Genius and despair: John Donne and Christopher Falzone

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide, says article 2282 of the Catechism.

The story of Christopher Falzone is a tragic one, and it’s  wrapped in claim and counterclaim. It is probably unwise to take sides in the wrangling during his short adult life between his parents and his apparent wife, Lily, though one senses his parents’ pain. He killed himself by jumping from the 10th floor rooftop of a Geneva hospital on 21st October, 2014.This may have been his fourth suicide attempt. In a previous one he’d been badly injured, and ended up in a wheelchair in a care home, still playing the piano miraculously.

Falzone & Argerich in happier times

His tale is that of a child prodigy in Richmond, Virginia, going on to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and commencing a sparkling concert career. He won prestigious awards, toured successfully, and came to the notice of Martha Argerich, who when she’s not making slightly boring chamber music (a subjective opinion, I know) with her pals, can be one of the fieriest pianists on the planet. Argerich is good at promoting young pianists, but at some point, Falzone’s life and career began to unravel. Whether it was primarily a mental health problem, which seems likely, or money, family and relationship difficulties he ended up in a pretty bad way. By February 2014 he’d twice jumped off the Walnut St bridge in Pennsylvania, getting injured in the process. His parents applied for and received a court ordered guardianship, and by May 2014 his wife broke this and took him off to Switzerland. This  disturbing GoFundMe request ostensibly written by Falzone, to obtain funding for a new life in Europe, was possibly penned by his wife. It certainly doesn’t read like an intelligent English speaking American wrote it.

After his death was announced, the internet helpfully chimed in with statements attacking his parents such as this one by ‘road rage’ virtuoso pianist Leslie Howard: “He was a very nice man, and an extremely good player and transcriber. His parents’ treatment of him was, to put it mildly, bizarre, and they have much to answer for. Poor dear chap“, or off the wall ‘psychiatry is evil’ schtick from an unusual Swiss lawyer,  Edmund Schönenberger, with Scientology links. Sad, desperate, controversial and painful stuff.

Why, you might ask, am I writing this? One reason is to note, unoriginally, that some of the most talented artistes have been cursed with mental health problems. Creative genius and mental fragility often go hand in hand. Another is to pay tribute to a truly extraordinary gift. As far as I know, all we have are individual memories and YouTube, and thankfully the latter is a rich deposit.

There are lots (and lots) of technically perfect pianists about, with what seems like an endless supply from the former Eastern Bloc, and the Far East. All perfectly listenable, but one suspects that the ultimate value of many of them will be to provide ‘standard’ recordings of repertoire – safe bets, not earth shattering.

There is a much smaller number of truly special musicians, many of them now dead. My own living piano hit list would include Hamelin, Pollini, Zimerman.  Amongst the dead there’s more, such as Rubinstein (Artur), Gould, Richter. No surprises there, in either group. Plenty of the big names are actually just a bit dull, though: Goode, Lewis, Aimard etc. Some of the best recordings are by people who never made it big, such as Latimer or Nicolosi.

Then along comes a guy like Falzone. His playing is brilliant – technically, rhythmically (often neglected), dramatically and emotionally. Not only that, he has charisma and flair. He’s not just a pianist. He is a terrific exponent of the almost dead 19th century art of piano transcription. He doesn’t just play Busoni’s enormous Piano Concerto, he transcribes it for solo piano, along with lots of other similar feats. Dull pianists don’t major in transcriptions, thrilling masters like Marc Andre Hamelin and Earl Wild do, and now Christopher Falzone. He’s just as good in venerable classics such as the Liszt Sonata or Beethoven’s awesome Appassionata

I used to dislike John Donne’s phrase “Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind”, as taken on its own it seems a trite observation regarding the one inevitability in all our lives (the whole poem is a different story). It is probably not to my credit that it takes a life like that of Christopher Falzone  to make me realise that Donne had a point.



9 thoughts on “Genius and despair: John Donne and Christopher Falzone

  1. Le funeste destin d’un pianiste mort à Genève

    But I wanted to share this article I read today:
    Also: The Insanity Hoax is the first book to directly challenge the mad genius myth by exposing the pseudoscientific foundation it sits on, as well as the social and psychological reasons for its widespread popularity. The myth is far from being the universal “truth” people think it is.
    While writing gofundme Christopher was ordered Zyprexa and he died on Risperdal and lorazepam.

