Heredity and Music

by Arthur Elson

Geniuses are born, and not made, as the common saying runs; and in music we have much evidence to show this. The precocity of Mozart is always cited as a notable example. the case of Schubert is also remarkable, for his teacher said: “He seems to know before hand everything I tell him.” Study and growth are necessary even for geniuses, and the same Schubert who astonished his teacher found it advisable to arrange for counterpoint lessons at a time when death was almost upon him. Beethoven rewrote some of his works many times, and Mendelssohn composed something every day, if only for practice. But back of the training must be a musical nature, inherited and innate. The gift of ability may not come from the previous generation, but it must come from somewhere.

In musical history, there have been many cases where the musical tendency has been handed down through many generations, and developed into professional ability. Most famous is the Bach family, but there are many other cases. Thus in Italy there were twenty-eight composers named Rossi. A strict record has not been kept, but probably at least half of them were related.

The Famous Bach Family

The Bach family extended through three centuries of music, from 1550 to 1850. The founder of this musical dynasty was Hans Bach, of Wechmar. His, son, Veit Bach, died in 1619. Veit had two sons, Hans, called “The Player”, and Lips. The musical line was continued by one son of Lips and three of Hans, making four great branches. Each of the three sons of “The Player” had three sons of his own in music, and one of these latter became the father of the great John Sebastian Bach. Maria Barbara Bach, who was the first wife of John Sebastian, was granddaughter of another son of Hans, “The Player”. The line of Lips has produces the latest Bachs, his great great grandson, Johann Philipp Bach, on Meiningen, dying in 1846. The family always kept up relationships, and for some time formed a sort of guild, assembling annually at Eisenach, Arnstadt, Erfurt or Meiningen. During the three centuries named above, nearly four hundred Bachs are known, and of these about sixty were well known musicians.

Another famous musical family was that of Scarlatti. His parentage is not known. He was born in Sicily, but the name is of Tuscan origin. His son Domenico shares his fame in musical history, but there were other composer in the family. Giuseppe, a son of Domenico, composed operas in Naples, but made his chief career in Vienna. Pietro, a nephew of Domenico, was maestro di capella in Naples. Francesco, brother of Alessandro, was also noted for his sacred compositions.

Weber’s Musical Ancestors

The Weber family was another that included many famous names. The earliest known member is Johann Baptist Weber, made Freiherr by the German Emperor in 1622. Among his descendants was Johann Francis Xaver, a man of gifted and artistic temperament. His son was Fridolin, who seemed equally skillful with voice, harpsichord, violin and organ. He died in 1754, leaving two sons. The elder, another Fridolin, became the father of three daughters, all well known singers. One of them, Constance, became the wife of Mozart. Another son of the first Fridolin was Franz Anton, father of the celebrared Carl Maria. Carl was the son of a second wife, but his two half brothers, Fritz and Edmund, were also musical.

In France, the name of Francois Couperin is justly held in high renown. In his case, too, music was a family affair. His father was the youngest of three brothers, who were all musical. His cousin Nicholas was also musically gifted. Armand-Louis, a son of Nicholas, kept up the musical work. Of the two musical sons of Armand-Louis, Pierre Louis died in 1789, and Francois Gervais in 1815. As the great Francois was born in 1668, in the second generation of musicians, the musical activity of the family must cover nearly two centuries.

In England, the father of Henry Purcell is mentioned by Pepys in 1660, and called “Master of Musique”. An uncle, Thomas Purcell, composed music for the violin, and later for the lute and voice, taking the position of Lawes after the latter’s death. A younger brother of the great Purcell was an organist at first, but was much in demand as a composer of plays after the death of Henry in 1695. Henry’s youngest son, Edward, was an organist, and Edward’s son, Edward Henry, followed the same career, living until 1772.

Johann Baptist Cramer, whom Beethoven called “the greatest pianist of them all”, came of a family whose musical activity began in 1705, and ended, with him, in 1858. In our own time, Puccini comes of a musical family that goes back in a direct line for four generations before him.

