The Bach musical dynasty lasted for 200 years and is therefore at the heart of the question…”Is musical excellence inherited? Is there a musical brain?”
I don’t know whether we are still debating the nature/nurture conundrum or if it is now the nature plus nurture hypothesis. Knowing as we do that nature and nurture work in tandem and form an alliance that goes back as far as the womb, are there instances, like in the musical realm, where one plays the major role? In other words, is musical talent built into the genes?
What makes this question difficult to answer is that in the great musical families the milieu was very propitious for nurturing; young members were taught by the older ones and found it natural to follow in their footsteps. There were great artisanal musicians just as there were families of carpenters and of millers whose craft was handed down from fathers to sons. For example, the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin was a descendant of 200 years of Couperin organists.
Johann Sebastian Bach was the best known of fifty eminent musicians and composers named Bach. In the town of Erfurt, Germany all musicians were referred to as Bachs. Four of his 20 children (by several wives) composed music which is still being performed today: Carl Philipp Emmanuel was the most famous of his sons. Johann Christian Bach (known as the London Bach) was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. Johann Christoph Friederich and Wilhelm Friedman were prolific Bach family composers.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was trained by his composer father and soon eclipsed him. Leopold Mozart is now mostly remembered for his Toy symphony which is still being played occasionally.
Johann Strauss (The Elder) of Vienna (1804-1849) wrote waltzes, polkas and other dances and was the father of famous violinists. His son Johann Strauss II (the Younger) was the Waltz King and best known for The Blue Danube and the operetta Die Fledermaus. Joseph Strauss played in the family orchestra and composed dances and marches. The New Year’s Day concert in Vienna , a lavish affair, each year features the music of all three Strausses.
Alessandro Scarlatti, the Italian Baroque composer, produced operas and cantatas. His son Domenico was even more famous and bridged the Baroque and Classical styles of music.
Pepe Romero (1944-) the classical flamenco guitarist founded a quartet with his father and his two brothers Celin and Angel. He studied with his father Celodonio and made his debut at age 7. The composer Rodrigo wrote the work “Concierto para una Fiesta” for them.
Wynton Marsalis belongs to a family of jazz musicians from New Orleans. His father Ellis was his mentor and, with Wynton’s brothers, (Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) started a “Jazz Renaissance”. Wynton studied both jazz and classical music and excels in both.
So there we have a variety of musical families with a rich environment and plenty of guidance, nurturing and role models. And we are back to the question: Does practice make perfect or does musical ability run in the family?
And back to the usual identical twin studies. Experiments show that a twin who practices more than his brother (her sister) does not achieve more. No amount of lessons will turn a tone deaf child or one who does not process sound or detect differences in pitch, melody or rhythm into a Mozart. Without manual dexterity you will not become a good pianist. In other words success is not just a matter of determination.
This does not mean that if you have the talent you do not need to practice. And so, although musical ability is mostly inherited, and talent does run in families, the families who possess it also have the desire and determination to cultivate it.
“J’ai deux amours…Mon pays et Paris”. “I have two loves…my country and Paris” was Josephine Baker’s signature song.
Freda Josephine McDonald was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906. Her mother was a washerwoman who aspired to be a music hall dancer. Her father was a vaudeville drummer who soon disappeared from their lives. Josephine ran away from home at age 13 and took up dancing “to keep warm” and collected coal from railway tracks for the same reason.
She danced in a couple of musicals to modest success and in 1925 she traveled to France to perform in Revue Negre at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. The following year she appeared at the Follies Bergeres and was an instant hit. She danced in an exotic, fantasy African decor clad only in a skirt of 16 bananas which bounced around her as she swirled her hips. She says “I wasn’t really naked. I simply did not have any clothes on.” She was funny, she was sensual. At no time was she pornographic. They called her Black Venus and Black Pearl.
Josephine then starred in two movies…Zou-Zou and Princess Tam Tam. She quickly moved into French society, mingling with Picasso (who painted her), and the authors Simenon, Cocteau, Colette and Man Ray. She was not only accepted but became a celebrity herself. That is why her return to the United States in 1935 on a tour with the Ziegfeld Follies was such a shock. Suddenly she was plunged into a racist and hostile world. Not admitted to the Stork Club, or the hotel of her choice. Confronted with “colored” lunch counters and bathrooms and “move to the end of the line.” She went from riches to rags instantly, then quickly returned to France and became a French citizen.
During World War II Josephine Baker performed for the Allied troops in North Africa and also was active in the resistance movement. She had by then acquired a vast property in the Perigord which she named Chateau des Milandes and it became a shelter for the resistance. At the end of the war Baker was decorated with the Croix de Guerre. Medaille de la Resistance and eventually the Legion d’Honneur.
In the 1950s she began to adopt babies from around the world (12 altogether), her “rainbow tribe” was an experiment in brotherhood. At the Milandes she raised them in the traditions of their respective countries. Was that where Angeline Jolie got the inspiration for her own “rainbow family?”
During the fifties Josephine frequently returned to the United States to support the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 she participated in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke at the National Mall. She told of freedom in France and of being able to enter a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, of not having to go to segregated public places, and not having to fear the stares and insults of white people. She wished everyone in the audience to be as lucky as she had been without having to actually flee their homeland.
In 1973, after years of rejection and humiliation at the hands of her countrymen, including being accused of being a Communist, Josephine Baker performed at Carnegie Hall and was greeted with a standing ovation. The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day. Josephine Baker died in 1975. At her funeral 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to see the procession and the French Government honored her with a 21-gun salute. She was the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.