The Creative Personality
In Psychiatry, Genetics and Pathology. A Tribute to Eliot Slater, London, Gaskell Press, 1979
The subject matter of my inquiry is provided by a group of German musicians, some of them being among the greatest names the world has known. The questions which have been asked are about the relationship of personality to creative achievement. As I am a psychiatrist, the inquiry has been conducted along psychiatric lines. I am in all humility aware that the use of psychiatric weapons of research will not take us very far into the immense field that awaits investigation; but I believe that what the psychiatrist can contribute to the common pool of understanding is important and indeed essential. The title that I chose is intended to suggest that it is with the temperamental aspects of the creative worker that we shall be concerned. The greatest and most central problems‑What is the nature of artistic creation? What are the peculiar gifts of the genius in art?‑these will have to be left almost untouched.
About twenty‑five years ago, when I was working in a psychiatric research institute in Munich, I became acquainted with a Dr Adele Juda. She was working on the problem of the relationship of 'genius' to mental abnormality and mental illness. The term 'genius' is a useful one, but scientifically suspect. Juda, herself, did not make use of it. Instead, she defined the class of persons she wished to investigate, as all those people, speaking the German tongue, who had been in their own field the most gifted and creative of all born since the year 1650. She chose those whose mother‑tongue was German, because she was going to be advised by German experts, and would not expect them to know the great men arising in other cultures as intimately as those arising in their own. She approached academic bodies, and men of known distinction in some specialist field, in order to get as authoritative a jury as possible. Each member of these juries was then asked to draw up a list of the greatest men of the past, in their own line. Thus she had mathematicians to choose the great mathematicians for her, chemists to choose chemists, and musicologists to choose musical composers, etc. From the lists she obtained in each field, she could mark off the names which had been nominated unanimously, those who had been nominated only by a majority of assessors, and those who did not receive even a majority vote. The assessors were asked to make their choice on a basis of achievement only, and to put out of their minds all extraneous considerations, such as whether the man could be called a genius.
This method of selection had the great advantage of containing no biases for which the investigator herself could be held responsible. It would be too much to say that it was altogether unbiased. As you will see, when I come to give you the names of the composers who were included in Juda's list, there are a few, such as Schoenberg, whose absence it is difficult to explain, except on the grounds that the assessors were unable to maintain a fully impartial judgement when faced with the more modern and revolutionary work. This, however, is beside the point insofar as the psychological make‑up of the subjects of the investigation is concerned.
Juda accumulated a total of 294 persons, which she grouped into two main classes of 113 artists and 181 men of science. She investigated the personal histories of the subjects from the psychiatric point of view, and also their ancestry, their families and descendants. Her findings are, of course, statistical in nature. I shall not trouble you with more than two of them, which are of cardinal significance. She found that the incidence of psychosis, that is to say of the graver mental disorders, was only slightly greater than would have been expected from a sample of ordinary men; but that her subjects included a considerable number of abnormal personalities. Her technical term is 'psychopaths'; and by the criteria she used she could expect to find about 10 per cent of psychopaths in a random sample of the general population. Instead, she found among the artists 27 per cent, and among the scientists 19 per cent.
Now since ancient times, and especially since the time of Lombroso, it was been persistently maintained that the man of genius is mad or half‑mad. This opinion is always supported by selected instances, that is, evidence of little weight; Juda's findings provide us at last with some reliable evidence, and its main weight is on the other side. We are shown that in a fair sample taken from the ranks of the most able and distinguished men the world has known, mental abnormality is indeed commoner than in the generality of mankind; but even then it remains true that the large majority of these great men are mentally normal, and suffer neither from mental illness nor abnormality of personality. This is not, at present, the fashionable view. Edmund Wilson, for instance, in his essay 'The wound and the bow', uses the legend of Philoctetes to state a case in an extreme form. Philoctetes was the one man who could avail to pull the bow and shoot the invincible arrow, and also the man who, because of a loathsome skin disease, was found intolerable by all the hosts of Greeks laying siege to Troy. The wound, says Wilson, is the price of the bow, the bow is the reward of the wound. Juda's work shows that this opinion is a superficial one; but her findings show a somewhat paradoxical state of affairs, which calls for further study.