Other Remarkable Instances

But nearly all the great composers show some hereditary influence, even if they do not have long pedigrees. Haydn’s parent were both musical. Mozart’s father, Leopold, was really a great composer in his won right. Beethoven’s father and grandfather were musicians, the former in the employ of the Elector at Bonn. Schubert’s father and brother were schoolmaster, and must have known something of music in connection with their work. Mendelssohn came of a gifted family on both sides, and his grand nephew is composing in Germany now. Brahms was the son of a man who ran away twice to follow a musical career. Cherubini’s father was a musician in Florence.

Liszt’s parents were both musical, and his father taught him the rudiments of piano playing. Wagner showed no direct inheritance, but his father was fond of poetry and theatricals, and probably had what is called the artistic temperament. Richard Strauss is still another son of a court musician.

Such a list as this could be extended almost indefinitely. It would include Spohr, Bruch, Clara Wieck and others in Germany. Grieg is a Norwegian example. In France, Gounod and Saint-Saens head a long roll of musicians by inheritance. In England, Elgar’s father was organist and violinist. Italy offers such names as Rossini, Bellini and Bossi. Even in Russia, where laws are often set at naught, we find the law of heredity illustrated by Rubinstein, Balakireff, and nearly all the great composers.

On the other hand, some cases do not show any inheritance whatever. Schumann’s parents tried to force him into the law. Verdi’s were commonplace innkeepers. Berlioz was trained for a doctor; Tschaikowsky for an engineer. Both Spontini and Mascagni met with parental opposition, and Dvorak had to work his own way. Handel’s concealing a spinet in the garret when a mere child is a familiar affair. But is these men appeared not to have inherited music, we should remember that the temperament must have been latent in the previous generation, and may have shown in the family at some earlier time.

Laws of Heredity

In dealing with the subject of heredity in music, we must not only study the laws of heredity, but find out also just what a musical nature is, and how far it is subject to inheritance. It is still an open question whether heredity or environment plays the chief part in developing certain traits, though in music the inherent and inborn fitness for development must always be present.

In the time of Darwin great stress was laid upon the principle of natural selection as an explanation of the origin of species. An individual in the animal world would develop certain qualities that if found needful, and transmit these in increased amount to the next generation. For a long time heredity was explained on this basis. It was a plausible idea, and seemed to fit the facts. But is served to delay recognition of the real laws of heredity.

Weissmann was the first to question this idea that parental experience or “acquired character” was transmitted to the next generation. The theory had seemed so natural to the Darwin School of naturalists that they seemed entirely lacking in the face of Weissman’s challenge. It is undoubtedly true that there is a progressive gain through the generations; as the poet says:

“Through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.”

But this gain comes in experience that is taught to the new generation by the old, and not inherited. In other words, environment, and not heredity, may be the basis of natural selection. Thus we are now taught about the principle of the lever, in early school life. But if this principle were not handed down to us, few of us could discover it, as Archimedes did. If Wagner had not had the Beethoven symphonies to listen to, he might not so soon have been inspired to write his music dramas; if Beethoven had not studied with Haydn, he might have chosen some lesser man as the model of his first period. the degree to which a genius is cultivated is thus in part a result of environment and acquired experience.

All that is inherited is a fitness for musical development, a potential ability rather than an actual one. This fitness may be more marked in some than in others, but we cannot tell beforehand where it will be found. Sometimes, as with Bach, it is preceded by a long line of musical ancestors; while in other cases, as with Handel, there is apparently no musical inheritance, and a decided parental opposition.

What the musical temperament is, expressed physical terms, we do not yet know. It has something to do with the brain cells, and their responsiveness to vibration. There must also be a correlation of the different cells so that the auditor may perceive the relations and differences of harmony in the music or of themes in the musical development. Musical geniuses, therefore, have what the psychologists call a highly developed appreciation in those brain cells that are reached through the ear. But that is another story, as the great story writer says. The main point is that the musical temperament is a physical matter, and subject to any laws of heredity that may be found to apply to it.

