You've probably seen this old anti-abortion canard, popular among "right-to-life" activists:
"How would you advise a mother who is pregnant with her fifth child based on the following facts: Her husband has syphilis. She has tuberculosis. Their first child was born blind. Their second child died. Their third child was born deaf. Their fourth child had tuberculosis. Would you advise the mother for an abortion? Oops! If you said yes, you would have just killed the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven! We cannot know what God has in mind for every individual..."
Aside from hilariously having almost every biographical fact wrong (the writer above is 1 for 7 -- I will give a signed book for the first person to name the single correct fact), this pungent morality tale is riddled with logical and cultural fallacies. But my very favorite thing about the story is its faulty science: it rests on the assumption that geniuses are born pre-destined and self-contained, ready to unfold before our eyes.
The born-genius myth is a common one, easy and fun to write about it. But are we ready to confront the more nuanced truth? In his 2005 biography of Beethoven, Edmund Morris paints a sober portrait of a genius in slow, steady formation. His intensive training started early (before age 5), had dark psychological overtones, and reads almost like a recipe for extraordinary ability. Any modern researcher from today's study of expertise would recognize the elements immediately.
Ludwig's early training was ruthless and exhaustive, driven by his tyrannical father Johann who was disappointed in his own achievements. Starting at age 4 or 5, Johann made his eldest son his special project, forcing him to practice constantly. "Neighbors of the Beethovens," Morris writes, "recall seeing a small boy 'standing on front of the clavier and weeping.' He was so short he had to climb a footstool to reach the keys. If he hesitated, his father beat him. When he was allowed off, it was only to have a violin thrust into his hands, or musical theory drummed into his head. There were few days when he was not flogged, or locked up in the cellar. Johann also deprived him of sleep, waking him at midnight for more hours of practice."
Much like future tennis greats at today's Spartak training camp in Russia, tiny Beethoven was allowed aboslutely no artistic or performance freedom for several years. It was all about technique and discipline -- "the constant suppression of his [improvisational] fantasies by Johann ('More of your fooling around....I'll box your ears')," writes Morris. "Even on the violin, Ludwig's fingers could not help searching out new music. 'Now isn't that beautiful?' he would plead. The response was always, 'You are not to do that yet.'"
"Johann's insistence on his practicing by rote laid the foundations of a formidable technique. Over the next two years...he worked 'prodigiously' to develop [his] facility...Of his own accord, he took extra instruction from organists around town."
Did his god-given talent emerge immediately? Apparently not. More than three years into his training,
at around age 8, a schoolmate later recollected of Beethoven, "Not a sign was to be discovered...of that spark of genius which glowed so brilliantly in him afterwards."
At age 10, he outgrew his father's instruction, and moved up to a more capable mentor. At that point, he was exposed to Bach and taught how to compose variations on a theme. His first attempts were mechanical and uninteresting, later evolving into some awkward attempts at something new. When he was 12, his new mentor bragged in a magazine article that Ludwig had the potential to "become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he were to continue as he begun."
And so it went, steadily, persistently, passionately . . .