Unfortunately Dr Juda died before she was able to see her book into print; and when it was eventually published, it was in an abbreviated form, without any case material. This seemed to me a scientific tragedy. I got in touch with the authorities in Munich, and by their great kindness was made a present of Juda's biographical material. It is hoped to analyse this material with a view to answering some important questions that Juda never touched on; and in view of their exceptional distinction, a beginning has been made with the German musicians. My colleague Alfred Meyer and I have worked together on this material, and have supplemented Juda's biographical information from English sources, trying to make it as complete as we easily can from the psychiatric point of view.
Juda had a total of 28 composers in her series, of which one has been omitted from our study as he is still alive. The names of the other 27 are: Handel, J. S. Bach, Friedemann Bach, Gluck, Stamitz, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, Marschner, Loewe, Schubert, Lortzing, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Franz, Bruckner, Cornelius, Johann Strauss the elder, Brahms, Hugo Wolf, Mahler, Richard Strauss,.Pfitzner and Reger.
First just a few words about the incidence of mental disorders, that is the conditions which are sometimes called the insanities. Of these, Juda found only three. Gluck,after a healthy, vigorous life, had a mental illness in old age which was caused by a succession of strokes. Hugo Wolf, and probably Schumann also, died of general paresis, that is a mental illness caused by syphilis. All these three, therefore, suffered from conditions which were essentially accidental in nature, and are in no way caused by any underlying instability of constitution. However, there are good grounds for thinking that, apart from his terminal illness, Schumann suffered from his youth on from recurrent depressive phases, of what the psychiatrist calls a manic‑depressive type. One representative of illness of such a kind is not a heavy incidence, and I think we must pass these composers as, in this respect, a very healthy group.
The composers whom Juda regarded as psychopathic were Friedemann Bach, Bruckner, Gluck, Liszt, Mahler, Pfitzner, Schubert, Johann Strauss, Wagner and Wolf. Dr Meyer and I have felt compelled to revise Juda's diagnoses, and would regard both Gluck and Schubert as normal, while including Beethoven among the abnormal. One might ask, how does the disagreement arise? One source is the appearance of fresh information. Surprising as it may seem, a good deal more has been learned on the factual side about Beethoven than was available to Juda. She did not have the advantage of reading the important work on Beethoven and his nephew by the Sterbas, which, with the aid of a great amount of documentary research, entirely disposes of the old idea that Beethoven's nephew was a young scoundrel who broke the heart of the grand old man. Instead, it seems clear that Karl Beethoven was quite an average young man, who led a fairly blameless life and stood by his uncle with remarkable love and loyalty; and that the accusations that Beethoven heaped upon his shoulders, including one that he was having incestuous relations with his aunt, arose from the suspicious temperament and jealous possessiveness of Beethoven himself.
The evidence for a rather extreme abnormality of personality in Beethoven is very full. For many years he lived in his own home in circumstances of unnecessary squalor. He continually changed his lodging, and never made a real home for himself. He quarrelled constantly with his servants, and thought that they all stole from him. He had a lifelong fear of poverty, and counted the halfpence in a penurious way.
He showed also a strong streak of sadism. Asked to play at a gathering, he said he would comply only if another well‑known composer who was also present would crawl under the table on all fours‑and the latter actually complied. Again, about a new servant he wrote 'if\he is a little hump‑backed, I shouldn't mind, because then one knows immediately what is his weak side to attack him on'. He pinched and even bit his aristocratic pupils, and wrenched the fingers of the Archduke Rudolf to pay him out for being kept waiting.