    Antidepressant-induced akathisia-related homicides associated with diminishing mutations in metabolizing genes of the CYP450 family

    $8 Million Awarded to Family Of Man Who Died in Risperdal Trial

    In The News October 22, 2015


  2. I’m very glad to see this tribute to Falzone. His was an astonishing talent – not just as player and interpreter, but, as the author mentions, a peerless transcriber. My favorite is his transformation of Ravel’s La Valse, where his solo piano miraculously conveys the power and romance of a full orchestra.

    Where I part company with lisztomega is in his/her casual reference to the supposed link between creativity and mental illness. Too many people assume these things are invariably connected, a rumor fed by such blatant pseudoscientific distortions as “Touched with Fire,” as well as the insatiable media hunger for tragic icons.

    For the final scientific word on the matter, see the Cambridge University Press text, “Creativity and Mental Illness” (2014). For something equally definitive but far more entertaining, there’s “The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius” (2012), which explains why the “mad genius” notion persists in our culture despite its utter lack of evidence. The fact is that most “official” diagnoses of supposedly “mad” artists are based on centuries-old scraps of gossip and hearsay; they also imply that “mental illness” itself is a clear and valid entity, which is a whole other controversy.

    In any case, it is unethical to label a person you haven’t seen, a principle that is widely and conveniently ignored in the eagerness to believe that formidable gifts come with a heavy price. This certainly makes the less talented feel better about themselves, but it unfairly stigmatizes those who bring such beauty to the world.

    1. Fair points, and thanks for commenting. I was reasonably inferring a certain amount regarding CF’s mental state, so ‘unethical’ is a little harsh. I don’t want to add to his family’s grief, and the post is in no way critical of CF. There are many examples of remarkable artistic achievement in all the spheres, in which the person had significant mental illness, but I accept that it’s not cause and effect, and I have no statistics on the incidence of it in what you might loosely call ‘creative minds’. The book that you recommend perhaps addresses this. I certainly have no wish to believe that ‘formidable gifts come with a heavy price’. If that widespread view – which you acknowledge – is wrong, then I am happy to accept your correction.

      1. Thanks for the reply! “Unethical” is not a harsh characterization of your point, but a real professional restriction: I’m referring to the 1973 “Goldwater Rule,” which was created by the American Psychiatric Association to discredit and hopefully prohibit any remote diagnoses. It was inspired by a magazine article in which psychiatrists weighed in on Barry Goldwater’s fitness to be President, diagnosing him as paranoid without ever meeting him. The resulting brouhaha became a public embarrassment to the APA and the reason for the rule, which “mad genius” advocates happily ignore.

        The truth is, there are no legitimate statistics on the alleged link between creativity and mental illness. There’s only lots of conjecture and inflated claims. Even the recent, much-touted Swedish study of 30,000 people that supposedly “proved” the connection (which many people took as definitive because of the whopping N), was only a data massage of dusty records from a psychiatric institute. The authors took decades of diagnoses (filed by a variety of unknown people with unknown credentials, using unknown criteria) and simply matched them with reports of occupation. Science, this ain’t.

        But the error of equating occupation with creativity is symptomatic of the murk in this research. For instance, just because people claim to be artists or writers or musicians, it doesn’t mean they are, or if so, are any good at it. Similarly, there are legends about creative geniuses who took unrelated day jobs to pay the bills (wasn’t Einstein a patent clerk?), which disguised their actual talent.

        Yes, the widespread view is wrong. Sadly, destructively wrong. I respectfully request that you read my book, “The Insanity Hoax,” which explains how and why. It took thirty years of research to write, and is available at amazon etc.; among other glowing reviews is this brief summation by the (musical genius) Chris Brubeck: “Fascinating, insightful, and surprisingly funny.” It’s the only book of its kind, and despite being self-published, became a textbook at Temple University and the Royal College of Music in London. Full disclosure: I was also invited to contribute a chapter to the definitive “Creativity and Madness” text, which ends up agreeing with me and dismissing the link as vastly overblown.