For the last decade, heredity has been held in many cases to obey what is known as Mendel’s law. Gregor Mendel was an unassuming Austrian monk who lived in the middle of last century. He made some quiet experiments in the breeding of peas, but they passed unnoticed in the sensation made by Darwinism. It was not until 1900 that his treatise became known, through the writing of De Vries, Correns and Tschermak. In that year its importance was recognized by the scientific world.

A Convincing Explanation

Mendel chose two varieties of pea plant that differed greatly in height, one being of six feet and the other less than two feet. The pea is produced by the pollen, a sort of dust made up of cells, fertilizing other cells in the pistil of the flower. The stamens, which produce the pollen, were taken out of a flower while it was barely open, and pollen from the other variety of plant used instead.

The resulting seeds (peas) represented a cross between the two varieties. Yet the plants that grew from these peas were all tall – not intermediate, but full height. but the third generation, grown from peas that ripened on the tall hybrids, had some short plants among the tall ones. In a large number it was found that there was one short plant in every four.

The explanation is found in the principle of growth from the union of simple cells. Each pea is germinated by the union of a pollen cell with a cell in the pistil. In the cross the tallness always obliterates the shortness. The tallness is called a dominant quality, and the shortness recessive. But the crossed plant develops (segregates) in its turn both tall plant cells and short plant cells. For the union of two cells there are thus four possibilities; Tall may unite with tall; tall may unite with short; short may unite with tall; or short with short. This is borne out by the facts, for the short plant breeds only short plants, one in three of the third generation tall plants gives only tall plants, while the other two tall plants breed tall and short in the ratio of three to one.

This principle, or law of heredity, has been applied to many plants and animals, in which certain qualities show themselves governed by it. In man, the law is illustrated by color of eyes, peculiarities of hair, physical traits like the Hapsburg lip, two pieced fingers instead of three pieced, certain forms of cataract, certain skin peculiarities, and some forms of glaucoma. Color blindness seems to be dominant in men and recessive in women. Albinism is wholly recessive.

If the special physical condition causing musical ability is subject to Mendel’s law, then it must certainly be considered a dominant quality; for we have many examples where all the brothers and sisters in a family have been musical.

But if there is no segregation, no growth of two varieties of cells in the hybrid plant or animal, then the descendants do not show the Mendelian variation, but have qualities resulting from a mingling of those possessed by all their ancestors. If this holds, we could have families in which all the members were musical. As almost everyone would show some capability if cultivated, and musical ability is not sharply defined, but shades off by degrees, it seems likely that a capacity for being musical is one of the mingled qualities that everyone inherits in some degree. We have seen that heredity does play a large part in music, but we have not enough data to prove which theory is correct. The tendency of qualities to skip a generation seems to indicate the presence of Mendel’s law, and this may apply in music; but there are no noticeable cases of it in the families of the great composers.

Energy The Law of Genius

In such a complex being as man, there must be innumerable factors at work, so that we should hardly expect to trace any definite law in the heredity of genius. There must always be a surplus of energy, to bring out the genius. As examples of this, we see Bach copying music by moonlight, and Handel concealing a spinet in his garret. There must be an overmastering love for the art, coupled with sufficient patience to go through the drudgery necessary for performer and composer. Sometimes parental direction helps the lagging spirit to success. Sometimes the genius does not want to be developed; as for instance the gifted Norwegian boy Torgeir Audunson, who would not come to meet Grieg when the latter wished to help him to a musical education.

We may fairly conclude, then, that musical genius must be a matter of heredity in the first place, depending in some way on certain physical characteristics of ear, nerves, and brain. But even with a genius, the importance of early environment cannot be overestimated. The things that are learned first are remembered best. It is a child, and not a man, that we are told to train up in the way he should go; and we are also informed that an old dog cannot learn new tricks. So if a genius is to be properly developed, he should be caught while still young, and trained to that capacity for taking pains which Carlyle holds to be the essential quality.