Mindset and “genius” – life lessons from the Schumanns

One of the most popular – and practically useful – concepts to emerge in psychology in recent decades has been Carol Dweck’s concept of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets. Dweck, a Stanford researcher, found that in any given context, people tend to think of their abilities either as already determined and forming part of their sense of who they are, or as changeable, where their success will depend largely on their own efforts to develop their abilities. She calls these “fixed” or “growth” mentalities, and they also show up in her work as “entity” versus “incremental” ways of thinking. This is basically what people are talking about when they distinguish between talent and skill – one comes naturally and the other takes disciplined work.

In practical terms, this means if someone thinks being smart is an either/or thing (“fixed” mindset), then doing poorly on a test can be devastating. On the other hand, if being smart is a process (“growth” mindset), then doing poorly on a test is useful or even valuable, because it highlights where you should turn your attention next. The same ideas also come up in criminal justice – if you think a person is bad by nature, then prison will just be a place to keep them out of trouble, but if you think people can change, then prison should include educational opportunities and rehabilitation.

(I’m not claiming Dweck was totally original with this. It reminds me of Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, in which processes are more real than substances. It’s also closely linked, I think, to the Buddhist teaching that suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept that nothing can ever last. We want some things to be fixed and certain, for our basic sense of security and predictability, but there are limits on how far we can actually go with that, given how biology works. Dweck’s contribution, I’d say, is that she gives us a practical, fairly easy way to shift our thinking that can improve our daily lives.)

Today I learned a fascinating new thing – this mindset distinction actually plays an important role in Western cultural history: the idea of the “creative genius.”

My friend Barbara Harris recently started an online book club as part of her work with the Oregon Bach Festival. It’s free, anyone can join, and it’s fun. Our first book, The Little Bach Book by David Gordon, was mostly about what it was like to live and work in Leipzig in the early 1700s. Johann Sebastian Bach was not an admired superstar during his lifetime – rather, he was a hard-working, salaried musician whose job included teaching music in a school, teaching and directing choirs of two churches, which included providing a cantata every week (he wrote more than 300 of them), and coordinating music at all important public events; he also directed a weekly concert series and gave private keyboard lessons. With all those responsibilities, it’s amazing that he found the time to write music at all, let alone practice for performance – he was also a highly skilled organist.

Bach’s attitude, however, was very much “growth mindset.” One of his pupils attributed this saying to him: “I was obliged to work and study industriously. With enough hard work any halfway talented person can do what I do.”

Surely that’s not literally true! But it indicates Bach’s attitude toward his work.

Our second book, the one we’re discussing now, is Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music by Anna Beer, with our discussions hosted by music historian Holly Roberts. During the pandemic, I’ve had my eyes opened about female composers. For the first year of our relative seclusion, our local symphony conductor, Francesco Lecce-Chong, hosted weekly online talks about dozens and dozens of musical topics, including underrepresented composers. I also got to attend online classes hosted by the Delgani String Quartet, on Beethoven, Mozart, the Romantic era, twentieth-century composers, and more. Thanks to all these great teachers, I’ve learned about earlier American composers like Amy Beach and Florence Price, as well as living composers, like Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Jennifer Higdon, and Jessie Montgomery. Women are increasingly gaining more equal opportunities to create “art music” and have it performed for audiences.

But as this book tells us, there have been female composers all along. That is, beyond the examples of medieval nuns like Hildegard of Bingen (nuns being relatively free from gender constraints), there have been women right alongside the baroque and classical era composers with whom we’re much more familiar. In Italy, Francesca Caccini was a prolific composer whose works include one of the earliest operas, and Barbara Strozzi published at least seven volumes of vocal works. In Vienna, Marianna Martines composed some of the earliest sonatas and was buddies with Mozart. And in France, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a prominent court composer for Louis XIV. I’ve actually heard an entire concert of her work, about three years ago, by the Oregon Bach Collegium. (Have I mentioned how lively our local arts scene is?)