        But boy, is it ever popular! Now there’s a new movie sprung from the travesty of “Touched with Fire,” and the same old, thoroughly-discredited claims are in the air again…

  3. Thanks Judith, I entirely accept your argument, albeit the definitive statistical ‘proof’ is never likely to be available, due to the difficulty in accurately categorising both the creative genius and certain forms of mental illness, never mind the daunting power calculation of any proposed study. I am no fan of lazy cliches, even if use them myself, however inadvertently. That said, the blog was intended in part as a homage to a rare talent, and also a reflection on whether or not Donne’s poem reflects a subtle truth, rather than a pious platitude

    1. You’re absolutely right about the unlikelihood of “proof” in this area, and about the reasons for it: the difficulty (I’d ratchet that up to “impossibility”) of defining and validating both creativity and mental illness. There are as almost many definitions of the former as there are definers, since creativity cannot be tangibly and reliably measured.

      There’s a section in The Insanity Hoax about the difficulty of defining creativity (“Blind Men and Elephant Parts”), which Oxford University Press liked enough to include in their new “Reader for Writers” text. I got a few shekls for allowing this, which was also nice.

      The same conceptual problems apply to mental illness, with more tragic consequences. Categories are notoriously ambiguous, subjective, political and ephemeral; diagnoses change with each revision of the psychiatric manual, with new disorders appearing as fast as Big Pharm can invent drugs for them (and sometimes, the drug appears before the supposed reason for it; don’t start me on the collusion problem!).

      As the latest psychiatric “Bible” was being invented (the DSM-5), complete with furious backstage bargaining, the head of the National Institute for Mental Health – America’s chief psychiatrist – revealed the existence of a 10-year search for a better system, since the DSM was essentially, well, crap. Even the guy who shepherded
      the IV loudly slammed the 5* and wrote a book condemning it — ironically, for the same weaknesses as the version he supervised. The field is in more of an uproar than the public realizes, which casts further doubt on the validity of its pronouncements.

      Lisztomega, it seems that you and I agree on a number of things — most importantly, the terrible loss to the world of the uniquely brilliant Christopher Falzone.

      * – This is not a typo; they switched from Roman numerals to Arabic numbers to facilitate naming subsequent tweaks, as in the DSM 5.0, .1, etc. The DSM is the APA’s biggest moneymaker and so far, most diagnosing institutions/professionals are compelled to buy it.

      1. Just read this, o boy, such a comments under the article and let me tell you please, I see the truth deep down in the roots of system for creation of disabling minds of geniuses, “unlike”- minded, very beautiful or very ugly people or any kind of people why didn’t “simply get it!” – complains and obey the establishment.

        “That essential piece of advice should be given to every single potential future victim of psychiatrists and the mental death industry.

        Or, if they are unable to process this in their pain and despair, it should be given to their advocates or chosen loving and caring all way through ones.

        These quacks have been the source of such misery, suffering, disability, terror, and death that it is hard to comprehend how or why they have not been driven out of “business”. Who would trust the well-being of …. a husband, in fact, any human being to the ignorant, dangerous, useless, and arrogant fools who largely make up the psychiatric “profession” ( bit of a stretch calling it that). What kind of “work” do they do? They kill little kids like Rebecca Riley, torture people like Garth Daniels with ECT, murder poor Luise, and poison people who end up with tardive dyskinesia, increased psychosis, homicidal or suicidal ideation, and any number of other conditions involving the deterioration of ones physical and emotional health.”

  4. Thanks to Dr Schlesinger, who has real expertise in this area. As a separate issue from the link – or otherwise – between mental health and creativity, note that healthcare administration outwith the specific business models of care, is bedevilled by ‘experts’ seeking fame/power/money, in pretty much whatever clinical sphere you can name. It’s usually because working clinicians aren’t involved. They’re too busy treating patients

    1. Precisely right, listztomega. In fact, the great majority of academicians who keep making influential pronouncements about the “link” between madness and creativity are NOT clinicians at all (mostly social and educational psychologists). As such, they rarely witness the real-world impact of their glib pathological labels on a person’s self-esteem, daily life, and hopes for the future. Smug and safe in their ivory towers, these “experts” are so far from the true reality of mental disorder and its suffering that they see no problem with celebrating the “blessed gift” of madness that geniuses are supposed to receive…

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