He was extremely suspicious all his life, and, for instance, in 1809 wrote that he was compelled to leave Vienna by intrigues and cabals and base actions of all kinds. He suspected his servants were secretly in the pay of his sister‑in‑law Johanna, the despised mother of the nephew he adored. In his last years he was having wine and food tasted for him. At the dinner to celebrate the first performance of the IXth symphony, he accused his friends of falsifying the box office receipts and cheating him‑so that they all got up and went out, and he was left to finish the banquet with Karl alone.
In addition he was totally self‑centred, ruthless and inconsiderate, impulsive and lacking in self‑control, a hypochondriac, a prude (the libretti of Mozart's operas were too lascivious for him), and shabby and at times unethical in his financial dealings.
If we adopt what I believe to be the best of all definitions of a psychopath, that is a man whose personality deviates far from the statistical norm, and in a way which causes either him or society to suffer, then Beethoven was certainly a psychopath. Whether his psychopathy was inborn, or whether it was rather a reaction to the tragedy of the deafness which came on him at the age of 28, is a question which need not here be discussed.
In the case of Schubert, the revision which we make in Juda's diagnosis is in the opposite direction, and again because of the availability of further evidence. Juda took the view, which was indeed the standard one at the turn of the century, that Schubert was an irresponsible bohemian, who composed, when he felt like it, by a turn of untaught genius, and for the rest spent his time in Viennese cafés overindulging in food and drink. He could not even apply himself to the earning of a regular income, and thought the state should pay him for doing his work of composition. This is the sort of personality which might go with the composition of such lightweight material as songs; and it seems that the popular idea of what Schubert's personality was like depended a good deal on his rating as an artist.
In a recent biography, Brown has pointed out the falsity of this view. With the modern estimation of his chamber music and symphonies, the magnitude of his work comes to be seen as of an entirely different order. Furthermore, there has been in recent years the discovery in the archives of unpublished manuscripts, of innumerable sketches and preliminary drafts of many of his more important works, showing that he did not dash them off, but put in a lot of plain hard work. Finally there came the collection and publication by Otto Deutsch of contemporary documents reflecting light on Schubert. From this it could be shown that Schubert was neither an alcoholic nor an irresponsible bohemian.
Reviewing the psychopathic personalities among the composers, we are left with the list: Friedemann Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Liszt, Mahler, Pfitzner, Johann Strauss, Wagner, Wolf. With nine representatives in a total of 27 composers, the list is undoubtedly a long one, and it is now incumbent on us to examine the question whether there is any causal relationship between abnormalities of personality and musical creativity. If we go to individual cases to see whether some particular character trait bears a relationship to working capacity, it is clear that we may find any one to three different connections. The individual may have been hampered by the character trait in question, but have succeeded in its despite; there may be no relationship between the trait and the working capacity; and finally the trait may have had some positive effect in furthering creative work. I think that the list of men at which we have arrived offers examples of all three states of affairs.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was regarded by his father, J.S. Bach, as the most talented of his sons and as gifted as himself. However, he did not have Johann Sebastian's solidity of character and was weak‑willed and irresponsible. Most damaging of all, he was lazy, or at least lacking in energy and persistence. We call him a psychopath because in course of time he became unable to keep a salaried post, could not support his wife and children and, in effect, abandoned them, and ended his days in squalid circumstances. He failed also in standards of musical integrity, and on at least one occasion passed off work of his father as his own. Most biographers believe that he was alcoholic. On the creative side, he preferred to improvise; and the total amount of composed music he put to paper is relatively very small, though its quality and originality are recognized by musicologists. It seems quite likely that but for his defects of character, above all his incapacity for sustained work, he would have been a much greater figure than he actually is.
Another example is offered by Bruckner. Bruckner's psychopathic trait was obsessionality. He had a counting mania which came on him at times of fatigue or reduced physical health, and would stand counting the leaves of a tree or the windows in a town view. He had a preoccupation with death and corpses, and insisted on witnessing the exhumation of Beethoven's body. At the age of 42 he was off work for some months taking a cure for his nervous symptoms. But apart from this his whole life was passed in a search for security. He was always trying to pass examinations, and later in life to get himself a university degree. Redlich comments that his music is affected by his counting mania, showing itself in a partiality for stiff regularities of periodization, bringing him sometimes dangerously near to rhythmic monotony. To his obsessionality, also, one can refer his incapacity to satisfy fflmself with the completion of a work. In symphonic composition he could not content himself with the natural climax, but would have to go on to a second; and he would write and re‑write successive versions of the same composition, without being able to let it go out of his hands. Here, too, we see a psychopathic character trait exercising, as far as we can tell, a wholly one‑sided and negative effect.
