Expansive Poetry & Music Online:  Music Essay


essay by David Arditti

     The nature and scale of the production of any art, be it poetry, music or visual, in any era, is closely linked to the economic conditions and social structures of the time. In music, the link is more acute than in poetry because music is potentially a large-scale enterprise, requiring many people to be employed in the rehearsal, promotion and performance of major new work. Funding is not so central to the dissemination of poetry. It is the purpose of this article to argue that there was a Golden Age for the production of serious music in Europe, which lasted from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, and that this came about, not due to any exceptional flowering of composing talent, but due to the prevalence of enlightened aristocratic patronage of music, that this ceased with the demise of the social order which sustained it, as a result of the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle classes in Europe, and that the structures which replaced it in the twentieth century, largely ordered by states, could not fulfil the same functions, and that these factors led to the death of classical music. The article will lastly consider whether there might be any hope of erecting a new system of enlightened patronage of the arts in our new century.

     Art music in Europe arose at the end of the middle ages out of a combination of the music of the church and the secular music of the court, which was more closely linked to popular balladry and dance forms, and to the art of the troubadours, but which had been evolved and sophisticated by composers who had worked for the church. In the renaissance, the church and court continued to be the main patrons of large-scale music, also through the opera houses which became established through Italy, and then elsewhere in Europe, which were for the nobility, but usually heavily subsidised by the monarch. However, the trend had started towards a wider market, in which many lesser rulers and aristocrats, who wished to be, and to be seen to be, cultured, were able to employ considerable bodies of musicians in their own staff, and composers to write for them. This did not apply to England, where the more centralised power structure, and remoteness from cultural advances in Europe, ensured that the church and court retained their duopoly. However, the fragmentation of political power in the Germanic counties proved particularly fruitful in terms of artistic competition between the princedoms and dukedoms in generating a vibrant and diverse musical scene, drawing in influences and techniques from far a-field, from Italy, France and the Nordic countries, as rulers vied to employ the most distinguished musicians of the age. Of course, this music remained remote from ordinary people, who would rarely have heard it. It was bought as an aspect of the aristocratic environment along with books, paintings, palaces and gardens. However, the system of diverse, enlightened patronage had come into being. Freed from the conservatism of a small number of royal families and the church establishment, composers could experiment and advance as never before. Their social status was no higher than that of middle-ranking servants, it is true, but life was much safer and more settled for them than for the wandering minstrel of the middle ages.

      In many parts of Germany in the 18th century the local court effectively controlled the secular aspects of the churches in the city, and so the ruler could appoint a director of music who would have the resources of all the churches, the court and the town at his disposal, and so it happened to Bach in Leipzig under Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony. Mozart migrated from working for the church in Salzburg to being court organist, later working for various foreign opera houses, until Emperor Joseph II of Austria engaged him as court composer in Vienna. The restrictions of the conservative imperial court proved a problem for him, particularly with his egalitarian opera The Marriage of Figaro, and mental strain and financial problems brought about his early death. Much more successful, from the perspective of his own career, and perhaps the best example of enlightened aristocratic patronage in action, was the career of Haydn, who was employed by the Esterhazy family at Eisenstadt in Austria for a period of nearly 50 years.

      By enlightened patronage , I mean the following: that the patron, far from being merely an employer, is a person of sophistication and learning with tastes and opinions of his own, which he wants to see to some extent reflected in the work that is produced for him; that he is one who takes an active part in influencing the work that is produced, that he may even cause it to be modified, or rewritten, because the work reflects on him, his standing and influence with his peers, and has to be comprehensible to, and enjoyed by, them. This is the complete reversal of the modern, hands-off and impersonal system of commissioning or sponsorship of artistic endeavour by state bodies or corporations. Patronage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a close and, in a sense, equal collaboration between the employer and his artists, and in the best cases, this produced the greatest music ever written. This fact has been overlooked or obscured by the romantic generation of composers and their publicists, and their twentieth century successors, from Berlioz and Wagner onwards, who wanted to elevate the composer to the god-like status of a rapt, poetic visionary who was not influenced by the considerations of their employment and domestic arrangements.

