Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Ages of Music: How Composers Make a Living

It seems every century, things change – not that certain things don't change more often than that like decades and generations or even the seasons of a year.

But in music – and in many of the other arts – there are changes in the sound or style of music almost every one hundred years which we divide into “periods” since 1600 called Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern, though no one's come up with a name for the “most modern” music that's being written today in a New Century.

(In this time-line - above - the dark vertical lines represent centuries: composers' names in blue belong to the Renaissance Age (before 1600); the green ones to the Barqoue Age (1600-1750); yellow represents the 50 years of the Classical Age (1750-1800); the pink ones, the Romantic Age (1800-1900).)

The only one that doesn't happen in a '00 year is the change between the Baroque Period of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel and the Classical Period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Josef Haydn. That happened around 1750, the year J.S. Bach died. It should've happened in 1700, you'd think, but maybe it's because things moved more slowly in those days... things certainly move faster, now!

These changes do not necessarily mean the new one is an improvement or better than the older one, just different. Things also tend to move in cycles or waves, returning to something that's comparable or similar in basics – not the same, but with similar basic traits.

These changes don't happen somewhere between December 31st, '99 and January 1st, '00. It may take a few years before any significant shift happens or, once it's started before it finishes.

For a period of several decades, things seem basically the same. Sure, every generation changes a little but then it begins reaching a time where these changes become more pronounced, developing toward something else. Then a bigger change occurs when people begin thinking “that's going too far” and something new happens, usually as a reaction. In many ways, you could say this is going back to “earlier values” and then the process starts over again.


In one sense, a year is a cycle of seasons – out of winter, it begins to get warm; once it's gotten too hot, then it starts cooling off and we're back to winter again. The major changes are between Winter and Summer. The transitions in between are Spring and Fall (or Autumn). The “starting points” are the Summer and Winter Solstices which occur around June 21st and December 21st. The changes start happening around the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes around March 21st and September 21st. (A solstice means the highest or lowest point the sun reaches in the sky; an equinox means when the length of day and night are the same or equal.)

That doesn't mean you go to bed on March 20th when it's winter and you wake up on March 21st and it's spring. Sometimes it takes weeks to notice it's really “warmer.” Sometimes you get weather that “feels like” spring in January. This year we had cooler weather when it was supposed to be summer. Just the other week, it suddenly started feeling like it was already Fall. But who knows, we may still have a few hot days left before the leaves change color and fall.

So a similar kind of cycle can be seen on a longer span – over decades and generations. Ask older members of your family like your parents and grandparents what it was like when they were growing up and if they remember the differences between the '50s and the '60s, the '70s and the '80s, and how the '90s differ from the first decade if a new century.

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One thing that also changed with the centuries is the attitude toward composers in our societies.

In Mendelssohn's time, composers made a living from their music in what could be called a “capitalist” approach: in other words, they made their money from performances of the music and from people buying the printed music. The more popular a composer, the more performances his music got and the more printed music was sold. Now, he didn't always get money every time a piece was played but if he was involved in the performance as the conductor or the soloist, he would be paid a fee.

This is how most composers “work” today – not in a 9-to-5 job like someone going to an office but they earn money from someone paying them to write a piece for them. This is called “a commission.” They get paid for the performances and also when their music is performed even when they're not involved in it because their publishers have a system of royalties which means a certain amount of money goes back into the composers' pockets (and the publishers, too). The more popular a composer is, the higher the commission fee; and more performances brings in more royalties.


The century before Mendelssohn and Beethoven (whose first significant mature works were starting to be published around 1800), most composers were employees. They were part of a staff employed by aristocrats. A powerful nobleman (like a king) had a “court” or body of lesser noblemen around him. In order to entertain these people, this powerful nobleman employed an orchestra, maybe also an opera theater. (See illustration, left, of an 18th Century Court concert.) Less wealthy aristocrats maybe employed only a few musicians like a string quartet.

After this Age of Aristocracy had begun to diminish, some aristocrats were not as wealthy as before and maybe only had one musician they employed. Even in the 1820s, a Count Esterhazy hired a pianist named Franz Schubert to play the piano for them and their guests during a couple summers, teach their daughters how to sing and play music, and write music for them to perform and listen to.

Fifty years earlier, a wealthier cousin of this Esterhazy family who was a Prince, not a Count - (see photo of his estate, left) - maintained a full orchestra as well as a whole opera company and his resident composer and conductor was Franz Josef Haydn who wrote symphonies and operas for his employer. Haydn had one of the greatest music jobs in Europe then, writing for a music loving prince who spared no expense to have one of the finest orchestras around.

