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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


COMPOSERS - FOR LOVE OR MONEY?

Arthur Butterworth

 

"The labourer is worthy of his hire" is one of those phrases that used to be heard in earlier times, especially in the context of farm workers and the age of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Modern industrial relations have generally ensured that this lofty sentiment is accepted by society as a whole. While some essential tasks constitute an unpleasant, exhausting, utterly boring, tedious or even dangerous occupation — coal mining, farm labouring, public cleansing utilities, or dozens of other unglamorous jobs - where the worker’s only wish is to earn a living from such tasks and look forward with yearning to end of the working day, there are quite a number of occupations that are regarded as desirable: glamorous (such as film or television celebrities), prestigious and powerful (such as politicians aspire to), intellectually satisfying (such as academia), or self-satisfying in some very special way.

The pursuit of music is thought, by those not engaged in it professionally, to be one of the more fulfilling and self-satisfying occupations. This in essence, is true. Those who work in music for a living (sometimes a very comfortable living indeed) choose to follow the profession because it appeals to them, although it is true, that like any other vocation, it can at times be exhausting, nerve-wracking, and lead to disillusionment. Executive musicians - performers - ideally choose the particular branch of performance that appeals to them, although many ambitious young musicians, players and singers, who aspire to being concert artists or pop — group celebrities, ultimately have to be content with what might appear to be a less exalted way of musical life: some kind of management job in the recording studio, theatre or concert administration, school teaching, or, still a relatively satisfying performing role, as a member of a celebrated professional orchestra, or opera chorus.

Apart from some of the very earliest or spontaneous manifestations of musical art, where improvisation is its true nature, most organised music is provided by someone else: the composer, who, in this sense is not a performer at all. He merely creates or invents, and writes down the music that others wish to perform. The composer is generally regarded in a rarefied way as being somewhat apart from practical musicians: he is an creative ‘artist’ (perhaps with a capital "A").

What does this amount to? Most musical (and for that matter, even most ‘unmusical’) people have the innate ability to invent musical ideas if they did but know it. Most children can, after a fashion, doodle or draw with a pencil or crayon in a very elementary way, but will never get much further, or become acknowledged graphic artists with pencil or brush. At least their early doodling is a way of self-expression. In a similar way young children croon to themselves and are happy to sing (until self—consciousness makes them shy of expressing themselves vocally). But composers are people with a highly developed aptitude — a veritable gift indeed — for expressing themselves and being able to write it down in a complicated sign language in what has come to be regarded as a most sophisticated and highly developed art form in sound.

Why they choose to express themselves in this way rather than through more obviously recognisable visual symbols - a picture of some kind — which on the face of it would appear to be a rather simpler and more direct means of self expression, is something only the composer himself or herself can tell. This might be said to be borne out by the number of local art—groups that exist for amateurs; but how many local amateur composer groups do you know of in your town or village ?

But that they do choose to express themselves through organised musical sound in preference to any other form of artistic self-expression is evident. It would seem that all living things - even plants — need to find a means of self-expression, the urge to establish a place in the sun, in competition with other plants and weeds; the rivalry, often amounting to violence and aggression, in animals and humans in order to make their mark more significant than their peers or rivals. Composers are no different in this respect; their urge is to promote their own music in preference to anyone else’s. So, they are in effect saying to society at large:....Hey! listen to ME!..I’ve got something important to say! .. I want to be heard.. .please, please!.. .you MUST listen to what I have to say!" -

But society is by no means obliged to listen to one particular human being just because he says so! Society owes no one a living in this sense. Composers, primarily write music because they themselves feel an inner urge to do so, to express themselves for their own satisfaction and ultimate sense of fulfilment. That they be rewarded for it in some way is another matter. The embarrassing question could arise: should the composer pay the listeners for their indulgence and time spent in giving him a hearing? However, high art and culture, whether in music, painting, sculpture, poetry, drama or whatever, has over the centuries come to regard the gifted practitioner of the arts, as worthy of reward. We pay performers of all kinds (and sometimes they have irksome physical and mental tasks in supplying us with the pleasures we seek from them). In this sense it is right and proper that we pay the original creator of the idea, the composer, too, though he may not be the one who ultimate brings his creation to life: that might have to be left to the performer. If we want a composer to conceive something specially for us, it seems ethical that we should reward him for employing the special gifts he possesses, but if we are merely indulging his yearning to satisfy his own urge for self expression, probably we need not necessarily feel obliged to reward him, since, in a sense we are doing something for him rather than he for us.

So, it is sometimes asked: are commissioned works inferior to those that are not? The question cannot satisfactorily be answered. While it must be assumed that works that spring from an inner compulsion and an inspiration only known to the composer, must somehow be genuine expressions of intent and emotion, it does not follow that a commissioned work must be a lesser creation. The very stimulus of being asked to create something is an inspiration in itself: it is a mark of belief in, and appreciation of a composer’s artistry. Of course, some music, like commercial art, is commissioned with a purely utilitarian end in view; some commissioned music (like some commissioned paintings) have not turned out to be to the satisfaction of the patron, but this is a risk that is always taken when a patron of the arts gives a free hand to an artist or composer to use his or her own imagination.

All conscientious artists and composers strive to produce the very best within their powers of imagination and technique, whether a great work of art results is fortuitous.



 

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