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Alex Beam

The Mozart problem

Associated press

My friend David and I were mingling with the grad student flotsam at the Harvard Square Starbucks, when who should heave into view but University of Massachusetts Shakespeare scholar John Tobin. What a coincidence, I marveled to Tobin; we are on our way to hear Harvard Shakespeare prodigy Stephen Greenblatt deliver the homily at the daily morning prayers service.

“Greenblatt!” Tobin exclaimed, good naturedly pulling back the curtain on his inner Iago. “He’s too good. As a competitor, I want to find his weaknesses, but there aren’t any. It’s really irritating.”

This from an editor of the Arden and Riverside Shakespeare series, and the author of several definitive books on the Bard.

I call this the Mozart problem, the presence of a market-clearing talent in one’s chosen profession. Mozart, of course, was the shutdown corner for the ages. Here’s what Billy Joel, no mean music man himself, told The New York Times a few months ago: “Mozart [ticks] me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete; you listen to Mozart and you go: ‘Of course. It all came easy to him . . . ’ Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.”


Mozart’s genius is a problem for us all. I’ve been known to smack the car radio when “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” — composed at age 31 — starts up. In a famous song praising the genius of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius, the 37-year-old Tom Lehrer quipped, “It’s a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”

It is widely believed that Mozart’s contemporary Antonio Salieri had a severe Mozart problem, and enduring works of fiction such as Peter Shaffer’s play and movie “Amadeus” suggest that Salieri may have contributed to Mozart’s early death. (In fact, it seems that the two men were initially rivals, and then respectful colleagues.)

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin may have been the first person to dramatize the composers’ (fictional) antipathy in his mini-tragedy “Mozart and Salieri.” This is ironical, because Pushkin himself was the Mozart talent of his era, a child prodigy who died young. “Superior to Shakespeare and Cervantes,” said Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who knew a thing or two about Russian literature.


Who else? Bobby Fischer seemed obvious, and indeed the epithet “Mozart of chess” cropped up during his lifetime and in his obituaries. I remember reading Sam Smith’s book, “The Jordan Rules,” which seemed to make the case that no athlete — including Michael Jordan’s teammates — could match up with him on the basketball court during the star’s prime.

The Mozart of the links? Sportswriter Charlie Pierce steered me to golfer Bobby Jones’s assessment of the up-and-coming Jack Nicklaus: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

I have my own Mozart problems. A few months ago, I emailed a Joan Didion quote about swimming pools (“A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order of control over the uncontrollable”) to a friend with the subject line, “Oof. Too good. I give up.”

But of course I didn’t give up. Here I am, scribbling away, a thousand percent conscious that writers such as Didion or the columnist Michael Kinsley are out there plying my trade better than I could ever hope to.

In the end, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. If Mozart — or Michael Jordan — is the god of perfection and beauty, then I’m genuflecting in the right church. That’s why Mr. Joel is still onstage banging at the ivories, that’s why Mr. Tobin still teaches Shakespeare, and that’s why I love to write, comfortable in the knowledge that there is a glorious universe of talent superior to mine.


I hear their music, and it inspires me.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.