“It is nearly impossible to make a living exclusively as a serious composer,” wrote financially successful William Bolcom in the March 1990 issue of Musical America. Not long after that, John Corigliano told a magazine interviewer that the first thing he asks students is, “Are you rich? Then we have no problems. Composing is like a giant hobby.” Arthur Honegger in his book Je Suis Compositeur (almost impossible to find but worth the effort) noted that it was just assumed that his coffee-importer father would have to support him in order for him to sustain a career as a composer.
In his calligraphed Music Primer (C.F. Peters, 1971) Lou Harrison writes, “The composer himself subsidizes the art of music….We must then get our life means by other methods—either from by-products like teaching, copying, arranging, etc.—or by completely other means…” Including, according to Harrison, getting “kept,” if possible. They don’t teach you this in music school.
In a conversation I had with fellow composer/critic Robert Carl last week, he aphoristically quipped that Elliott Carter’s is music of a rich man; Cage, music of a poor man. Rude, candid, but how true. Who can afford to be a practitioner of that most labor-intensive, under-compensated, high-overhead of art forms, art music composition, unless you live in music-crazed Finland. We all know that Carter has had a comfortable private income for decades, but so did Charles Jones (along with a lovely townhouse on East 58th Street), who, though less famous, composed prolifically and taught at Juilliard, Mannes, and Aspen. The composer and critic Sorabji lived frugally off an annuity amounting to about $35,000 in 2007 US dollars. He lived to 96 and wrote whatever he damn pleased, both compositionally and journalistically. So what Virgil Thomson wrote in The State of Music (1939, rev. 1962) about the cause-and-effect between how a composer eats and what he writes is still all too true.
Money’s role in making composing possible is the most scandalously undercovered topic in all of musicology. Many otherwise probing composer biographies are strikingly deficient in their documentation of composers’ financial day-to-day lives. Jan Swafford’s Charles Ives: A Life with Music and Eric Gordon’s Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein are notable exceptions, strong in their documentation of the quotidian dollars and cents. Why is a composer’s sex life open to inquiry and his money life not? In an article printed in the February 1, 1970, Sunday New York Times, Harold Schonberg cited as history’s five richest classical composers Rossini, Meyerbeer, Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss, all opera guys. Wonder if that would still be the list in 2007.
Composers’ financial lives can be fascinating and full of deception. According to Schoenberg scholar Sabine Feisst (whose book Schoenberg in America will soon be published), for much of his time in America Schoenberg was not only solvent but flush, despite all his poor-mouthing protestations to the contrary. Gail Kubik, recipient of the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in music and a film and radio composer (but not an academic until late in life), earned much of his income as a real estate landlord, primarily from rental of a 20-room house in Venasque, France. You couldn’t have a cup of coffee with Kubik without his getting a receipt for his tax preparer (he was perennially audited). Between 1919 and 1923 alone, Ives spent the contemporary equivalent of at least $60,000 merely printing and distributing his works, writes Swafford. He paid $15,000 (in modern dollars) to finance Slonimsky’s performance of Three Places in New England in Town Hall in 1931. How many composers today could afford to do this? Some who could are surprises. The late Meyer Kupferman, who taught at Sarah Lawrence for 40 years and had many commissions and private students, quietly built his assets so astutely that by the 1990s he could single-handedly afford to record and retail some 30-odd CDs of his enormous output, including many large orchestra works—a venture surely costing well into six figures (even with cheap eastern European orchestras), maybe more. A recording producer who worked with him on his Soundspells recordings told me privately that Meyer “always paid his bills on time.”
Ives was a millionaire, and the dollars he threw at musicians just to read through his music were no small factor in the arrival of Charles Ives. The prohibitive overhead of American orchestra hire has itself resulted in a different kind of musical literature than might otherwise have been created by our native composers of late. It’s high time to acknowledge that the leverage of money in our art is no less fateful, if different, than in painting and theater. “Patronage remains largely ignored by scholars and others because of…a ‘worshipful attitude toward works of the classical canon’….mention of money distracts (or even detracts) from the cherished qualities of the object of their veneration,” writes software engineer turned musicologist Paula J. Bishop in “The Patronage of Composers in the United States“, a 2005 masters thesis that should be required reading for all in our field. Another interesting account of pecuniary matters is provided by Barry Drogin in his essay “Follow the Money: An Update to Virgil Thomson’s The State of Music.”
Actually there are now more big accolade payouts than ever before: the Grawemeyer, the Charles Ives Living Award, the MacArthur. Yeah. Try and get one. Maybe it’s easier to get kept.