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Composers don't always find fame and fortune

Rick Rogers Published: April 26, 2013

Composers have long been considered some of the most respected people of their day, but few have become wealthy from their musical efforts. The majority, in fact, have had to supplement their income by teaching, conducting or taking on other musical pursuits. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of music’s most prolific composers, but he couldn’t rely solely on income from his compositions to pay his bills. For much of his adult life, Bach served as a music teacher at St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany.

Countless others have found themselves in similar circumstances. Felix Mendelssohn established the Leipzig Conservatory in 1842. A half-century later, Vincent d’Indy founded the Schola Cantorum, a school for the study and restoration of old church music and French folk song.  Many 19th century composers accepted prestigious administrative or teaching positions with the great music conservatories. In France, Gabriel Faure, Paul Dukas, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen all taught composition at the venerable Paris Conservatoire.

In Russia, Reinhold Gliere, Alexander Scriabin and Aram Khachaturian were professors of music at the Moscow Conservatory. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov held a similar post at the conservatory in St. Petersburg.  France produced a number of composers who doubled as organists. A Belgian by birth, Cesar Franck became organist at Ste. Clotilde in Paris beginning in 1858, and Olivier Messiaen was associated with Paris’ La Trinite for 60 years.

If most European composers established careers in the country of their birth, a few accepted teaching positions in America. Between 1892-95, the Czech Antonin Dvorak headed New York’s National Conservatory of Music.  The British-born Frederick Delius enjoyed a long career in France but briefly taught music in Jacksonville, Fla. Delius had moved to Florida in 1884 in hopes of making his fortune as an orange grower. When that venture failed, he returned to Europe in 1886.

Gustav Mahler, composer of nine symphonies and numerous works for chorus and orchestra, devoted many years of his life to conducting. After holding posts with the Royal Opera in Budapest and the Vienna Opera in Austria, Mahler conducted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera from 1907-09. He then spent two seasons as music director of the New York Philharmonic Society.

The outbreak of World War II forced many Western European composers to leave their homelands, and many found refuge in the United States. Germany’s Paul Hindemith headed the composition department at Yale University until 1946; Hungary’s Bela Bartok briefly taught at Columbia University; and Austria’s Arnold Schoenberg was a member of the University of California, Los Angeles, composition faculty from 1936 to 1944.

A few composers became noted music critics. Hector Berlioz wrote for France’s Journal des Debats; Robert Schumann contributed reviews to Germany’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung; and the American Virgil Thomson wrote for the New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and 1954. Finally, there are those who established careers outside music while continuing to compose. The Russian Alexander Borodin graduated from the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg and later became a chemist there.

The American iconoclast Charles Ives established a highly successful insurance business in New England, while the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis served as assistant to architect Le Corbusier from 1947 to 1959. Throughout much of the 20th century, many notable American composers became associated with one or more prestigious music schools. Howard Hanson spent 40 years as director of the Eastman School of Music; William Schuman and Peter Mennin both served as president of The Juilliard School.

Even today, few composers can make a living solely from their music. Though widely performed, Christopher Rouse, John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour and William Bolcom have all supplemented their income through teaching. Under such circumstances, you might think composers would view teaching as a necessary evil. But without the guidance and encouragement of their mentors, who’s to say if their careers would have taken off? Thankfully, this practice has become a self- perpetuating cycle that should ensure the continued presence of serious music for decades to come.


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