As an example of a neurotic symptom apparently having absolutely no bearing on creativity we may take the case of Johann Strauss. Strauss was troubled by numerous phobias. He had a fear of heights, and travelling through mountains would sit on the floor of the carriage, or draw the curtains so as not to see. When his house was on a hill, he had to be conducted up it; and he would drink champagne to fortify himself against the ordeal of crossing a viaduct in a train. He had a horror of death, would not have death spoken of in his presence. Trying for him as these symptoms no doubt were, it is not at all easy to see how they had any effect on his work. Incidentally, he is the only example in our group of a man troubled with anxiety symptoms; when one thinks how common the minor degrees of predisposition to anxiety are, this is a striking fact.
Conditions such as those mentioned, which have no positive effect on creativity, should be rarer in our group of composers than in the generality of mankind; and this seems to be actually the case with anxiety tendencies. If there are abnormalities of personality which further musical expression, then we should find them in relative abundance. There is a strong suggestion that this may be said of two such traits, the cyclothymic disposition and the hysterical disposition. Let us take the latter first: it is shown in some degree by three of our nine psychopathic composers, Liszt, Mahler and Wagner, but by the last of these to a superabundant degree.
Wagner fulfils our definition of a psychopath, since he was always in difficulty himself, for instance through his political activities and by his incorrigible habit of running into debt; and he caused difficulties to others by his ruthless exploitation of his friends. His hysterical disposition is shown in his extreme egocentricity, his tendency towards self‑dramatization and his need to have a spotlight always playing on him. I take the liberty of quoting Ernest Newman:
Publicity was as much a necessity to him as food and air. The most interesting person in the universe to him was always himself... [he had the need] of dominance for dominance's sake.. . Always there was the inability to conceive himself except as the central sun of his universe... An actor he certainly is in many of his letters‑an actor so consummate as to deceive not only his audience but himself... Wagner could never imagine any other motive for opposing him except (1) that the opponent was paid to do so or (2) that he was either a Jew or under the orders of Jews.
A characteristic episode in Wagner's life was the Wesendonck affair. At the time when he was engaged on Tristan the Wesendoncks invited Wagner and his first wife Minna to be their guests and live in a small house at the end of the garden of their more commodious mansion. It was not long before Wagner and Frau Wesendonck were engaged in a passionate love affair. Newman describes it in these terms.
He is at work on Tristan. Frau Wesendonck is necessary to him if he is to maintain the artistic mood that the poem and the music require. Everything and everybody must therefore give way to this great need. He is utterly and honestly unable to see the situation through either Otto's eyes or Minna's. The former he dramatizes also; of the grief the good man must have felt at seeing his wife's infatuation for a man who calmly took possession not only of the wife but of the whole household, he had plainly no conception. He allots Otto his part in the play: they are all playing parts, and the title of the tragicomedy is 'The Three Renunciators' . . . So colossal was Wagner's egoism that he could not realize the bare possibility of the affair taking on in other people's eyes any aspect but that it had for his own.
Wagner complained bitterly when his wife repeatedly took exception to the goings‑on. Of an intrigue which involved secret letters and the giving of orders to servants to deceive their masters, Wagner could write: 'It would never be possible to make a nature like my wife's comprehend relations so lofty and unselfish as ours'.
It is understandable that the capacity for living oneself into a part, the personality trait that derives satisfaction from the exhibition of violent emotions, should show itself to advantage in the creation of productions for the stage, and to disadvantage in the management of day‑today life. In one field, the artist has to be able to let himself go, whereas the greatest aid to successful citizenship is self‑control. That trait of personality which lends a stagey quality to emotional expression in normal life may well be the same as one which brings a living quality into the stage scene. Emphasis of gesture and intonation, an application of greasepaint, look differently behind the footlights than in the light of day. In our group of composers, those whose creations for the stage achieve transcendence are Gluck, Handel, Mozart, Wagner and Weber, and of them three, Gluck, Wagner and Weber, were gifted in this way. The parallelism between the manifestations of the personality in day‑to‑day life and in artistic creation in the case of Wagner can be brought out in two further quotations. Of the man his acquaintance Schure wrote:
The frankness and extreme audacity with which he showed his nature, the qualities and defects of which were exhibited without concealment, acted on some people like a charm, while others were repelled by it. His gaiety flowed over in a joyous foam of facetious fancies and extravagant pleasantries; but the least contradiction provoked him to incredible anger. Then he would leap like a tiger, roar like a stag. He paced the room like a caged lion, his voice became hoarse and the words came out like screams ... He seemed at these times like some elemental force unchained, like a volcano in eruption.
And of his music Newman writes:
Like Bach, Wagner could never conceive any emotion without intensifying it to the utmost. The barest hint of joy in one of Bach's texts will set him carolling like a lark; the barest hint of mortality will bedim his music with all the tears of all the universe for its dead. Wagner has the same insatiable hunger for expression. In Tristan in particular every emotion is developed to its furthest limit of poignancy. The passion of love became almost delirium; when Tristan, in the third act, sings of the thirst caused by his wound, our very mouths, our very bones, seem dried as if by some burning scirocco blowing from the desert; when the sick man praises Kurvenal for his devotion it is a cosmic paean to friendship that he sings.
Now the psychiatrist is inclined to see, in the transports of the hysteric, something not quite convincing, something that suggests insincerity. I think we may say that, in a work of art, any quality of the work which had this effect on the participator would be completely fatal to it. Wagner's music is, of course, not found to be universally faultless; but among the criticisms that have been made I have not yet seen any accusation of insincerity. If our interpretation of Wagner's psychopathic disposition as hysterical is correct, this is something of a paradox. Perhaps it may be explained.
The stagey and unconvincing quality of the emotional display of the hysteric in ordinary life is derived from the intuitive sense of the observer that to some degree there is more emotion shown than is actually felt, that the subject of observation is not involved in the totality of his personality but is himself observing, and controlling his own antics. From the accounts we have of Wagner's behaviour, such a thing as self‑control was totally impossible to him. There was no part of him that was coolly observing and unconvinced. When he wrote of the unselfish and lofty nature of his relationship with Frau Wesendonck, beyond the comprehension of such lower creatures as his wife, that was something he absolutely believed, without a particle of reservation. Lack of insight is taken to a level at which a new sincerity, that of the child or the animal, has successfully taken over.
We now have to turn to the second of the psychopathic traits which I believe is positively associated with creativity, the cyclothymic tendency. A few words of explanation of what is meant by this term are needed.
The majority of mankind are moderately equable in temperament, and their moods of joy or sadness, elation or depression, occur within a narrow span and are a natural consequence of the circumstances of the time. There are some, however, whose mood is constantly varying, and not from any external cause but from an internal biological rhythm for which a physical constitutional basis will almost certainly one day be found. In the upswing there is abundant unflagging energy, spontaneous joy in life, swift flow of ideas, bodily well‑being; in the downswing there is unhappiness, loss of power of enjoyment, loss of spontaneity, self‑depreciation, slowing of thought and ideas, bodily malaise. Moods in either of these two directions may be of long or short duration, from hours to months or even years; and the individual so constituted may pass from one mood directly into another, or through an interregnum of normality, which may also be short or last for years. The highest peaks of this fluctuation may reach the height of mania, the lowest troughs the depth of melancholia. In the life history of any one man, most swings are of only moderate degree.
Now it is a well‑known fact that a high proportion of creative workers find that there are periods in life when they have more than usual productivity, others in which they are more or less sterile. The lay observer, and indeed the man himself, will be inclined to say that he was happy because he was working well, that he was unhappy because he could not work. This may sometimes be true, but sometimes it is quite certain that cause and effect should be placed the other way round.
A case in point is certainly that of Schumann. Throughout his life he had ups and downs of mood for which no external cause can be assigned, and he began to have them from about his twentieth year and went on up to the onset of his fatal illness. The upswings never reached any excessive height, but in his depressions he was low indeed. He was then troubled with a leaden melancholy, fears of illness or insanity, guilt and selfdepreciation, and insomnia. During these phases he was totally incapable of creative work. Mostly they were of short duration; but during the year 1844, the year in which he had his thirty‑fourth birthday, they lasted with short gaps for the whole of the year. Not a single opus number is allocated to that year.
An even more remarkable case is that of Hugo Wolf. The whole of his life consists in short bursts of almost phrenetic activity, separated by long periods of sterility. His phases of active creation lasted from two to six months, his phases of inactivity from two to thirty‑six months. When he could not work he was miserable, when he could he was full of joy; but to my thinking the mood change is the primary one. Thus in depressed inactive phases he speaks of wishing for an early end, of wishing to hang himself on the nearest tree; the inhibition was such that he was not only unable to compose, he could not even write a letter; he covered himself with selfcontempt and had a horror of his own past work. In such a mood he writes that he cannot conceive what harmony is, and that 'I begin to doubt whether the compositions bearing my name are really by me'. When the mood failed, the inertial momentum of working failed to carry him through; the completion of one Liederbuch was delayed for several years by a sudden failure of mood.
In an active phase, exactly the converse state held. His high spirits had a warm infectious quality, even though he might still be irritable old impatient. A friend wrote, 'who has not seen Hugo Wolf rejoice does not know what rejoicing is'. The ideas then poured in such richness that, as he himself notes, he had scarcely the time to note them down.
It is not surprising that Wolf has been repeatedly diagnosed as a cyclothymic, even as a manic‑depressive. His case, however, is less clear than Schumann's, as his personality was as a whole a much more complex one.
Other representatives of the cyclothymic disposition in our group are Cornelius, Handel, Marschner, Reger, Schubert and Johann Strauss.
Of course both the cyclothymic and the other composers who are not cyclothymic, are liable to moods of a normal kind; but it is probable that the melancholy which arises as a psychologically normal reaction does not have the inhibiting effect produced by the depression arising from a biological cause. Joy and sadness, and indeed the whole gamut of emotional colours, supply motivation and material for expression in musical creation. But the composers, such as Bach and Mozart, who are not troubled by primary mood swings, are able to maintain a steady output of work, without any prolonged period of sterility.
If we are to think of the cyclothymic disposition as being in some ways a useful trait to the creative artist, then this might be so for two reasons. Whereas the cyclothymic is rendered incapable of imaginative work in a well‑marked depression, he has the compensation of finding such work exceptionally easy, of having his ideas flowing richly and abundantly, in the opposite phase. Furthermore, the cyclothymic man is generally an extravert, impressionable, with warm and strong emotions generally; and I think that everyone would agree that there is not such a thing as a major work of composition without a rich emotional content. A quality which distinguishes the composers as a whole from the generality of mankind is their capacity for strong and deep emotion; to use another Jungian classification of temperaments, they belong to the feeling rather than the thinking type.
One of the things that we noticed with the cyclothymic was that in his depressed phases vital energy was generally low; he was not only unable to compose, he might even be unable to write a letter. This energy is the lifeblood of creation. The general model of development which the creative process follows starts with the nascent idea; through a period of latency and incubation there is a gradual building up of tension, which breaks, with the onset of effective expression, into a sustained flow of outpoured energy, in a high and sweating excitement that goes on hour after hour. 'I work at a thousand horsepower,' said Wolf. For such a process to occur at all, the personality must have a capacity for accumulating reserves. Availability of resources of energy would seem to be a necessity for work of any magnitude. It is, then, instructive to look at the members of our group to see whether there is evidence to support this view.