It wasn't always like that. Mozart never could find a good job. In fact, he couldn't even find a bad one, so he went to the most musical city in Europe – Vienna – and tried making a living as a “free-lance” musician, composing and performing for concerts and trying to get his operas performed by the Emperor's court. Most of his money came from the concerts but if it was a bad year, he worried about his finances and often wrote letters to friends begging them to loan him money. Near the end of his life, he got a small job with the Emperor, writing music for the dances at the court. It wasn't much money but it was steady and the pieces he wrote were just short dances that had to have popular appeal: it wasn't like writing symphonies, concertos or operas. He was technically “under-employed” and definitely needed a second job to keep things solvent.


Beethoven was the first major composer who earned his living as a “free-lance” composer like Mozart. Most composers in his time were still employed by the nobility. But as the Industrial Revolution changed the European economic system, a new class began to emerge: the Middle Class. And some of these became wealthy merchants – the Upper Middle Class. Some of them could even be wealthier than someone with an aristocratic title. Even people of the Middle Class could have enough money to want to live well and imitate the “Lifestyles of the Rich if not Famous.” They too could employ a musician or three or four and pay a composer to write music for them which would be performed at their homes to entertain and impress their guests.

More often, Middle Class homes might have the members of the family performing for each other and their friends. A daughter who could sing and play the piano was a daughter who could make someone a better wife. Very often, every one in the family could make music in some way: but many people enjoyed performing for their friends or sitting with them and listening to the music. It was amateurs like this who would buy the sheet music that would add to the composer's income.

The difference between professional and amateur today usually implies "amateur" is not as good as a professional musician's level of playing. That's not always true. The German words were better - a professional was a "Kenner" (someone who "knew" music) and an amateur was a "Liebhaber" (literally "love-haver," someone who "loved" music but didn't make a living by it). Even the word "amateur" comes from the Latin word for love, "amo, amat."

Instead of an orchestra being paid for by a prince, professional orchestra musicians now formed orchestras that sold tickets so people of the Middle Class could attend public concerts without needing to be invited to a nobleman's palace to hear it. Musicians earned money paid for by ticket sales.

The public concert was a new idea in the 1770s in England where the Industrial Age had started earlier than it had in Germany. By 1800, it was a very important part of Beethoven's life. And with Mendelssohn, a member of the next generation, it was his primary way of earning a living.


This cycle of employment also came around again. In the 20th Century – at least by the end of World War II – most composers in the United States were employed by Universities. Instead of court orchestras, it was a University Orchestra. Some of them had “resident string quartets” which meant the four players taught students and performed as the official representative of the college or university. Even in the 1970s when I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, there were two composers on the faculty (not including a few others like me who also composed) and we had a resident string quartet. Teaching was their “day job” which allowed them to compose or perform as well.

Many creative artists still need this "day job" to support their having the time to be able to create, whether it's write a book, paint a picture, compose or perform.

While much of that university situation hasn't changed a lot, some composers starting in the 1980s didn't NEED to teach at a university to earn a living. So today, a composer like Jennifer Higdon who used to teach at the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, can now live entirely on her income as a composer. She receives lots of commissions for new works, her music is performed frequently around the world and she has a number of works that have been recorded.

(In this post, over at my blog Thoughts on a Train, I write about her violin concerto, premiered earlier this year: it includes a video chat between her and the violinist she wrote it for and she also talks about what it's like being a creative artist living in Philadelphia.)

Two years ago, the Harrisburg Symphony played a big new Percussion Concerto of hers. You can hear some of her music in a few months, here in Harrisburg. The Cypress String Quartet will play a piece she wrote for them at Market Square Concerts on January 24th and a week later, the Harrisburg Symphony will play a shorter orchestral work of hers. Every piece of music she writes now is paid for – these are called “commissions” – and though she still maintains a teaching relationship at Curtis, she doesn't have time to teach as much as she used to: she doesn't need to keep her “day job” to earn a living.

Still, it's interesting to note that though composers today may not be employed by wealthy noblemen, they often depend on wealthy individuals and companies and foundations to "underwrite" their creativity. A corporation donates money to a baseball team to build their stadium earns them "naming rights" so that stadium is now called "The [Insert Corporation Here] Stadium."


Today, many churches employ musicians - most often, the choirs are made up of volunteers but the organists and choir directors are paid positions. Going back even more centuries in the past, though, before Bach and Mozart, composers were employed not by universities or aristocrats but by churches. Even Bach, who died in 1750, spent the last decades of his life as the music director of the major church in Leipzig. But he had also worked for various counts and smaller noblemen earlier in his career.

But since music began to be written down over a thousand years ago, the primary employer of the musicians then was the Church. They wrote music for church services (the choir was the resident ensemble) for the congregation to hear (the audience who in another century would be “the court”).

So composers go from being employed by someone (or something) to being self-employed. Right now, we're in a free-lance system. Who knows where it will go by the year 2100?

- Dr. Dick