through memory but that discussion does not belong here. What we can imagine, however, is that, as a savant, he was able to “focus” his mind into what I can only call “the language pocket” in his psyche and tap into those languages that most appealed to him.
In regard to all this Serena Romney-Dougal tells us this: “The biggest implication of psi phenomena is that we are potentially aware of everything in the entire universe.” And she goes on to say, “We are separated from this potential omniscience by the thinnest of veils. In scientific terms this veil is called ‘filter theory.’ We would go totally crazy if we were aware of everything in the entire Universe even for only one second; so we need filters to block out all the most essential items from our conscious awareness.”
What I am thinking is that gifted people such as Mozart somehow (or accidentally) broke through a particular veil to tap into a select knowledge bin (or “pocket” as I have been calling it) or even that the veil was in some way flawed. No matter how it happens the result is demonstrated by evolution of the prodigy or savant. A theory worth thinking about!
Obviously this is all conjecture on my part but I find the subjects fascinating and challenging. To my knowledge and so to date no one else—including those in science—has been able to explain the savant, the prodigy or those with savant syndrome beyond conjecture either. The phenomenon of true genius is, in itself, a puzzle unsolved. There are of course those who attribute most virtually everything to genetics but I believe this to be overtly wearing blinders in a much larger and mysterious world than found in the constructs of the gene.
In any case, it is my hope this article has been great food for thought and that any reader who has his or her own ideas on the subjects covered here would share them.
If you found Mozart interesting you will probably like the music series: