Unless you're a genius...
This was the narrative when I was a teenager. Unless you’re a genius, it won’t be easy.
Pray that you aren’t a genius.
JS Bach was one of the greatest musical composers who ever lived. His mastery could not be overstated. And yet, Bach was the very last choice among all the applicants for the post of Cantor at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. He was chosen only after such a luminary as Johann Christoph Graupner could not be had. Some critics even went so far as to call him nothing more than an organ grinder. After his death, his wife died in poverty. A third of his cantatas, legend has it, were sold as fish-wrap. Meanwhile, the genteel mediocrity of younger composers like Johann Adolph Hasse were met with wide approval and stunning popularity.
Mozart was possibly one of the most consistently underemployed composers of the 18th century. Despite entertaining the Aristocracy as a child, that same Aristocracy flatly turned their backs on him when he was later in need of employment. Marie Antoinette, of beheading fame, personally sunk one of Mozart’s opportunities for employment calling him (and his father) little more than common beggars. Little good being a genius did Mozart... He died in debt and impoverished at the age of 36. Meanwhile, Salieri, the very poster child of mediocrity, lived to a successful old age. Salieri’s pupils included Beethoven and Schubert.
Beethoven’s music was “blamed” on his deafness. Meanwhile, Ignaz Pleyel, a tunefully mediocre composer had become one of the most famous composers in Europe. Pleyel’s music is the only music of a classical composer who, contemporaneously, was played in America. He outlived Beethoven and died a rich man. Beethoven died in poverty.
Schubert achieved some very limited success in his songs (none of the great publishing houses ever rewarded him with more than a pittance) , while the rest of his output was met with a kind of benign pity. Schubert, already a very shy man, frequently shelved his compositions with the slightest disapproval. He was never able to find employment and was forced to rely on friends and acquaintances. He died at the age of 31.
Shakespeare’s initial reception was a hostile one. Robert Greene, an older contemporary & dramatist, considered Shakespeare to be an “upstart crowe”, an over ambitious actor (an insult) and a plagiarist. Greene later apologized, it seems. Although Shakespeare did well, he was not substantially more successful than some of his peers – like Thomas Heywood. In his own day he was considered, by many, to be a lesser dramatist than his friend and contemporary Ben Jonson. After the Restoration, it was Jonson’s plays which were to shape English drama, not Shakespeare’s. Beaumont and Fletcher’s collaborations were also considered to be superior to Shakespeare. If not for the effort of Shakespeare’s fellow actors, who published the first folio shortly after his death, many of Shakespeare’s works might have been lost (like Cardenio) or at least badly garbled (many Restoration dramatists ruthlessly altered and adapted his plays). The recognition of Shakespeare’s genius, like Bach’s, came nearly a century after his death.
His first book, containing poetry no worse than most of his contemporaries, was critically savaged. It was later said that Keats' early death was hastened by the even nastier reception of his last (and great) poems. Although his death was not caused by the critique, the fact that the legend exists says something for the level of antipathy aimed at the poet. He died at the age of 25.
Our last example has a happy ending. The start of Frost’s career was anything but auspicious. In fact, the first half of Frost’s life was spent in complete obscurity. He was forty years old before his first poems were recognized, and not in his own country. It was after he had moved to England that his first book was published (with the help of Ezra Pound). Prior to his year in England editors, who would later compete to publish his poetry, soundly rejected him. In fact, some editors would later choose to publish the very same poems they had earlier rejected (much to Frost’s satisfaction). Frost’s greatest asset was a long life. If you are going to be a genius, and successful, live a long life.
Among the composers, only Bach was moderately good at self-promotion. Shakespeare was an astute man, knowing (perhaps more so than any other artist who has ever lived) that discretion is the better part of valor. If history is to be the judge, it teaches one that success in any given art (or any livelihood really) is not so much a matter of talent but of self promotion. Even the most mediocre, if he or she knows how to ingratiate his or herself to the tune of the times, will be more apt to live a long and successful life.
If you want to be successful, let your genius be self-promotion.
If you want to be a great artist, rest assured that you will be loved once you’re dead.
Best of all, be blessed with both talents.