Isaac Newton (1643-1727) experimented on his own eyes with needles when studying optics and believed the world would end in 2060. Pythagoras (c.570-495) so reviled beans that he even forbade his followers from eating them. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) lost his nose in a mathematical dispute that escalated into a brawl, meaning that the Danish astronomer had to wear a copper replacement for the rest of his life. There’s no doubt that some of history’s greatest minds have been, at the very least, a little different. Is eccentricity and inherent part of the liberated thinking at the root of genius? Or are the peculiarities of successful people simply better documented?
Morton Feldman (1929-87) was advised by fellow American composer John Cage to write short segments of his work out longhand before copying it town. The process of transcription allowed for the correction of mistakes, as well as sparking new ideas and ways of thinking in both men. Feldman was a deeply practical man, spending much of his life searching for the perfect chair and pen that would allow him to work seamlessly. He was also a man of extremes, moving to a remote French village after discovering that his home life in the States was so hectic that after one particularly full year he hadn’t written a single note of music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1751-91) was similarly compelled to cram composition into the fragments of his day that remained after settling as a freelance composer and performer in Vienna. Being financially dependent on patronage and an incessant procession of music lessons, concerts and visits to the city’s elite, meant that Mozart was often up composing until 1am before getting up again at 6am.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was also up before dawn, but he wasted little time getting down to work. Beethoven was known for his eccentricities even before his death. He breakfasted on coffee, which he prepared himself with great care after determining that precisely sixty beans made the ideal cup. He took frequent walks to aid his composition, often taking paper and pencils with him to record passing thoughts, habits that perhaps explain why Beethoven was more prolific in the summer months. However, it was Beethoven’s bathing habits that made him an unpopular neighbour; he would stand at his washstand, pouring large jugs of water over himself and bellowing operatic scales until the water soaked through floor or he was forced to chase his giggling servants from the house. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard had equally unusual habits when it came to caffeine. His former secretary, Israel Levin, noted that Kierkegaard owned at least fifty different cups and saucers, but only one of each set. Levin was required to select which set he preferred, each day, and justify his choice to the philosopher, certainly a more whimsical start to the day than the average quest for a morning latte.
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