Musical Genius (or Nothing New Under the Sun)

With the close of tax season, we all need a little break from discussions of dollars and cents.  So this week, I’m going entirely off subject to share a post I recently wrote for the Jon Maurer Band’s musical blog.  If that name looks familiar, it’s because it belongs to my brother who’s lent his talents and music to several of my posts and videos, including Making Financial Music.  I’ve had the privilege to bask in Jon’s musical glow as the drummer for the Jon Maurer Band, and here I’m discussing “Musical Genius.”

Music is miraculous, with the ability to well up thoughts, feelings and emotions that otherwise may never surface.  But for a musician, both playing and listening to music can also be a humbling experience.  As one endowed with an arguably broad but decidedly shallow depth of musical talent, I’m often given the opportunity to enjoy this humbling.

You see, every time the Jon Maurer Band performs—or even practices, where some of our best work is often produced, but never consumed—I represent the fourth in a quartet of otherwise extraordinary musicians.  This isn’t false modesty, nor do I believe it to be a hopelessly biased opinion of my co-laborers’ gifts, but an objective assessment of their innate talent—virtuosity even—and well-honed musical craftsmanship.  I really believe these guys—Jon Maurer, Nick Selvi and Dirk Frey—are musical geniuses.

Billy JoelOne of the qualities that seems to be universal among musical geniuses is a voracious appetite for the contributions of other musical phenoms—and not just from a select few genres.  Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Good musicians borrow, great musicians steal.”  Indeed, the great Billy Joel is famous for ripping Beethoven’s Pathetique (first performed in 1798) in his “cover” entitled This Night (released in 1984)i.

But with the exception of Billy Joel’s homage to the great Romantic, I don’t think too many great musicians set out to copy the music of other great musicians.  Have you ever watched a great musician listen to great music?  It’s a sight to behold.  They immerse themselves so fully (and so often) in it that the offspring of their own genius is simply a natural byproduct of that which they’ve consumed.

Consider the ancient saying, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”ii   Is it possible that every great piece of music is a regurgitation of another (whether its creator knows it or not)?

If you haven’t, I’d like to invite you to explore the roots of music as you know it.  Few would doubt, for example, that Billy Joel’s influence played a role in the music created by my brother, Jon Maurer.  But before Jon knew of BJ’s existence, he was breathing in Bach, Handel, Mozart and the artist I humbly submit as his deepest influencer—Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven was passion personified.  “But I just can’t get into classical music,” you say.  I submit the “Cliff’s BeethovenNotes” version of Beethoven—the movie, Immortal Beloved.iii   Although it likely contains as much fiction as fact, Gary Oldman seems to summon Beethoven’s ghost in his depiction, and the soundtrack alone is an excellent survey course in this great composer’s work.

Another musical great who demands to be in your consciousness and your collection is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Mozart preceded Beethoven and could be seen as the first great musical innovator.  Conveniently, his life and work has also been condensed for you in the Academy Award winning, Amadeus.  Mozart  Mozart practically defines the word prodigy, as he began composing and performing before European royalty at the age of five.  He set a bar for musical genius that may be beyond parallel.

Mozart’s story is sadly incomplete without mention of Salieri.  Antonio Salieri was an accomplished musician in his own right, but is rumored to have stewed with envy as the upstart, Mozart, began to strip every ounce of his fame—and eventually, his dignity.  (Check out this Salieri/Mozart scene depicted in Amadeus.)

Humility may be appropriate in the presence of musical genius—and many do resort to envy—but I believe the preferable emotion to be invoked when struck with greatness is simply… awe.  

If you’re into music, I highly recommend checking in with the Jon Maurer Band Blog regularly, where each of the band’s members contribute.  I especially recommend these posts on “The Wild World of Neo-Soul” and “5 Albums to Start Your Jazz Collection.”


[i] If you follow the hyperlinks, listen to Pathetique first—at least the beginning—and then listen to the chorus of This Night… stealing, not borrowing.

[ii] This is wisdom from the ancient Hebrew King Solomon as quoted in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (New International Version).

[ii] If you’re thinking of introducing your children to Beethoven’s work through the movie, you may consider screening it first as the maestro’s zest for life spills over into a few seconds of nudity.