The myth of the starving composer

A friend of mine was told that, basically, “you’re not Beethoven and you’re never going to make a living at composing, so stop already. Besides, even Beethoven starved”. Aside from the proper answer being Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform or (in Yiddish) Golf Kilo Oscar Yankee, let’s address the enduring (and pernicious) myth of the starving artist/composer.
A writer blogs about it here, particularly focusing on Michelangelo — whose fortune in today’s terms would have been in the millions.

The most damaging myths are always those with a grain of truth in them. It is undeniably true that few if any of the great composers of your were able to make a living directly and exclusively off composition — but that didn’t mean they starved, or that they could not make a living in music!

Let’s start with (to me) the greatest of them all, J. S. Bach. As explored in great detail in Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, the surviving financial evidence suggests Bach’s income stream made him solidly middle-class, or even upper middle class, by the standards of his day — and all of it was related to music. His main incomes were as an organist, then as a Kapellmeister (music director — the modern concept of a conductor emerged only later), then as the Thomaskantor (music director and assistant principal of the St. Thomas High School in Leipzig). Some of these jobs included composing duties — Bach wrote several years’ worth of weekly church cantatas.
He had respectable secondary incomes as a private keyboard tutor (for which he was in high demand), as what we would today call a “consultant” on church organ construction, and even as an agent for the Silbermann family of harpsichord and fortepiano builders. (The instrument he was representing them for was an early fortepiano — giving the lie to another myth, that playing Bach on the piano is somehow inappropriate.)
But would Bach have been able to feed and house his large family on intermittent composition commissions? Or from publishing his works? The economics of the day didn’t work that way. Copyright as we understand it today didn’t really exist. (Nor did the modern conception of plagiarism, by the way — composers borrowed thematic material from each other, from folk tunes,… as a matter of course.) Music printing was a laborious and costly process that involved engraving by hand on copper plates, and only a handful of Bach’s works were printed during his lifetime. (The Art of the Fugue appeared posthumously but Bach arranged for, and subsidized, the publication while he was still alive — he clearly intended this Mount Everest of absolute music to be his artistic testament.)

So could he live well? Yes. Could he live well off music? Yes. Could he live solely from composition? No, but the very concept of a full-time composer did not exist in the day.

But what about Mozart, you say? Mozart actually made quite a bit of money off music. He had wealthy admirers, he was a keyboard virtuoso since childhood, staged operas that not only will endure when today’s richest Broadway composer will have been forgotten but were popular in their day,… and indeed ghostwrote music for wealthy would-be composers. (This is the true origin of the “Requiem” story. On the flip side, he was a spendthrift and thus perennially in debt, though his fortunes appeared to have turned around when he caught what appears to have been [] a streptococcal infection and died — again, there was no king or queen safe from that at the time.

Beethoven, to greater or lesser degree, was able to live primarily off composition. Despite his by all accounts volcanic temper and cantankerous personality, he had rich admirers. But crucially, as discussed e.g. in Jan Swofford’s biography, he would subsidize his “serious” output with volumes of song transcriptions and “bagatelles” (short, easy, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) that his publisher would pay good money for. Yes, even that “artiste’s artiste” would write unabashedly for the masses sometimes! (It is a measure of Beethoven’s genius, to me second only to Bach, that even these throwaway pieces contain some real gems of invention.)

Liszt gained fame and fortune as a legendary piano virtuoso (a “rock star” of his day whose “groupies” engaged in embarrassing displays) before retiring to focus full-time on composition of works more profound than the flashy showpieces he had written for his own use. Chopin, aside from a concert pianist, taught piano lessons to the rich and famous of his day for what are princely fees by any standard. Mahler never gained the esteem he has now as a composer during his lifetime, but held one of the most prestigious conductor positions of the day. (That he had to convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to get it is another story.) Bruckner, whose symphonies I have only recently started appreciating, enjoyed fame as an organist during his lifetime. The list is endless.