The composers can be divided into those who received unanimous nomination by the assessors, and those who were nominated only by a majority; we can for convenience take the latter as having the lesser achievement. In the list of those unanimously nominated we have: J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Gluck, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Reger, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Weber. In the second list, among less distinguished names, we have Liszt, Mahler, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. If we look only at the mass of work produced by the former, we find that it is much greater per man than that produced by the latter. The difference is not only one of quality, but also of gross quantity. This is not to deny that there is a good deal of individual variation, but the class difference exists too. As an example we may take the case of the two Bachs.
Johann Sebastian, the father, was creatively active throughout his life. In addition he had onerous duties as a teacher and choirmaster, and he brought up a large family, himself doing a lot of the teaching of his children, in Latin and general education as well as in music. His son Friedemann, whose musical gifts his father thought equal with his own, carried a much smaller burden of family responsibility, but found even that too much. He could not be bothered with the hard work of writing and scoring, and found even routine musical duties a nuisance. Johann Sebastian was a broad‑shouldered, powerfully built man; Friedemann was more slightly built, with beardless face and large, soft, earnest eyes. If we rate the composers by the amount of energy they displayed in general affairs, then we find all the greatest names coming high up in the list.
Somewhat related to energy of personality, though essentially distinct, is the quality of aggressiveness of combativeness. We find this quality also well represented. J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Gluck, Handel, Mahler, Johann Strauss, Wagner and Wolf were all extremely combative men; and their life stories contain dramatic accounts of their struggles with administrative superiors, colleagues, enemies and the world at large. However, there are as many lacking this feature of personality; and, for example, such supremely productive creators as Haydn and Mozart, though clearly well endowed with energy, had no tendency to charge into battle against the opposition.
Big men tend to be less energetic, and less combative, than men of small stature. Unfortunately the necessary facts are not always available; but I have been unable to learn of more than two composers in our group who were of more than average height‑Gluck and Schumann. A few of the others are said to have been of average height; but Brahms, Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, and Mendelssohn were all less than average, Wagner was described as a pocket edition of a man, and Mozart, Schubert and Hugo Wolf were not more than one or two inches above five feet. These very small men were also slenderly built, which was of no physical disadvantage to them‑we know that a small and slender frame can be compact of vigour. Most of the men of average height or more, were in general strongly and solidly built. Schumann is the only one to approach at all towards the loosely built, tall figure.
There is evidence to connect energy of personality with sexual functions; and here we find to our surprise that quite a number of the most dynamic and masculine of these men never developed any permanent relationship with women. Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner. Handel, Schubert and Wolf never married. Schubert and Wolf certainly had love affairs. Brahms is said to have amused himself with chambermaids and women of easy virtue, and Handel to have had affairs with his singers. Beethoven had an extraordinary attitude towards women, varying ambivalently between the grossest contempt and a sentimentalized reverence. One of the medical theories of the cause of his deafness, and of the liver cirrhosis of which he died, is that it was caused by syphilis. If that were true, it would partially explain why, when he developed a tenderness for a woman he could respect, his advances would at some point turn into a hurried retreat. Of all the candidates for the garland of lifelong chastity, Bruckner is the most promising. He was always fancying himself in love and, indeed, trying to get married; but he was such an awkward figure, and he managed his courtships so uncouthly, that no woman would have him. However, Redlich in his biography insists that normal physical relationships with women were not unknown to him. On the physiologically deficient side, Haydn and Reger made highly abnormal marriages, in which the sexual element may have been weak or lacking. On the other hand there are many who show evidence of more than average sexual vigour. J. S. Bach married twice and had a very large number of children; Loewe and Wagner were also married twice, Johann Strauss three times, Marschner four times. Though Liszt never married, he had two mistresses with each of whom he lived for many years, having children by the first; and in addition he had innumerable love affairs of a transient kind. There is no doubt that three men, at least, were intensely susceptible to erotic emotion, Liszt, Johann Strauss and Wagner. How then are we to account for the celibacy of men of such dynamism as Handel, Beethoven and Brahms? This is not a matter on which biographers provide the medical psychologist with physiological detail he would like to have; but it seems probable that their celibacy was not due to defective sexuality, but rather to a determination, conscious or unconscious, to maintain total personal independence.
