Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.39

Peter Kivy, The Possessor and the Possessed. Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and the idea of musical genius.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2001.  Pp. xiv, 287.  ISBN 0-300-08758-6.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Hugh Mason, Classics, University of Toronto (
Word count: 1607 words

Why should a work dealing with Handel and Mozart be reviewed in BMCR? My impression, from conversations with colleagues and observing their presence in the audience at concerts, is that serious interest in classical music is more common among classicists than the general academic community. This impression has been confirmed by events such as the panel on opera at the APA convention in Philadelphia in 2002. There is, however, a more pertinent reason than general appreciation of classical music, for classicists to look at Kivy's study of "possession"; it is built on two classical sources, the Ion of Plato and the treatise On the Sublime ascribed to Longinus. The central topic of Kivy's study, the difference between the "possessor" and the "possessed", depends on the contrast that he perceives between the assertion made in Ion that the poet or performer speaks not through art but divine inspiration, and "Longinus'" account of the inherent qualities (Kivy calls them the "natural genius") of the artist who produces sublime works. In successive chapters, Kivy applies these two different views of genius to the interpretations that have been made of the lives and careers of Handel, Mozart and Beethoven: Handel was portrayed by his biographer John Mainwaring as a "Longinian genius" (37-56); Mozart, the child prodigy, was seen by Schopenhauer and Goethe as an inspired genius on the Platonic model (57-98); Beethoven, the "Unlicked Bear" in the view of his Romantic contemporaries, proved his genius, like Longinus' practitioners of the sublime (in his chapters 33-35), by "breaking the rules" (119-148). Subsequent chapters, on later reassessments of Mozart and Beethoven and on feminist critique of the gendering of genius, owe less to the two classical texts, but a final chapter, "Reconstructing Genius" (238-254) returns to the two classical "myths" of genius and attempts to reconcile them.

What is there here that deserves the attention of the classical scholar? There is of course the satisfaction that the texts we study can provide the basis for sophisticated studies by scholars in other disciplines. Kivy shows that this need not be limited to such familiar and closely allied disciplines as drama, philosophy and history. Such studies at their best can prompt re-evaluation of our texts. I have to admit that I have tended to study the essay On the Sublime partly for the puzzle of identifying the author, but principally as a work of rhetorical criticism, in the same context as the essays of Dionysios of Halikarnassos and Demetrius' study of Hermeneia. Kivy's study refocussed my attention on the "digression" of chapters 33-35 and taught me much about its reception and influence in the eighteenth century. I found less of interest and value in the treatment of Ion, just as I generally find that analyses of the Republic by scholars in other fields, such as literary, political, or educational theory, contribute more to the history and development of those fields than they do to the interpretation of the dialogue.

Kivy, who does not read Greek, acknowledges the help of colleagues on specific points (256, note 20 to chapter 1, note 2 to chapter 2.) His limited knowledge of Greek sometimes causes him to make extraordinarily heavy weather of the exact meaning of his text, as is illustrated in his discussion of "art" or techne on page 7, which misses the fact that the word translated by Jowett as "poetry" is the adjective ποιητική, referring back to τέχνη in the previous line. When Kivy makes similar small errors in Greek, such as not giving techne its proper plural (9), or calling Longinus' work Peri Hypsos (13), he causes readers and reviewers familiar with Greek to be less accepting of his major thesis, and to wonder whether there may not be similar inaccuracies elsewhere.

Nevertheless, if the work is basically sound, sympathetic readers and reviewers might persuaded to put aside their criticism of such errors, along with their irritation at the practice of scholars outside classics of citing ancient works by the page number of an English translation. A more serious effect of Kivy's lack of Greek is his failure to recognize that no word meaning anything like "genius" occurs in the crucial chapters 33-35 of Peri Hypsous. In these chapters, "Longinus" writes of "great natures" with terms derived from μέγας and φύσις; but comparable terms, such as μέγεθος, refer in chapter 8 to stylistic "grandeur". It is probably true that in chapters 33-35, "Longinus" meant to classify Homer, Plato and Demosthenes as "great" writers rather than exemplars of the "grand" style; but to prove the point, and derive from it a theory of "genius", requires that the critic know what the Greek terms are and how they are used.

