Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Economics of Music Composition

This is a dissertation-sized topic that I would just like to sketch out briefly. How do composers support themselves? There are several different models. Up until around 1800 the only two ways of getting paid to compose music were to be supported by either the church or by the nobility. Guillaume Dufay (1397 - 1474) for example, was in the employ of the church from his early years and also was maistre de chapelle in Savoy. He was also employed by the Este family in Ferrara. Towards the end of his life he was canon of the Cathedral in Cambrai and also composed music for the court of Burgundy. His music was highly valued by the powers, both sacred and secular, of his time. From the Renaissance on, the nobility tended to become the most important patrons of composers and the church less so. The exception is J. S. Bach, who wrote most of his music for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, though he also had been employed by various courts. Haydn was composer to the Esterhazy family who were rich enough to have their own orchestra and opera house. Late in his life he retired from their service and became one of the first free-lance composers, travelling to London where he was acclaimed and made a fair amount of money from the public performance of his music. Beethoven lived on a mixture of income: piano lessons to the nobility, selling his music to various publishers, commissions from noble patrons and a stipend put together by several admirers, also noble. From then on, with the growth of the consumption of music by the middle-class, composers were less and less dependent on particular patrons and more on a larger group. Chopin, for example, played salon concerts in Paris and made a generous income from teaching piano privately. Rossini made a fortune from composing operas and retired at 37.

Claude Debussy, one of the most successful composers at the beginning of the 20th century, stitched together an income from public performances as both pianist and conductor, from publication of his music, and from writing music criticism. As the 20th century wore on, however, and as composers more and more drifted into a musical language that was more and more difficult for audiences to absorb, they came to depend on teaching, taking posts as professors of composition, and on commissions from institutions ultimately funded by governments. In Canada, for example, most composers are either employed by universities or conservatories to teach theory and composition, or survive on Canada Council grants and commissions. There is a network of Canadian Music Centres nationwide that contain libraries of scores by Canadian composers that may be loaned to performers.

From the 1970s, a few composers began to appeal to wider audiences, Philip Glass and Steve Reich in particular, and stayed out of academe by creating their own performing ensembles, winning commissions and making enough recordings to flourish as composers.

Now, in the 21st century, these models will continue, but we are likely to see new ones. The young American composer Nico Muhly, for example, has worked in collaboration with both Björk and Philip Glass. He manages to combine collaborations with popular musicians with commissions from classical ensembles.

One final note: for those of you who have wondered about the revisions of some of Stravinsky's early works decades later, perhaps the main reason for this was that, under the Soviet law of the time, the copyrights on these works were going to expire and this was a way of extending the copyright. Petrushka, written in 1911, was revised in 1947, largely for this reason.

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