We are now at last beginning to arrive at a kind of composite picture. The sketch is a very provisional one, and could do with a lot of filling in. In terms of temperament, these men depart from the average of mankind in having a greater capacity for feeling, for emotional reaction. Not only do they react to the environment in a more powerfully emotional way than most men, they also contain an excessive number of personalities of the cyclothymic kind, that is, subject to biological swings of mood. In addition, the personality is more than normally energetic, vigorous, even aggressive and combative. Despite their liability to a level of intensity of emotional reaction that the normal personality would be unable to tolerate, they are little liable to neurotic illness. I can find only four of them who ever sought medical treatment for their 'nerves': Bruckner took a three‑months cure at a spa, for a depression, at the age of 43, Franz had a depressive reaction to going deaf, Liszt was off ill after an unhappy love affair at 16, and Loewe had spa treatment at 66.
By the term 'neurosis' or 'neurotic illness' the psychiatrist means a condition in which the sufferer complains of symptoms for which no physical basis can be found, and for which he comes to the doctor for help. This is, therefore, a state in which the personality admits at least a partial defeat. There may be physical symptoms, such as headache or dyspepsia or nervous symptoms only ‑fatigue and weakness, worry and anxiety, obsessive compulsions or fears, depression, loss of memory or trances. It is incapacities of these kinds that we are liable to think of in connection with Edmund Wilson's wounded personality, which, he thinks, is the only one that can draw the bow. If we examine the abnormal personalities in our list, however, it is not this picture we see at all. With the exception of Friedemann Bach, none of these men were bleeding from an internal wound. They were not anaemic but full‑blooded individuals.
Of the titanic energy of Wagner we have already heard; but we think also of Beethoven thrusting his way along a garden path through a crowd of courtiers, so that even the Emperor himself has to step but of the way, and murmur, 'There have to be such people!' We see Hugo Wolf, the almost unknown composer with all to lose, in his little column in the Salonblatt attacking Brahms, the then enthroned king of musical Vienna. The gentle Liszt did immeasurable things for the social standing of the executant artist, in fact creating such a position out of nothing, journeying up and down Europe in indefatigable tours. Though a snob, he did not hesitate to rebuke royalty itself when his playing was rudely disturbed by chatter, lifting his hands from the keys so that silence fell. When asked why he had stopped, he said with devastating politeness, 'Music itself is silent when Ludwig speaks'. Mahler dominated his orchestra with an iron will that at last became intolerable to bear, though he raised the standard of performance to a point that Vienna had not known.
Such illustrations might be multiplied indefinitely. These men were not weaklings. Their abnormalities run rather to more positive, even if more objectionable, faults of character‑to arrogance, egoism, impatience, obstinacy, sensitivity and touchiness, irritable temper, ruthlessness and fanaticism.
How far are these grave faults accidental, one may ask, and how far germane? Certainly, many of the greatest were free from them. But there is something in the life that must be led by the man with a gift to exploit that encourages the development of defensive attitudes which, out of their context, lead to difficulties. Such a man's first loyalty must be to the realization of his potentialities. Even such supreme egoists as Mahler and Wagner, who sacrificed the feelings of others to what looked like their private whims, again and again sacrificed their own interests, seen from the viewpoint of mere expediency, on the alter of what they took to be their destiny. With all his arrogance, the artist may still reserve for his own person a place of extreme humility. Of himself Hugo Wolf wrote: 'when the day comes that I can compose no longer, then no one should trouble himself about me any more; then they should throw me on the dung‑heap; that for me is the end'.