For centuries, composers have had to make money where they can
How the Gig Economy shaped musical history
With their ruffled shirts and powdered wigs Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven would look very odd on today’s streets. But there’s one thing that would still be familiar to them – the gig economy.
In the past few years this phrase has grown louder in the political and economic chatter. And the concept of employing workers on flexible contracts – or gigs – has allowed companies such as Uber and Careem to disrupt established economic models and expand fast.
But the notion of grabbing work where you can and juggling several short-term projects – some lasting less than an hour – is something composers have been dealing with for centuries.
Classical music’s own Uber moment came when the system of aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage began to crumble in the mid 18th century.
With the aristocracy’s hold on the wane and the middle classes on the up, all roads pointed to the French Revolution.
By the time Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) came along, the European world was starting to mutate.
After an intense period of travel in his youth wowing Europe’s courts, Mozart the child prodigy eventually settled down under the service of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo in sleepy Salzburg.
This may have suited his more conservative father, Leopold, but sensing the tantalising opportunities of a freelance life, the restless young Wolfgang decided to leave. Aged 25, he settled in Vienna, the city of dreams.
This, incidentally, was a big deal at the time. Rather like an 18th century version of Steve Jobs starting Apple in his dad’s garage.
What followed was a heady merry-go-round of success … and crippling failure. There were glorious moments when the commissions came rolling in. And periods where the cupboard was bone dry.
Mixing-up his income streams, Mozart’s “gigs” could start with the more mundane – such as teaching children of the rich in his front room. (Existing manuscripts suggest he wasn’t entirely patient with those less talented than him.)
Then there was also the glamour of showbiz. Subscriptions concerts, for which Mozart would partner up with an entrepreneur, could make good money if they sold. But for these, Mozart needed something to perform.
It’s thanks to this we have many of his piano concertos, symphonies – but also smaller works, such as the collection of Violin Sonatas (K303, 377, 378 and 403) recorded by violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien on their new recording for Hyperion, released earlier this month.
As a freelance musician, Mozart would also accept a variety of commissions. The most lucrative were the grand operas (again, if they were successful) such as Marriage of Figaro (1786), but also smaller pieces, such as the Serenade in D major (K250/248b), popularly known as the Haffner serenade.
This eight-movement work was written in 1776 for pre-wedding festivities of “it” couple Marie Elisabeth Haffner and Franz Xaver Spaeth.
While living under such circumstances was undeniably stressful for Mozart, for us today it’s a blessing. Because had the young Amadeus not embarked on such a career path, his oeuvre is surely to have ended up very differently.
The next generation of Viennese composers also opted to follow Mozart’s example.
Franz Schubert (1797-28) spent much of his life as a penniless freelance composer. And his music-making reflects the rise of the salon as a centre of music making – intimate spaces where friends and acquaintances would gather to listen to music and discuss topics of the day.
Last week, the cellist Bruno Philippe and pianist Tanguy de Williencourt’s released a recording for the music label Harmonium Mundi that includes transcriptions of two of Schubert’s Lieder Nacht und Träume (D827) and Der Jüngling und der Tod (D545). Both works show off brilliantly the composer’s ability to write for more these more intimate audiences.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-27), Schubert’s contemporary, also avoided taking a steady job. But he had rather more success. In his youth, the mercurial German made money giving piano lessons and playing the piano in the salons of the wealthy.
If you want to hear a stunning review of 15 years in Beethoven’s life, check out the new recording by pianist Baptiste Lopez and violinist Maude Gratton of the composer’s Violin Sonatas No 3, 7 and 10 (released last week on Mirare). Listening to these three works, you hear how Beethoven kept developing the form to keep his listeners guessing – and make sure they came back for more.
Then at the other end of Beethoven’s career lies one of his last commissions – the triumphant Ninth Symphony; a work that turned the musical world upside down, not to mention gave us the Ode to Joy.
Paid by Britain’s Royal Philharmonic Society, could it be the best £50 the organisation has ever spent?
As the 19th century rolled on so did the fortunes of composers. With the old patronage system now pretty much dead, they continued to witness first-hand the precarious nature of the gig economy.
The eccentric Frenchman Erik Satie (1866-25), whose most famous works are the Gymnopédies for piano, earned money writing cabaret songs and turning in shifts as a cafe pianist (surely the most literal example of “gig” employment).
Edward Elgar (1857-20), the British composer, was always watching the cash as a freelance composer. In his book Elgar’s Earnings John Drysdale reveals that part of the problem was the unlucky time in which the composer was living.
Whereas the author George Eliot received an offer of £10,000 for the serial rights to Romola, poor old Elgar got just a guinea (about Dh1,197in today’s money) for his Enigma Variations.
Composer’s earning power didn’t really pick up until the invention of the UK’s Performing Rights Society in 1914.
Over in America, an entrepreneurial John Cage (1912-92) came up with an ingenious way to make money when his avant-garde compositions didn’t. He went round his neighbourhood, house to house, offering introductory classes to contemporary music to curious housewives.
Philip Glass (b. 1937) may be a huge star now but his music didn’t make him enough money to live off till he reached the age of 42.
During his earlier years he kept himself afloat with a variety of casual jobs, including shifts as a removal man, taxi driver and plumber. “I was careful,” he says, “to take a job that couldn’t have any possible meaning for me.”
More recently, choral composer Eric Whitacre announced in 2011 that he was also signing up to be a professional model for Storm Modelling Agency, home at the time to Cara Delevingne and Cindy Crawford. That could, quite possibly, pay more than lugging around furniture as a removal man.
These days, with commissioning rates for new compositions at about Dh4,959 a minute for a “named” composer, you may assume the situation is more promising. But things don’t look so rosy when you consider a 25-minute piece may take up to 18 months to write – as the British composer Tansy Davies confirmed to the Financial Times last month. And there are plenty of composers working out there who don’t quite cut it yet as “named”.
So, for now, it looks like composers will need to keep those fingers in as many pies
Maybe that will include becoming an Uber driver?