By John Schauer
A faculty member of the school of music at Northwestern University once facetiously suggested that all music majors should be required to take a course in poverty, because mere musicianship will not necessarily put food on the table.
If it’s true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, the same is true of music; someone has to pay for it. In the earliest time of the Western art music we collectively call “classical,” virtually the only source of income for a composer was the patronage of the royal families and wealthy noblemen. If the only surviving legacy of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533–1603) was the unprecedented flowering of music that occurred during her reign, the Elizabethan era would still be reckoned a Golden Age. On June 18 the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico will explore this magnificent repertoire and the way music was used to curry favor with one of the greatest music patrons of all time.
Since Elizabeth’s time, composers have found diverse ways to finance their careers, and a consideration of some of the composers whose music will be performed at Ravinia this summer shows how cleverly their solutions evolved over the years.
Following in the footsteps of the composers at the court of Queen Elizabeth was Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757), one of the supreme masters of Baroque keyboard music. It was his role of music teacher to the Portuguese Princess Maria Barbara that resulted in his greatest legacy. He taught her keyboard in Lisbon from 1719 to 1727 and again beginning in 1733 in Madrid after she married into the Spanish royal house and later became queen. Scarlatti spent the rest of his life in Spain, and it was for Maria Barbara that he composed the more than 550 keyboard sonatas upon which his fame rests. (A sampling of these sonatas and later works inspired by them will be presented by pianist Alon Goldstein on September 8.)
Born the same year as Scarlatti, Johann Sebastian Bach (d. 1750) was concerned most of his life with the creation of music for the Lutheran church, primarily more than 200 cantatas intended for liturgical use. The church where Bach served as cantor, however, displayed less largesse than a wealthy monarch, and with his enormous family—he had 22 children, although only 10 survived to adulthood—additional income was always welcome. Like countless other composers in need, he tried dedicating some of his works to someone he hoped would become his patron.
Such dedications were often obsequious to an almost embarrassing degree; Bach’s dedication of his six most famous concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg concludes with him “begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.” Unfortunately Bach groveled in vain, receiving no remuneration from the Margrave. He fared much better with the “Goldberg Variations” he wrote for Count Kaiserling, who presented him with a golden goblet filled with gold coins. (This evergreen collection will be played on harpsichord, the instrument it was written for, by Jory Vinikour on August 30.)
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) explored other avenues of income before entering into one of the more remarkable jobs in the annals of music. A brief biographical sketch he wrote in 1761 describes his predicament after he could no longer support himself by singing in court and cathedral choirs: “When my voice changed, I barely managed to stay alive by giving music lessons to children for about eight years. In this way many talented people are ruined; they have to earn a miserable living and have no time to study. … I eventually was given a position as music director to Count Morzin and, following this, to His Highness Prince Esterházy; there it is my desire to live and to die.”
The Esterházy family was one of the wealthiest families in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Haydn essentially stayed in their employ for the remainder of his life, during which time he composed an enormous corpus of music, including more than 100 symphonies, a dozen or so masses, nearly a score of concertos, close to 70 string quartets, 400 folksong arrangements, some two dozen operas (including a few for the prince’s marionette theater), and well over 150 works for an obscure stringed instrument called the baryton, which was the prince’s favorite instrument. All this, in addition to myriad trios, songs, cantatas, and sonatas (some of which dot programs by pianist Richard Goode on July 25 and flutists Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway on September 10), as well as such curiosities as works for “flute-clock,” kept Haydn busy and earned him a handsome income, the third-highest in the Esterházy establishment after the property manager and the prince’s personal physician.
Yet Haydn was subject to restrictions that prevented him from traveling, and despite his growing renown throughout Europe, he wore the livery of a household servant. This sort of treatment was not acceptable to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), who had little regard for hereditary privilege and felt his talent and genius made him the social equal of anyone. (And he is virtually without equal in terms of modern concert programming—no fewer than nine Ravinia concerts this summer feature a work by Beethoven, from his symphonies on August 1 and August 2 to small string ensemble works on June 19 and June 27 to solo songs on August 6.)
