M is for Money, N is for Ninth
by Joe Queenan
It is commonly thought that immortal music springs from the mind of a fertile, creative intellect. It does, but it doesn’t spring very far, very often or for very long unless someone is bankrolling the operation. Mozart died long before his time in large part because he worked himself to death raising money to pay the bills. Schubert was so poor that he could never afford to buy a piano. Bach worked his fingers to the bone churning out reams of church music to satisfy his employers and keep his 20 children fed.
Beethoven was the first composer who could support himself entirely by writing music. He was also one of the last. Charles Ives worked in the insurance business. Brahms briefly worked as a pianist in a Hamburg bordello. Haydn was treated like a servant in livery by the condescending aristocrats who employed him, not hesitating to send him nasty little notes complaining that his musicians could do with a makeover.
Tchaikovsky spent a large part of his career camouflaging his sexual predilections from a wealthy patroness with whom he had a weird platonic relationship that ended shortly after his secret was unmasked. Bizet died before he could reap the immense financial benefits from his smash hit Carmen. Wagner did not get into the black until a strange Bavarian king agreed to pony up the seed money to build him a personal opera house that would only perform Wagner’s works, as if someone like Richard Branson had built a contemporary structure called Das Stinghaus. The king was even nuttier than Wagner, which was going some.
Some composers travelled far afield to raise cash. Sergei Prokoviev, flat busted after the Russian Revolution broke out, sojourned all the way from St Petersburg to New York, where he was rebuffed in his efforts to get any of his work performed. Then, still clutching a business card he’d been given backstage after a piano recital in Russia years before, he took a train to Chicago where he persuaded Cyrus McCormick II, the son of the man who invented the reaper, to help him out.
And so on and so forth.
Money being so hard to come by, classical musicians today rely almost entirely on the financial support they receive from foundations, the idle rich, no-show jobs at music schools – or Daddy. Because John Q Public has had so little to do with advancing their careers, there is absolutely no incentive for contemporary composers to write music that ordinary people might enjoy. So musicians write music for other musicians. Anyone else, you couldn’t pay them to listen to it.
(Republished from article in The Guardian)