Historically Speaking: Masterpieces That Began as Failures

From Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’ to Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio,’ some great works of art have taken a long time to win recognition.

The Wall Street Journal

November 19, 2020

Failure hurts. Yet history, the ultimate judge, shows that today’s failure sometimes turns out to be tomorrow’s stroke of genius—even if it takes many tomorrows.

Take Ludwig van Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” which tells the story of Leonore, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband Florestan, a political prisoner marked for execution. The opera contains some of the most noble and inspiring Beethoven music ever wrote, but when it premiered in Vienna on Nov. 20, 1805, it was a fiasco.

PHOTO: ALAMY

The timing was terrible. The Austrian capital was practically deserted, having fallen to Napoleon’s army the week before. The audience was mainly comprised of French army officers, who showed little interest in an opera celebrating female heroism, conjugal love and freedom from tyranny. “Fidelio” had just three performances before it was pulled from the stage.

Crestfallen at the failure of his first (and only) attempt at opera, Beethoven set about revising and shortening the work. When “Fidelio” finally returned to the Vienna stage on May 23, 1814, it was a great success, though the composer’s increasing deafness affected his conducting, almost throwing the performance into chaos. The chorus master saved the day by keeping time behind him.

Beethoven was lucky that the Viennese finally appreciated the revolutionary nature of “Fidelio” in his own lifetime. The 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, by contrast, lived and died a national joke. The problem wasn’t so much his ideas about being and suffering, though these fell on deaf ears, but his character. Kierkegaard was a feud-mongering eccentric so derided in his native Copenhagen that people would tease him in the street.

Kierkegaard’s most important book, “Either/Or,” was published at his own expense in 1843 and sold a mere 525 copies. He remained on the outer fringes of philosophy until his writings began to be translated into other languages. But in the aftermath of World War I, Kierkegaard inspired German and French thinkers to approach the meaning of life in an entirely new way, creating the school of thought known as existentialism.

Being a ground-breaker is often a lonely business, as the novelist Herman Melville discovered. His first five novels, starting with “Typee” in 1846, were highly popular adventure tales based on his experiences as a sailor. But more than money and success, Melville wanted to write a great book that would reimagine the American novel. He made the attempt in “Moby-Dick, or The Whale,” which appeared in 1851.

But readers loathed Melville’s highflown new style, and critics were bemused at best. His literary career never recovered. In 1856, he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty much made up my mind to be annihilated.” He died in 1891 with his final book, “Billy Budd,” unfinished.

Still, Melville never wavered in his belief that life’s true winners are the strivers. As he wrote, “‘It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.”

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