Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's the music that's important

Ned Rorem (one the most celebrated contemporary composers) is right when he says that performing musicians are more celebrated than the people who write the music that they play. Composers are, and have been for most of music history, invisible. There were a hundred years or so (if that) when more than a handful of composers of "art" music who were not virtuosos themselves could make a good living writing music. Still, many subsidized their incomes by conducting, some had positions as the head of this or that conservatory, and some had "invisible" patrons.

I always get excited thinking about the first half of the 20th century when the Princess de Polognac was doing her financial best to keep composers she liked producing high-quality music. The Princess de Polignac was actually an American (her father, Issac Singer, made his fortune in sewing machines), but she spent most of her life in Paris. Her completely American counterpart (and contemporary--I always wondered if the might have met: could they have been rivals?) Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned what some people might refer to as the rest of the important music from the first half of the 20th century.

I can't imagine what 20th century music would have been like without these two women, yet their contributions are rarely lauded. They did the what they did because they valued contemporary music and they believed (correctly) that composers would produce great work if they were paid to do so. What we have from their efforts is the music itself. In the end that's all that really matters.

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