This week’s chapters looked at two of the most familiar women composers: Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann. Fanny’s father considered her just as talented as her celebrated brother, Felix Mendelssohn, and Clara was an established concert pianist long before she married the now-famous Robert Schumann. Both women received excellent educations in music performance and composition, and both composed numerous works, both before and after their marriages.

Fanny, however, came from such a wealthy family that social pressures limited her ability to have her works performed in public, or even published under her own name (Felix generally got the credit, when her work was published at all). Only recently has she been recognized for her extensive body of work, which is generally regarded as quite sophisticated. She also died young (at 41, from a stroke, the same ailment that killed her brother six months later), and having your life cut short certainly precludes opportunities for recognition.

Andreas_Staub_-_Clara_Schumann_(Pastell_1838)And now we come to Clara. She was a hard-working, disciplined musician – unlike Fanny, her family’s financial well-being depended on her ability to earn income. She gave birth to eight children, travelled regularly to give concerts, and composed numerous works, mostly for piano. What about her husband, you might ask? Well, no, you see, he was a genius, and it was her privilege to support him. She saw her life’s work to be the encouragement of her husband, fussing over him, giving the constructive feedback he valued, and taking care of him during his recurring mental health crises. (It’s now believed he had bipolar disorder, probably exacerbated by mercury poisoning, mercury being the standard treatment for syphilis, from which he eventually died at age 46… it must have been very unpleasant to be Robert Schumann). After his death, Clara saw her role as doing whatever she could to ensure her husband received the recognition he was due – she continued to perform (she had to make ends meet) but never composed again.

Here’s Robert’s attitude: “You know the nature of my work; you know it’s creative work and can’t be done at any time of day like the work of a craftsman and so forth.” And as much as he appreciated her help, he believed himself entitled to it too. As the author of the book explains, “…when six years into their marriage a plaster relief was made of the couple, Robert insisted on being portrayed in the foreground, since the ‘creative artist’ had higher status than the ‘performer.’” Her own creative output was not to be taken seriously. And she agreed: “May Robert always create; that must always make me happy.”

(Similarly, and more recently, Albert Einstein got all the credit for his genius, while his apparently more disciplined first wife, Mileva Marić, may have done much of the practical work underlying their discoveries on relativity.)

The Mendelssohns and the Schumanns lived during the height of the Romantic era. Romanticism emphasized intense emotion and individualism, impulse and irrationality, dramatic gestures. It was an era for geniuses, and geniuses were men. More specifically, they were men with innate talent whose social support systems gave them the space to wait for inspiration to strike before they set hand to pen. They certainly weren’t expected to apply the industriousness that Bach had described.

I can’t help but think, though, that the “fixed” mindset implied by “genius” must have added to the mental strain that Robert Schumann found himself living under. Meanwhile, however much she believed in Robert’s gifts, and however meaningful it was to her to stand behind him, Clara’s own lifestyle was a lot more like Bach’s.

The music of the Romantic era is still popular today, beloved for its thrilling pageantry and intimate sweetness, evoking heroism, fairy tales, gods and myths, and the beauty of wild nature. With themes like Man against the World, Romantic-era art is emotionally compelling. Yet this is a domain where ideas that are beautiful in art should probably stay there. Whenever we bring notions like Fate and Destiny into real life, people end up getting hurt, both in their private lives (narcissism, what fun) and in political history. Alex Ross’s Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music illustrates the point, showing how one Romantic-era composer’s music inspired numerous social movements, most notably the self-congratulatory evils of Nazi Germany.

Before I wrap this up, I’d like to put in a plug for the Oregon Bach Festival book club. It’s all free (other than the books, of course, if you choose to buy them), and it’s all online, so you can follow along from anywhere in the world. There’s no obligation to show up for the Tuesday noon discussions, but they’re fascinating and fun, and Barbara is archiving them on the website. We have two more weeks with the current book, including a discussion with author Anna Beer on March 22, and then we’ll be reading Mina Yang’s Planet Beethoven. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

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Image source.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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