The Possessor and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Idea of Musical Genius [NOOK Book]


The concept of genius intrigues us. Artistic geniuses have something other people don’t have. In some cases that something seems to be a remarkable kind of inspiration that permits the artist to exceed his own abilities. It is as if the artist is suddenly possessed, as if some outside force flows through him at the moment of creation. In other cases genius seems best explained as a natural gift. The artist is the possessor of an extra talent that enables the production of masterpiece after masterpiece. This book ...
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The Possessor and the Possessed: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Idea of Musical Genius

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The concept of genius intrigues us. Artistic geniuses have something other people don’t have. In some cases that something seems to be a remarkable kind of inspiration that permits the artist to exceed his own abilities. It is as if the artist is suddenly possessed, as if some outside force flows through him at the moment of creation. In other cases genius seems best explained as a natural gift. The artist is the possessor of an extra talent that enables the production of masterpiece after masterpiece. This book explores the concept of artistic genius and how it came to be symbolized by three great composers of the modern era: Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Peter Kivy, a leading thinker in musical aesthetics, delineates the two concepts of genius that were already well formed in the ancient world. Kivy then develops the argument that these concepts have alternately held sway in Western thought since the beginning of the eighteenth century. He explores why this pendulum swing from the concept of the possessor to the concept of the possessed has occurred and how the concepts were given philosophical reformulations as views toward Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven as geniuses changed in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Author Biography: Peter Kivy is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and the author of more than a dozen books on aesthetics and musical aesthetics.

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Table of Contents


I Time out of Mind....................1
II Greatness of Mind....................13
III Breaking the Rule....................22
IV The Saxon or the Devil....................37
V The Genius and the Child....................57
VI The Little Man from Salzburg....................78
VII Giving the Rule....................97
VIII An Unlicked Bear....................119
IX Mozart's Second Childhood....................149
X Odd Men Out....................164
XI Beethoven Again....................175
XII Gendering Genius....................218
XIII Reconstructing Genius....................238
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First Chapter

The Possessor and the Possessed



Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-08758-1

Chapter One

Time out of Mind

Vienna celebrated Haydn's seventy-sixth birthday with a performance of The Creation in his honor. The aging master was carried into the Great Hall in a chair, to the accompaniment of fanfares and cheers-fitting tribute to his genius-and seated beside the Princess Ester-hazy. "When the passage [in The Creation], 'And there was Light,' was reached, Haydn (as Carpani, who was an eye-witness, relates) 'raised his trembling arms to Heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony.'" Another version of the incident has it that he spoke words to the effect that "Not from me, from thence comes everything."

More than twenty centuries before, Homer, though he prayed to other divinities, said much the same thing when he began the Iliad "Sing, goddess, the angerof Peleus' son Achilleus ...," and the Odyssey, "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story...."

I suppose one might be tempted to call this a "theory" of "creativity," and where the "creativity" is at a high enough level, a "theory" of "genius." But what it really is, I think, is a way ofsuggesting that such a "theory" is impossible. It is a way of suggesting that there is no explanation for how someone "gets a bright idea." For convenience, though, I will call this the "inspiration theory" of "creation," and later, when it becomes appropriate, the "inspiration theory" of "genius." I say when it becomes appropriate, because although Haydn certainly had available to him something like the modern notion of "genius" and "a genius," certainly the Homeric poets did not.

Now the inspiration theory of creativity is, as the openings of the Iliad and Odyssey demonstrate, a very old idea in Western thought. But it can hardly be taken seriously as a "theory," or even called that until given a philosophical analysis. And that too came early on in the history of Western thought. It was given definite conceptual outline in Plato's wonderful little Socratic dialogue, the Ion. It is there that the story I wish to tell in my book really begins in earnest.

Ion, with whom Socrates has his brief colloquy, follows the profession of "rhapsode." He recites poetry, or "sings" it, to the accompaniment, one supposes (or knows?), of a stringed instrument. But he also-and this seems, I think, strange to us-interlards his performance with interpretive comments on the poetry he is reciting or singing. In other words, he is a performer and "critic" all wrapped into one. I suppose his performance might have been something like an "illustrated lecture."

Furthermore, if Plato's description, in the Republic, is to be credited, the recitation was accompanied not only by music, and by critical comment, but by "sound effects" as well. As Plato describes the affair, clearly with contempt, the rhapsode "will be inclined to omit nothing in his narration, and to think nothing too low for him, so that he will attempt, seriously, and in the presence of many hearers, to imitate everything without exception, ... claps of thunder and the noise of the wind and hail, and of wheels and pulleys, and the sounds of trumpets and flutes and pipes and all manner of instruments; nay even the barking of dogs, the bleating of sheep, and the notes of birds...." The rhapsode, then, as we might put it, is a veritable one-man band.

