Monday, September 06, 2010

How Composers Made a Living

No one should ever go into classical music to get rich, though some are talented and lucky enough, eventually, to do so.

Perhaps because it's Labor Day, thinking about how the original meaning of the holiday has, like many others, been overlooked and forgotten in the end-of-summer celebrations, but I was reminded of this passage from Jan Swafford's wonderfully readable biography of Johannes Brahms. He mentioned the income Brahms earned from popular works like his “Lullaby,” something he'd initially composed for friends on the birth of their son, and how during the 1860s and '70s many things he'd composed – from the Hungarian Dances (piano duets written for the amateur market) to the Requiem (composed with amateur choruses in mind) – brought in sufficient income to provide “for an independent creative life few composers have ever enjoyed.” For comparison:

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"Bach was employed by courts and churches, who worked him like a slave. Handel was a freelancer who went bankrupt several times before his comfortable old age. Haydn spent most of his career composing for one aristocratic family with whom he had the status of a servant. Mozart lived independently [of such patronage] but had to perform and teach for much of his income. Beethoven received support from the aristocracy and early in his career was a keyboard virtuoso. Schubert mostly lived off friends. For much of his life, Wagner existed largely by extracting funds and services from admirers, tradespeople and King Ludwig of Bavaria, and slipped out of town when creditors caught up with him. Robert Schumann had a small inheritance supplemented by paid positions, journalism and Clara's performing.

"None of those composers earned so extravagantly from publishing their works as Brahms did, and none except Wagner, in his fifties, reached the position Brahms reached in his thirties – composing what he wanted, when he wanted, prospering without ever accepting a commission to write a piece. By Brahms' time, a living like that had been made at least conceivable by the enormous growth of the audience for classical music and the tens of thousands of pianos in bourgeois parlors, all of them requiring material from light to heavy."

[Johannes Brahms (A Biography). Jan Swafford. Vintage Books 1997. excerpt, pp.344-345, 1999 paperback edition]
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I'm not sure a “composers' union” would have brought about anything comparable to the protection of the working class, the institution of at least a minimum wage or to having health and retirement benefits, but I was also reminded of a story I'd heard a living composer tell an audience about how much he earned from his music.

It was back in the late-'70s when I was living in New York City and I attended a pre-concert talk, possibly a panel discussion, in which Elliott Carter (then pushing 70) mentioned that the one work of his that brought in the most income for him was his Variations for Orchestra, mostly from European concerts and radio broadcasts (he made a sly reference to the fact – even then – how unlikely it would be for an American classical radio station to air it).

(You can hear a student orchestra from Tanglewood perform this in 2008, here, conducted by Stefan Asbury.)

He mentioned how much the commission from the Louisville Symphony had been and how long it took him to compose it, completing it in 1955 after having sketched at it since 1953. He figured – given the time spent on it and the amount he was paid to write it – he was basically being paid something like $0.25 an hour. I don't recall exactly – the point is, it wasn't much money, even then.

At this point, Carter paused while we pondered this discrepancy between Art and Reality when he added, after once pointing this out to an audience, there was this bejeweled matron draped in furs who stood up and took him to task. “Mr. Carter,” she said quite aghast, “you mean to tell me you write for MONEY?!”

- Dick Strawser

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Carter has also said that when he divided the amount of money he received for his Variations from the Louisville Orchestra's commission by the time he spent on it, his earnings worked out to twenty-five cents an hour. This inspired me and some friends of mine, who got together informally to play on weekends, to suggest a way he could up his take by ten thousand percent. We were going to offer him twenty-five dollars and agree to play anything he could come up with in one hour. We never had the courage to make the proposition, though. We were afraid he wouldn't get the joke.