      The theory of enlightened patronage may be stated thus: The enlightened patron has courage and power to say to a composer that This work is too long, I want it shortened by twenty minutes, or This is not quite what I had in mind or This is too gloomy or I want a positive ending or This and this movements are good, but I don t like this one, try again, or some such comment. This process of intervention, or interference, far from preventing composers from realising their true, personal, and uniquely individualised intentions, when it comes from a patron with intelligence, discernment and an eye to the practical, can actually ground the composer in the real, ensure that he remains in touch, accessible and reasonable to his intended audience, and can produce, through the force of compromise, the very greatest work. This idea is the reverse of the contemporary and commonly-held idea that the greatest artistic achievement comes about through blue-skies thinking by one inspired individual, in which lesser, more practical, mortals interfere at their peril, and that the policy for producing great art should be to isolate the artist and allow him to occupy his own imaginative world unimpeded by anyone else's constraints. This is the mystique that the romantic generations tried to build around the composer, poet or artist, to try to insulate him from the real world and make him a theoretically-free, completely self-indulgent agent (though it was never applied so much to novelists, who had to deal with editorial intervention). In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century's system, the enlightened patron provided feedback, or even control, to the composer seemingly more effective, and stronger, than that of colleagues, critics, or academics. Crucial to this was that the patron was a non-expert in that particular art, and so could give a common-sense, but sensitive view -- not the technical view of the expert, the indulgent view of the colleague, the currying-favour view of the critic, or the lowest-common-denominator view of the market. And the patron had the last word: he who pays the piper names the tune, though more commonly, the last word would be some effective compromise. The period of dominance of enlightened patronage in music was indisputably classical music's golden age. This age waned precisely in parallel with the decline of the patronage system. Wagner, himself responsible for generating much of the artist as god mystique referred to, though early-on a republican, or even a socialist, later was patronised by Ludwig II of Bavaria, who built the Bayreuth theatre for him and commissioned The Ring, but Ludwig was an unstable personality, addicted to building ludicrously gothic castles, and so is not a good example of an enlightened patron.

      Returning to the classical period, the young Beethoven was employed by the Prince-Elector of Bonn, Maximilian Freidrich, but after leaving to study in Vienna with Haydn he was never employed full-time again; and the system of patronage began to break down in his lifetime. He was however influenced and encouraged by several aristocrats, particularly Count Waldstein, after whom the famous sonata was named, and Archduke Rudolph, for whom the Archduke Trio was named, and who was the leader of a group of noblemen who paid Beethoven an annual stipend of 4000 guilden to remain in Vienna during his later period. Rudolph was Beethoven's friend and also pupil a true patron. During Beethoven s lifetime, the revolutionary wars of the Napoleonic period were causing the old states and power structures to crumble, and, at the same time, the advanced education system in Germany was generating a literate and musically-literate middle class, who were to become the economic driving force for the next period of musical history. This middle class created a market for published music, mainly for piano, songs and chamber works, that was fast becoming the major source of income for composers like Beethoven, as commissions from nobility became less frequent, and this led to the rise of the publishers as the important interlocutors, or perhaps barriers, between the composer and his clients. At the same time, larger-scale music was starting to take place in public concerts unconnected with court establishments, which could be made to pay, just about, through the disposable income of the combined aristocracy and nouveau riche. Beethoven organised many of these concerts in Vienna himself. Known as subscription concerts , they involved him hiring the building, doing the publicity and paying the musicians himself, as well as composing the music. This type of entrepreneurial activity by a composer would have been inconceivable in an earlier period.

      The demand for published music let to that towering body of work, the piano sonatas, but in the last phase of his life, Beethoven went over almost exclusively to writing string quartets. While many commentators since have considered this as an artistic decision: that Beethoven, having exhausted the potential of the piano, had to move into the more rarefied world of string expression for his final, consummate period of musical development, the records show this not to be the case as usual, it was a market-driven move. Beethoven s publisher had written to him saying there was a market for string quartets, and guaranteeing him advances on these works.

      The move from the patron-driven to the publisher-driven musical culture during the nineteenth century of course generated much poor music as well as good, as the limited abilities and limited sensibilities of much of the new, slightly-musically educated middle classes public was catered to by composers writing superficial or formulaic music. The greatest managed a successful compromise between the demands of popularity and of taste, a good example being Mendelssohn, with his immensely successful Songs Without Words. In some cases the publishers, or editors employed by them, were able to continue and reproduce some of the best aspects of enlightened patronage, developing close, constructive and genuinely critical relationships with their best composers, and possibly subsidising their work by the publishing of more meretricious mass-market material from other sources. Good examples are the relations the publisher Simrock built up with Brahms and Dvorak. Nevertheless, the move from patronage to publishing must be seen overall as a dilution of artistic standards, which accelerated greatly as the nineteenth century progressed.