Now what particularly engages Plato's attention, in the Ion, is that the rhapsode is, so to say, a kind of "specialist." Ion seems good only at commenting on Homer. At that he is top dog. But he is at a loss commenting on anyone else. As he puts it to Socrates, in the form of a question: "Then what can be the reason, Socrates, why I pay no attention when somebody discusses any other poet, and am unable to offer any remark at all of any value, but simply drop into a doze, whereas if anyone mentions something connected with Homer I wake up at once and attend and have plenty to say?" Socrates wonders the same thing; it is the object of his inquiry.

To understand Socrates' problem, we must backtrack a bit in the dialogue to see how the problem was reached in the first place.

Early on, Socrates asks Ion, "[A]re you skilled in Homer only, or in Hesiod and Archilochus as well?," to which Ion's prompt reply is: "No, no, only in Homer; for that seems to me quite enough." Socrates' next question, obviously a rhetorical one, is: "Does Homer speak of any other than the very things that all the other poets speak of?"; Ion gives the sought-for answer: "What you say is true, Socrates."

The problem then is this. When a group of people talk, professionally, about the same things, the same subject matter, they constitute a craft, a "techne," an "art" (as our translator, and most others, render it). And if I am able to talk intelligently and well about what one member of the group says, it follows that I must be able to talk intelligently and well about what all of them say. That is because in order to talk intelligently and well about even what one of such a group says, you must have learned his craft or techne or art. There is no other way to accomplish that. And if one has learned his craft or techne or art, then there is no reason one cannot talk intelligently and well about what every member of that craft may say.

Now we can see Socrates' problem emerging. For if the poets all talk about the same things, as Socrates and Ion agree they do, why then they must constitute a craft or techne or art. And since Ion can talk intelligently and well about what Homer says, it follows that he must be able to talk about what Hesiod says, and Archilochus, and the rest. For he must be talking intelligently and well about Homer by applying the poetic techne or art; and that techne or art can be applied to any poet with equally satisfactory results. Yet Ion cannot talk intelligently and well about the rest of the poets-only about Homer.

And when brought to this point in the inquiry, Ion is driven to ask the question with which we began: "Then what can be the reason, Socrates, why I pay no attention when somebody discusses any other poet, and am unable to offer any remark at all of any value, but simply drop into a doze, whereas if anyone mentions something concerned with Homer I wake up at once and attend and have plenty to say?" Socrates' answer to this question is more or less straightforward, at least for our purposes. But it does leave a relevant loose end in the dialogue that is difficult, if not impossible, to tie up. Let me first present the straightforward part, and then go on to the more doubtful.

If Ion were using techne or art to speak intelligently and well about Homer, then it would follow that he could speak intelligently and well about any poet. But he can speak intelligently and well only about Homer. It would seem to follow that Ion is not speaking intelligently and well about Homer by the application of techne or art. And that is exactly the conclusion Socrates reaches: "this is not an art in you, whereby you speak well on Homer, but a divine power which moves you like that in the stone which Euripides named a magnet...." In other words, Ion is "possessed."

Were Socrates' conclusion applicable merely to the rhapsode it would be of limited interest. But the image of the magnet extends the conclusion in two opposite directions: from the rhapsode to his audience, and, more important still, for present purposes, from the rhapsode to the poet. For magnetism is "transitive": what the magnet attracts will itself attract because it has been "infected" by magnetism itself. "In the same manner also the Muse inspires men herself, and then by means of these inspired persons the inspiration spreads to others, and holds them in a connected chain." Most important, the magnet first "infects" the poets themselves. "For all the good epic poets utter all these fine poems not from art, but as inspired and possessed, and the good lyric poets likewise...."

Put another way, it is not the poet who speaks but the Muse or the God through the poet; and this we conclude for the same reason we were forced to conclude the very same thing about the rhapsodes. For like the rhapsodes, the poets are "specialists," each speaking about the same things, as we have seen, but not in the same way. Poets, that is to say, have different "styles." And so the inspiration theory turns out to be not merely a theory of "content" (for the rhapsode) but a theory of "style" (for the poet) as well.

Seeing then that it is not by art that they compose and utter such fine things about the deeds of men-as you do about Homer-but by a divine dispensation, each is able only to compose that to which the Muse has stirred him, this man dithyrambs, another laudatory odes, another dance-songs, another epic or else iambic verse; but each is at fault at any other kind. For not by art do they utter these things, but by divine influence; since, if they had fully learnt by art to speak on one kind of theme, they would know how to speak on all. And for this reason God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers.

Here then, in brief (to summarize), is the straightforward part of Socrates' argument. Rhapsodes and poets are alike in that they seem to be "specialists": each rhapsode seems to be able to speak intelligently and well about only one poet, and each poet intelligently and well in only one manner (or "style"). If they all had a rational method, if they had "art," however, each rhapsode would be able to speak intelligently and well about every poet; and each poet would be able to speak intelligently and well in any manner or style. But if they have no rational method or art, how do they speak intelligently and well at all? The answer must be that someone else speaks through them intelligently and well. It is the God or the Muse. They are simply the "possessed."