Music was becoming more democratic: concert attendance was no longer restricted to the nobility, and henceforth musicians would look beyond aristocratic patronage for their economic security. Beethoven is regarded as the first major composer who supported himself entirely on what his music earned in the marketplace, through sales of concert tickets or sheet music. Until his deafness curtailed his concert career, Beethoven was probably known to as many Viennese as a keyboard virtuoso as he was as a composer.
Franz Liszt (1811–86) took that phenomenon to new and unprecedented heights. He was not merely an admired performer; he virtually created the concept of the celebrity artist as we know it today. He invented the concert genre of the solo recital; for the first time, audiences paid to see one artist for an entire evening. Liszt first composed music primarily as a vehicle for his own virtuosity (such as his First Piano Concerto, featured under the hands of André Watts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop on July 27), but later went on to concentrate on composing orchestral works as well as conducting music by his colleagues that he championed.
Where earlier composers would seek aristocratic patronage through a variety of means, one composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93) was pleasantly surprised when a wealthy patron began pursuing him. Laboring as a music professor in Moscow, Tchaikovsky suddenly found himself freed to pursue composition full-time thanks to the obsessive devotion and support of Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a self-made multimillionaire, who first commissioned several works from him in 1876. The composer’s brother Modest wrote that the friendship “so thoroughly changed the basis of his material existence and, in consequence of this, so strikingly affected his artistic career, while at the same time it was of such a highly poetic nature and so unlike anything that occurs in the everyday life of contemporary society.” (Tchaikovsky dedicated to her his Fourth Symphony, which on August 18 tops Ravinia’s annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular with the CSO.) By the time Nadezhda suddenly and inexplicably ended the arrangement in 1890, Tchaikovsky was an international celebrity and enjoyed a conducting career that took him around the world—he was one of two conductors for the concert that opened Carnegie Hall in 1891.
Perhaps the most unusual career trajectory in this survey is that of Charles Ives (1874–1954). Most of the compositions of this highly experimental iconoclast remained unperformed until after his death; in life, his career was devoted to the insurance business—in 1907 he and a partner opened their own insurance company, where he worked until his retirement. (His Third Symphony is at the center of the All-American program performed by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra on August 19.)
The classical career of André Previn (1929–2019) also had an unconventional start. While still in high school, he began working in the music department of MGM studios, ultimately staying there 16 years; it’s amusing to note that the first film credit for the man who would later serve as music director of the orchestras of Houston, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles as well as principal conductor of the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic, was a 1949 episode of the Lassie TV series. He composed or arranged the scores for some 50 films, winning four Oscars along the way and collaborating on the 1969 Broadway musical Coco with Alan Jay Lerner. Acclaimed as a jazz pianist, he eventually turned his attention to classical composition, creating the acclaimed song cycle Honey and Rue and the opera A Streetcar Named Desire, in addition to concert overtures, tone poems, concertos, and an impressive catalog of chamber works. His final composition, Penelope, a work for soprano, string quartet, piano with text by Tom Stoppard, was co-commissioned by Ravinia and will receive a premier performance by Renée Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet on July 28.
Ravinia also played a curious if minute role in the launching of the career of Jake Heggie. Hailed as one of the most successful opera composers of our time, Heggie got his start while working as a writer in the public relations department of San Francisco Opera. While in that position, he composed a piece for the young singers of the opera’s training programs for the company’s 1997 gala. Shortly thereafter, the general director arranged for Heggie to collaborate with playwright Terrance McNally on his first opera, Dead Man Walking. He now has to his credit over 300 art songs and eight operas that have been produced by major companies on five continents. (Several of those songs figure into soprano Angel Blue’s August 8 program.) He no longer needs to write press releases.
The Ravinia connection? That PR position Heggie snagged in 1994 had been vacated by another writer who left to take a job as program editor at Ravinia Festival. And in case you’re wondering whatever happened to him, you’ve just finished reading one of his articles. ▪