      In England, the move towards mass-market music was pioneered by Vincent Novello and his family, who started by publishing cheap editions of the classics, and moved on to the encouragement and nurturing of native talent, the most important example of whom became Edward Elgar, whose relationship with his publisher, or specifically an editor working for Novello, A. J. Jaeger, provides a good example of the publisher-composer relationship working at its best, much as the relationship between the composer and his enlightened patron worked in the classical period. Jaeger, memorialised in the Nimrod variation of Elgar s Enigma Variatons, became Elgar's friend and most exacting critic. He effectively rejected the first draft of the finale of the Enigma, seeing the importance of the whole work, appreciating that Elgar's first effort provided an insufficiently grand and conclusive final statement, and making strong hints as to what sort of finale he desired. The version which satisfied him, longer and more brilliant than the first draft, ensured the work of the reception which marked Elgar as the greatest English composer in three centuries. In other works, Jaeger also had a decisive influence in their reaching their final shape, notably The Dream of Gerontius, where he persuaded Elgar to introduce a much more graphic musical description of the meeting of the soul with God. His method was to pester, flatter and cajole, mainly though letters, until the composer gave way. Elgar respected his knowledge and erudition, and Jaeger recognised Elgar s genius, but sometimes inadequacy of ambition, at a time when he was little-known.

      Even at that time, the publishing of serious music had almost ceased to be a viable commercial operation, and had become more of a charity, and this process was completed in the twentieth century. Composers today do not have the type of patronage relationships that the classical composers had, nor do they have the type of critical publishers the romantic composers had. They only have their peer group, and the critics and academics, who throughout the history of art have proved the worst judges of long-term artistic worth. Hence the current malaise. Serious composers today earn their living from sponsorship from state-run promoting organisations, which are effectively committees of cronies, able to impose no detailed critical judgements on the works they commission, and unable, or unwilling, to influence them while they are in progress, which was such an important feature of the enlightened patronage and publishing systems. Essentially, with these organisations, favoured composers take the money and do whatever they want. A composer who has been commissioned to write for this year's BBC Proms, the major festival of orchestral music in the UK, has told me that he has been told nothing about what sort of work is required, its duration, or anything else about it. State-run committees cannot substitute for the patronage funding system, because they involve no relationship between an individual purchaser of the artwork and its creator. They can select who to fund, but they cannot create anything at all. Artists cannot sensibly be left in such a critical vacuum, and since there are no conventional market pressures on them, the result is that almost nothing of any worth is created in serious western music anymore, and, in proof of this assertion, it is observed that no major work has been added to the standard orchestral repertory since 1960.

      As serious music has become more academic, esoteric and culturally-marginal since the Second World War, the relationship between the composers and publishers has also changed. Publishers are still important, but no longer serve the critical function they did in the century before. They are merely contractors of the state-funded arts organisations, and servants to the favoured composers, reversing their earlier role. It is totally inconceivable for an employee of a publishing company today to exercise the editorial influence on, say, a piece by Harrison Birtwistle, Elliot Carter or Pierre Boulez, that Jaeger exerted on Elgar's works. Composers now have too much freedom, and the results of that are all too apparent in the loss of touch with reality, along with the traditional forms of classical music, amongst all the modernist composers. Even when funding does not come from the state, but through charitable, educational or private-sector organisations, as is more common in the US, the same arguments apply. The personal relationship between the purchaser, or commissioner of the work, and the artist, has been lost. No interaction can occur other than a crude monetary one, as the funding is dispensed by bureaucrats on the orders of those who have little or no personal interest, in both senses of the word, in the results. As has been noted by other authors, classical music has now died, or is at the very least on a life-support machine. A large part of its capital , in terms of skills, was transferred to the world of film and TV, where in some respects it has flourished, as, of course, there is no area in which external controls on the artist are so strict as in the writing of film music, which has to be exactly the right length, and of the nature, mood and style dictated, or at least agreed with, the producer. But these controls, stricter than those imposed in the past by patrons and editors, have produced a somewhat different art-form, one that is compounded with the visual experience, and not free-standing. We have no truly abstract music anymore having anything but a very narrow, clique appeal. There are no great new symphonies, concerti or sonatas being produced and applauded in the concert hall.

      So, in conclusion, is there any possibility of a change for the better in the immediate future? Though we no longer have a powerful aristocracy (even in England, its last bastion), there are always people with resources and discernment, or so it is to be hoped. Can the information technology age be used to put such people, with a genuine interest in the creation of lasting works of beauty, in touch with those who would have the abilities and the desire to work with them to create those works?

      Could a new e-network be established to link would-be pro-active commissioners, or patrons, with composers, and perhaps poets and playwrights, to create the great concert works and operas of the future? The composers who do well out of the current state-funded system would not be interested, or stand to benefit, of course, but those of a more flexible, and dare I suggest it, humble disposition, who would like to create genuine serious music of integrity that is also capable of pleasing a wide public, and who understand the benefits of a personal critical interaction with their patron, who could in this case be half way across the world from them, these should, in this world teeming with talent, surely come forward in sufficient numbers to satisfy the demand.
                                    David Arditti