Later on I will examine Socrates' "theory" of "possession" more closely, to see what significance it can have for those of us who do not believe in gods and muses. But before I do that I must, as promised, try to pick up the loose end. What might it be?

Shoemakers have an art, a techne, and make shoes by applying it. The same is true of charioteers and doctors and mathematicians, who all possess rational methods appropriate to their disciplines, and fabricate the "products" of these disciplines by employing them.

Similarly, those who are capable of passing judgment on the products of an art or techne must themselves possess that art or techne, else how could they make such judgments? On Socrates' view, it does take a jockey to know a horse-or it takes someone at least somewhat versed in the "art" of horsemanship.

But what of poetry? If poems are neither produced by poets nor judged by rhapsodes through art or techne, but are produced and judged through possession by the God, doesn't it follow that poetry is not an art or techne? Yet that does not appear to be Socrates' view. For he says to Ion: "anyone can see that you are unable to speak on Homer with art or knowledge. For if you could do it with art, you could speak on all the other poets as well; since there is an art of poetry, as a whole, is there not?" And so we are stuck with the somewhat cumbersome, inelegant position that poetry, in contrast to all other arts, is created, interpreted, and evaluated not by means of its "art," but by divine afflatus. Why so? We are owed an explanation, but none is in evidence.

In this connection it is interesting to examine the examples Socrates gives of "arts" where at least "interpretation" and "evaluation" are the result of rational method, of techne. They are all arts of "representation," mimesis-what we would call the "fine arts." (Plato of course had no such concept.)

Socrates begins: "And when one has acquired any other art whatever [besides poetry, that is] as a whole, the same principle of inquiry holds through all the arts?" Again, a rhetorical question which elicits from Ion the called-for affirmative response.

There then follows a series of rhetorical questions of the same kind, all requiring Ion to respond in the negative, which he obligingly does. "Now have you ever found anybody who is skilled in pointing out the successes and failures among the works of Polygnotus son of Aglaophon, but unable to do so with the works of the other painters ...?" "Or again, in sculpture, have you ever found anyone who is skilled in expounding the successes of Daedalus son of Metion, or Epeius son of Panopeus, or Theodorus son of Samos, or any other single sculptor, but in face of the works of the other sculptors is at a loss and dozes, having nothing to say?" "But further, I expect you have also failed to find one in fluting or harping or minstrelsy or rhapsodizing ...," and so on.

One crucial thing Socrates does not tell us explicitly is whether the making of pictures, statues, and the rest is the result of art or of divine possession. It would be hard, though, not to surmise the former. If painting and sculpture and musical performance are art, and if it is art that produces interpretations and evaluations of them-which it must be, since the interpreter and evaluator can pass judgment not on the work of just one practitioner but all in the discipline-then it would be odd in the extreme to deny that it is also art that produces the works in the first place. It seems an anomaly that poetry should both be an art and produce both poems as well as their interpretations not through art but through divine possession. It would be an anomaly on top of an anomaly to maintain that painting, sculpture and musical performance, all arts, as poetry apparently is, should, like poetry, produce works through divine inspiration but, unlike poetry, interpretations and evaluations through art. And Socrates, although giving us no positive statement to rule this double anomaly out, gives us no reason either for us to subscribe to it. One anomaly is enough!

We are then apparently stuck with the anomalous position that poetry, alone of all the arts, representational and non-representational, generates both its products and its interpretations (and evaluations) of them through the God. But are we really stuck with even this single anomaly? A look at the Greek text and an alternative translation suggest otherwise: suggest a plausible way out, a more rational interpretation of Plato's position on poetry in the Ion.

Generations of readers have been made acquainted with Plato's dialogues through Benjamin Jowett's famous translation. His rendering of our problematic passage is revealing: it does not contain mention of poetry as art or techne at all. As Jowett has it: "No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would be able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole."

Throughout the Ion Plato makes the claim that something is "a whole" in conjunction with the claim that it is an "art" or "techne." Our modern translator, W. R. M. Lamb, has obviously interpreted Plato to the effect that if something is "a whole," it is an "art"; and since the word "art" does not appear in the Greek text of our trouble-some passage (which it does not) he adds it, as does the most recent translator of the dialogue, Paul Woodruff. But Jowett does not add it. And the question now arises whether, nevertheless, it must be understood as implied. I think not. It makes far better sense of the argument of the Ion to have Plato saying that poetry is distinct from all the other "wholes," in that it is "a whole" but not an "art." In other words, the doctrine of the Ion is that if something is an art, it is a whole, but if a whole, not necessarily an art-poetry being an instance, and prophecy, perhaps, another.


Excerpted from The Possessor and the Possessed by PETER KIVY Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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