One of the books that I return to on a regular basis is a short-story collection, First Sightings: Contemporary Stories of American Youth. It was one of the things I read in my high school freshman English class, and I’ve found it a valuable tool for keeping track of the way that my mind thinks differently about things from the last time I explored the collection. The stories never change, but I do. It also seems like every time I go back to the collection, a different story calls to me.
This time around, it was “Wunderkind,” a famous story by Carson McCullers, first published in 1936. The story is about Frances, an adolescent girl who has trained to be a piano prodigy, coming to the slow realization that it is not in her to be a musical genius. The story takes place over the course of a piano lesson, where her teacher grows increasingly frustrated with her inability to bring life to her music. She thinks back to a recital she gave with another prodigy, Freddy, on violin. Freddy is now making his debut orchestral experience, and she realizes that she might never reach the same level of artistry as he.
I was blown away by how sad this story is. I may have read it before, but this time it kicked me in the gut. McCullers herself planned to study at Juilliard, but was unable to pay tuition. I couldn’t say that this story is autobiographical, but the specificity of the writing shows that McCullers was familiar with the thoughts and emotions that go through Frances’ head.
Though Frances is a musician, the story is really about potential, and the self-doubt that comes with great potential. When Frances and Freddy present their recital, they are both poised to move on to greater things (although a negative newspaper review suggests that perhaps Frances never had as much potential as she thought), and yet Freddy is moving on to the next stage, while Frances stays behind. Her potential becomes a burden; her teacher, her parents, all of the people that she’s been introduced through her music carry expectations, and Frances is confronted with the thought that she might not be able to fulfill those expectations. It’s the heaviest burden.
The burden of potential, both in failure and success, seems to me to be if not unique to music, at least the easiest to see in music. I would imagine that it is similar for writers and painters, mediums in which production falls to one person. In the course of my music studies, it’s been interesting to see how common this self-doubt is in composers. This doubt is not a function of success or failure. Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was extremely poorly received by critics, and it launched him into a depression, and accompanying writer’s block, that lasted years. At the other end of the spectrum, Sibelius wrote seven symphonies, each more acclaimed than the last. His Eighth Symphony was so eagerly awaited that he felt trapped by the public’s expectation and never wrote another note.