Today, it seems the term “genius” is applied rather liberally to any new hot trend (just google “lady gaga is genius” and you get 1.7 million results debating her artistic wherewithal). In a mass social media world where everyone has an opinion and everyone is competing to discover the next great talent, it seems that an artist must no longer produce a large body of work or stand the test of time to achieve the term “genius.” I certainly think the value of the term “genius” has diminished in modern society.

My conception of genius is an artist who fundamentally rethinks the medium they engage. This creativity exists completely removed from any and all conceptions of beauty. The association of beauty with genius is where I believe modern criticism falls into a trap. Whether arising from an Apollonian background of intense training and knowledge, or a Dionysian intuition that grants the artist lucid emotional understanding, geniuses, often to controversial public reception, emerge by pushing their genre to places where it has never been before. To illustrate the fallibility of modern society’s compulsion to judge, I would like to tell the story of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the seminal 20th century compositions.

First, let me say that no serious musician would consider this piece not to be a product of genius. Stravinsky’s disregard for tonality, use of polyrhythm and polytonality, asymmetric structure, as well as the immense technical demands the score makes on performers make this piece unlike anything written before or since. Its orchestration indeed invokes many of the tropes, slides, and new rhythms that would appear in Jazz in the following years. As Leonard Bernstein remarked of one passage, “That page is sixty years old, but it’s never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms…”

Musically painting the pastoral had consistently been an ambition of composers dating back to Haydn and Beethoven. However, the pastoral form of composition existed in the controlled realm of tone painting – sweet flutes represented birds, thrashes of brass and cello were tempests, etc. It seems Stravinsky, writing in the first and second decades of the 20th century, was seeking to create controversy with The Rite of Spring. Rather than paint scenes of nature, Stravinsky depicts ancient pagan ritual rites, a topic deplorable to concertgoers who fervently refused to let “beautiful” music reflect the common world. Stravinsky further duped the audience by writing in the ballet medium, a genre known for its quaint eight bar phrasing and subsuming of the music to the motion on stage. Thus, it is no surprise that The Rite of Spring’s premier incited in-performance fights between supporters and detractors.

As police failed to contain the fights, this became one of the most famous Classical music riots in history. However the true irony is this: Just months later, in the work’s third performance, also in Paris, Stravinsky was carried out of the concert hall on the backs of the audience, a hero to the advancement of classical music.


Ned Cunningham