Why the myth of the mentally ill composer is musical nonsense

The great composers have often been seen as outlandish, eccentric or even mentally ill. But is there really a link between creativity, genius and mental illness?

Why the myth of the mentally ill composer is musical nonsense
Les mains du compositeur Carl Orff sur une de ses partitions ©A.DagliOrti/GettyImages

Some composers heard voices and melodies in their head, which they then wrote down on their blank staves. Were Schumann, Haydn, Shostakovich and others like them mentally ill? Was it an impediment or, on the contrary, a valuable source of inspiration?

Scientists and psychologists have asked themselves what links there might be between creativity and mental illness in an attempt to define to what extent one influences the other. The image of the mentally ill composer took form over the centuries but has become more myth than reality: an attempt to liven up the history of music but also to provide a rational explanation for why geniuses are so popular and why masterpieces even exist.

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What is a genius?

"When we talk about genius, often it's not precise enough," says Benjamin Frantz from the LATI research unit on innovation and creativity. "Genius is that which is uncommon, extreme or beautiful," he continues. From a scientific viewpoint, a genius is someone capable of producing something highly original. In an article in the journal Sciences et Avenir, Dean Keith Simonton, a researcher in psychology, adds: "Geniuses are those people who 'make history' through their contribution in an area of creativity or leadership".

The history of music shows that there have been numerous geniuses among composers, such as Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Wagner, Haydn and many others. But these artists became geniuses with the passing of time. In their own time, they might have been known or recognised as talented composers or virtuoso performers, but they were rarely considered geniuses. "Whether or not something is a work of 'genius' depends on the culture and the era in which it was created," explains Benjamin Frantz.

It is a question of judgement and an important distinction between the work and the person who produced it. Where is the "genius", in the work or in the artist? "Very creative people have a large output," comments Benjamin Frantz, "and not everything they produce is genius level". What Benjamin Frantz is suggesting is based on logic: in music, the more you compose, the greater your chances of writing a work of genius.

Before being recognised as a genius, Mozart was a creative, talented, inspired and, most importantly, very productive composer. Of his 600 or so compositions, not all are the work of genius, but it is easier to pick out the most accomplished and inspired pieces and consider them "works of genius". If we follow this line of thought, the links between quantity and quality are obvious.

How is a masterpiece born?

Let's return to the example of Mozart. Public opinion readily sees "strokes of genius" in his works. But, fundamentally, what is genius? We picture the composer, with a sudden inspiration, writing a symphony down on paper in one night. While the facts of the matter may have happened that way, it was not actually a stroke of genius. Genius does not just happen like a miracle: it needs an "incubation period".

This period corresponds to the creative process. "It starts with an idea that must be allowed to ripen: this is the incubation period. Then the person doing the creating lets it decant, and when he goes back to work, it's clearer in his mind and he can produce something," says Benjamin Frantz. This interval explains, in part, a similar behaviour on the part of composers: the need to withdraw from the world in order to write.

Hence another myth - the genius working in solitude - bites the dust. "No-one has good ideas all on their own in isolation," says Benjamin Frantz. The great composers did not all live in seclusion, cut off from society. On the contrary, the majority were deeply involved in society as a teacher, concert performer or choirmaster... And they spent a lot of time in the company of other artists, listening to each other's music or the music of their predecessors.

Mixing with others gives them fresh energy and an opportunity to find new ideas, information and images. This whole process is part of the incubation period. Once composers had replenished their resources, some of them voiced the need to be alone to write. In the collective imagination, this image makes composers look unusual, even marginal.

Why composers are not (so) mentally ill

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"Most geniuses are not very ill, precisely because they are creators," says Philippe Brenot, author of the book Le génie et la folie, en peinture, musique et littérature, in a video posted by l'Obs. This psychiatrist believes that artists suffer fewer neuroses and mental disorders, because of their art. "Geniuses have a sort of balance because of their creative work. They will create a work that keeps mental illness at bay," says Philippe Brenot in his presentation.

Moreover, the musical community seems to be spared by psychological disorders. Admittedly, many composers had their eccentricities, such as Schoenberg's fear of the number 13, Gounod's mysticism and Erik Satie's excessive, off-beat humour. But very few were actually mentally ill. Only Robert Schumann had serious disorders that forced him to spend the end of his life in an asylum.

Why are composers less at risk of mental illness than painters or writers? "Music imposes such strong constraints that it is impossible to be completely mentally ill and still able to compose," says Benjamin Frantz. Music lays down a more or less strict framework, depending on the periods: musical time, harmony, the linear nature of the work can be very binding.

All of these constraints force the composer to comply with an established order to write music, and follow rules specific to composition, whether or not they come naturally. The expression of mental illness is regulated by this framework, even if there is also room for a degree of latitude, and the best composers have always managed to get around the rules...

The "strokes of genius" of composers ahead of their time will go down in history. And their delightful eccentricities will be taken for mental illness.