Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Musical Feast

I'm not a music historian, but I tend to read a lot of books about musicians and composers, and I indulge in thinking (some would say obsessing) about particular composers and their relationships to the world around them, particularly the situations that have "produced" their best works.

The world of music-loving patrons asking people to write music, while it must be alive somewhere, seems to be reserved for a small segment of the composing and performing part of the musical population, and seems to be concentrated around major cities. Much of the financial part of the process is clothed in foundations and 501c3 organizations, and has moved from being a personal kind of interaction to being a public one.

Back in the 19th century, Franz Schubert had a circle of friends who read poetry together. He happened to be the composer of the group, so his friends were delighted to see and hear what he "did" with "their" poetry. He kept popping out piece after piece because he was in a circle of friends who appreciated what he did, and wanted more. His song writing was as much a service to the medium of poetry as it was to a gift to his friends. He also had a group of friends (men and women) who were students of Salieri who were particularly interested in each other's music, and they were all living under the shadows of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who were only inaccessible because they were dead. Thankfully there were a few people in the business who recognized his gifts as a composer, but what really ran his musical motor was the knowledge that people wanted what he could produce, and producing it made him happy.

Alexander Glazunov was part of a circle of composers who were all students and friends of Rimsky-Korsakov. Every Friday Glazunov and his friends would go to the home of Mitrofan Belyayev, a businessman who made his fortune in lumber, and play string quartets (Belyayev usually played the viola) by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven until the wee hours of the night, and then they would eat. The composers who took part in Belyayev's Fridays were expected to bring pieces of their own, and they would be played. Glazunov wrote fantastic chamber music as a result of these Fridays. Belyayev started a publishing company to showcase this newly-composed Russian music. He did it because he loved music, especially Russian music, and he had the financial means to share this love for music with people outside of his circle of friends, outside of Russia, and into the future.

The Princess de Polignac was totally dedicated to music. She studied organ with Nadia Boulanger, and she had the financial means to support the composers she admired by asking them to write pieces of music to be performed for her in her home. I imagine that she felt like her "salon" could be sort of a like a court in the Renaissance, or the court of Louis XIV. She was equally devoted to what was then called "ancient music" (the first modern performance of Rameau's Dardanus was in her home, and she financed the first recordings of Monteverdi) as she was to contemporary music (she commissioned music from Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie, Tailleferre, Weill, and a slew of other composers), and helped the performing careers of people like Clara Haskil and the whole of the Ballet Russe. She had two quartets of Stradivarius instruments in her home, and invited young musicians to play them for her and her friends. She particularly liked Beethoven's late quartets. The musicians who came to her house were paid to play, and they got to play on fantastic instruments and eat great food.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge began her life as a patron by holding a contest to increase the viola repertoire so that her son would have more music to play. She was more of a "professional" patron than a social one. She didn't really seem to care about the social aspects of music making, though she enjoyed having personal working relationships with the composers and ensembles she worked with. A frustrated composer herself (being an upper-class woman in the United States during the early part of the 20th century, she was not encouraged to continue her composition studies) she put her energy into promoting the work of composers she admired. She paid Gian-Francesco Malipiero to make the first modern editions of Monteverdi's madrigals (the ones the Princess's friends used to make the first recordings), and she started the chamber music series at the Library of Congress, requesting string quartets to play entire cycles of Beethoven quartets.

Following the example of Coolidge, perhaps, we now have people and ensembles who are looking for new music to play--particularly ensembles made of unusual instruments. Commissioning music seems to now be ensemble-specific, but it tends to be, as far as I can tell, initiated by performing musicians who ask organizations for money, rather than by individual people who are devoted to music, but do not play professionally themselves. Finding performance venues for new music is also difficult unless an ensemble has personal connections with a school or concert series, or the composer is extremely well known.

We also have academia, which should be (and I imagine sometimes is) a haven for social-musical and artistic-intellectual interaction. People in some schools must get together and talk about poetry, and there are certainly composers in groups like these who would want to set contemporary poetry to music. Unfortunately for composers, poetry that is published is protected by copyright, and setting it to music would involve legal complications with public performances. Publication, because it would involve permission, which often translates into money, would be impossible for most composers. The musical possibilities for our current literary culture are seriously limited.

Academic situations also offer a huge range of music to hear: music from all over the world, music that celebrates tonality, serial and minimalist music, music that incorporates technology, "scholarly" music that embraces a bunch of popular styles, jazz, and, in some places, music written by students and members of the faculty. What is new, as we can see from new music blogs on line, is both varied and plentiful. The shadow of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven is something that many people involved in new music encounter only occasionally. There just doesn't seem to be time for everything we have on our musical plate.

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Erin said...

Where I work, Southbank Centre (Royal Festival Hall and other associated venues, including The Hayward Gallery) commissions quite a bit of work for all sorts of things. Recently we had music commissioned for a dance company that works with disabled and abled dancers, we commissioned a piece that combines our resident contemporary classical orchestra and our period instrument orchestra together, we've commissioned a song cycle for mezzo-soprano that's inspired by the paintings in the current show in the gallery... that's just in the year I've worked there. They're aiming to be a creator of art that moves between traditional genres and art forms to connect everything that happens in our big arts centre and we're increasing the amount we commission as well. It's really neat to watch how it develops.

Elaine Fine said...

What a fantastic organization! I'm posting a link to it here. One of the problems with living in a rural part of the United States is that the models around us for supporting "living" arts are all pretty far behind the times, and the stratified maze of musical-academia (the keeper of the arts in these parts) defines the culture--outside of country music and craft fairs, that is.