I’m reading Andrew Solomon’s fascinating ‘Far from the Tree’, a 900-page study of parents ‘who learn to deal with their exceptional children and find profound meaning in doing so’.
Many of the chapters focus on conditions which are obviously challenging for families: autism, schizophrenia, deafness, disability, crime, sexual orientation, dwarfs. In the middle of the book comes a chapter called ‘Prodigies’ which focuses mainly on musicians. It begins:
‘Being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying. One of the most startling patterns that emerged during my research was that many people come to value abnormalities that are ostensibly undesirable. Equally, ostensibly desirable variances are often daunting. Many prospective parents who dread the idea of a disabled child will long for an accomplished one. […. ] Like parents of children who are severely challenged, parents of exceptionally talented children are custodians of children beyond their comprehension.’
Musical talent as a type of disability – the idea is not new to me, of course. But it is intriguing to see musical talent located amongst other conditions which skew family life and put enormous, often unwelcome pressure on everyone involved. I am still pondering his observation (on p426) that ‘Some researchers claim that musical predisposition is a function of an autistic-type hypersensitivity to sound. According to the Israeli psychiatrist Pinchas Noy, music is the organising defence of such children against the clatter that assaults them. A number of the musicians described in this chapter likely meet clinical criteria for autistic-spectrum disorders.’
As it happens, I’m currently preparing a lecture-recital about Schumann for 7 October. I’ve been thinking a lot about Schumann’s obsessive musical patterns. Music as an organising defence against the clatter that assaulted him? That makes sense to me.