The other element in Kivy's study that a classicist is bound to comment on is his failure to contextualize. One cannot read Ion's account of his own "possession" without the larger context, such as Sokrates' daimonion, and Plato's need to demolish the authority of traditional sources of wisdom such as poets and seers before he can validate the reasoned knowledge of the philosopher. Kivy allows us to forget all too quickly that the effect of the dialogue is to deny Ion and his "possession" any intellectual authority; by the end of the chapter, Kivy has adapted the phrase "Platonic furor" from an (unnamed) Elizabethan critic to describe the condition of a "possessed" genius. Such "fever" is, of course, not "Platonic" but "Ionic"; Sokrates and Plato remain deeply skeptical of it, and would, if they conceived of "genius" as a category at all, have explicitly denied it to Ion and his peers.

In fact, Plato's views of the "natural gifts" of the guardian class, for example when he speaks of the εὐφυής in Republic 455 b-c, are not so different from "Longinus'" portrait (36) of the "writer of genius", Greek μεγαλοφυής. Not looking at the Greek, Kivy misses the verbal similarity; he also fails to consider whether the "philosophical" position which "Longinus" sets out in the last preserved chapter of the treatise (44), should be seen as typical of, or a rejection of, Platonic thought.

I am less qualified to assess the accuracy of Kivy's account of the portrayal of the "genius" of the later musicians, but, as a result of my research into the career of the Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, I do have some knowledge of the 18th century, which makes me question, for example, whether Mainwaring's 1760 biography of Handel was indeed "the first book devoted solely to the life and works of a musical composer" (37). The life of Handel's close contemporary Benedetto Marcello (1685-1739), found in Angelo Fabroni's 1778 Vitae Italorum Doctrina Excellentium, was attached to many publications of his settings of the Psalms and seems to have been written soon after the musician's death. Kivy duly warns us (38) that he is not discussing "whether the anecdotes of Handel's life...are true," but analyzing the "life of Handel as Mainwaring thought he knew it." He should, however, at least indicate his awareness of recent critical work on Handel, such as Reinhard Strohm's 1985 Essays on Handel and Italian Opera; his bibliography includes none of the extensive scholarship published during and after Handel's tercentenary. Mainwaring, for example, gushed over the success of Handel's early operas in Italy, Rodrigo and Agrippina, describing them as "efforts of his genius" (42); in fact,Rodrigo was so obscure that only recently was a notice of its performance discovered in Florentine theatre records, and Agrippina is not even mentioned in the daily news reports (avvisi) of memorable events in Venice, although other operas, by Antonio Lotti for example, received enthusiastic reviews.

Mainwaring relates how Domenico Scarlatti declared, when he heard a keyboard performance in Venice, that the player must be by "either the famous Saxon or the devil" (43); the anecdote, like the tale of the supposed origin of Tartini's "Devil's Trill", surely points to a view of Handel not as a "Longinian" possessor of genius as suggested by Kivy, but as one "possessed" from outside. A very similar comment, "oder Bach oder der Teufel", is recorded about the playing of J.S. Bach; but it is not mentioned by Kivy, who describes Bach as "arguably the greatest genius of the modern era", even while portraying him as a "middle-class artisan" (164) with no "flame of genius burning within" (166).

Kivy's account of Mainwaring's presentation of Handel's genius would be more valuable if it was properly placed in its 18th century context, if it was compared, for example, to the judgment of the musician by his contemporaries, such as Prince Ferdinando de' Medici of Florence, or to others' portraits of other musicians, such as the account of Vivaldi (another musician often seen as a musical genius) in Johann Adam Hiller's Lebensbeschreibungen berühmter Musikgelehrten und Tonkünstler neuerer Zeit (1784).

If, with my limited awareness of the 18th century, I can raise questions about Kivy's discussion of Mainwaring and Handel, might I find similar "gaps" in the accounts of Mozart and Beethoven? I cannot be certain without doing much more research; but I have to confess that I have far too many niggling doubts about Kivy's treatment of Plato, "Longinus," and Handel, to be certain that his account of the "genius" of the other musicians provides any definitive answers. It is a pity. Kivy writes well and thoughtfully, and has prompted me to look at all the authors and musicians whom he discusses in a new light. If his treatment of Plato, Longinus, and Handel had been more firmly grounded in the scholarship on each figure, I would have more confidence in the validity of his skilful portraits of Mozart and Beethoven.

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