In fact, until the modern era, the performer and/or practical music educator was the norm among composers, and the full-time composer the exception. Pianist and organist Anthony Newman, in an interview in Keyboard Magazine that I read as a teenager, actually argued that classical music started becoming a sterile art form precisely when composers were no longer primarily performers.[*]

As we have seen above, the “starving artists” weren’t all that starving (some, like Handel, indeed got rich); the Great Composers, for the most part, were professional performers first; and the Professional Composer is a comparatively recent phenomenon that coincidentally (?) coincides with the decline of classical music as a living art form.

We are now living in an era where skilled amateurs can put their music, writings, or other creative works in front of a global audience for comparatively modest investments. The challenge now has shifted to bringing it to the attention of people, to make it stand out from the crowd. Conventional agents and publishing houses are increasingly becoming redundant or even irrelevant to the process, though I can see the role of a publicist transforming, rather than disappearing.
However, the “YouTube/SoundCloud economy”, where you compete less for money and for people’s attention and time, in some ways will be an interesting throwback to aspects of yesteryear’s composers. Bands today often don’t make any real money off albums due to illicit downloading and the overheads of legacy record labels — it is in live shows that the real money is nowadays, as people are clearly still willing to shell out money for “the live experience”. Had Bach or Handel lived today, they would probably each have millions of followers on YouTube (and have millions of people illegally downloading their music) — but Handel got rich staging his own operas and oratorios then, and would likely have to do so now. Bach would likely be able to travel in style from one sold-out-in-hours gig to the next — but he likely would be touring if he wanted more money than a faculty appointment could provide. Of course, once they got famous in our fictional world, a billionaire with good musical taste would be willing to bankroll them, but I can’t see Handel giving up the stage. Bach perhaps, because as much as he loved the good life, this deeply religious man ultimately wrote for an audience of One.

I would counsel my friend to “Keep calm and carry on”.

[*] The case of Jean-Philippe Rameau is somewhat peculiar. He first gained recognition as a music theorist (his Treatise on Harmony is a milestone in the field to this day) and considered himself a music scholar first and foremost. But he worked as a church organist for over two decades after succeeding his father, and ultimately gained fame as an opera and ballet composer, conducting his own works. Ironically, the greater ease of printing a book (rather than sheet music) in the age before digital typesetting may have contributed to his early reputation.


Unreliable witnesses

Dave Freer on “unreliable witnesses” as a fiction writing tool — and in the hands of advocacy journalists.

Mad Genius Club

“It’s all a question of point of view.”

Back in the dark ages – 1980’s in South Africa the BBC Radio News reported on a labor dispute/picket protest led by the ANC aligned organizers in a fishing town up the West Coast of the Cape. The picket line had been savagely broken up by the police with dogs (the BBC reporter of the time was a passionate promoter of the anti-apartheid cause, and as his media was not within the country could report whatever he liked without any form of censorship.) The local Afrikaans press reported on the incident too. There wasn’t a lot to report on from one horse towns on the West Coast, and the Cape Town Riot squad dispersing a protest with dogs was news, if not big news. The one set of media carried it from their point of view as a bad thing, and the…

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Teaching the modes of the diatonic scale: another tack

I have made several attempts to explain the concept of musical modes to people unfamiliar with music theory. (This is not some arcane concept from medieval church music: folk, jazz, rock, pop, and even metal often delve into modes.) The video above, by “Signals Music Studio”, takes another tack and keeps it accessible.

If the Greek names are confusing to you, it may be helpful to just number them by the diatonic step that is the tonic (“home note”). [I personally used to number them by the number of flats they had in C, which is equivalent to numbering along the circle of fifths rather than by diatonic steps.] Thus you get:

  1. natural major mode (Ionian, classical major scale)
  2. “minor-lite” mode (Dorian)
  3. “uber-minor” mode (Phrygian)
  4. “uber-major” mode (Lydian)
  5. “major-lite” mode (Mixolydian, folk major scale, bagpipe scale)
  6. natural minor (Aeolian, modal minor scale, descending melodic minor scale)
  7. diminished (Locrian; not really used much because its tonic chord doesn’t even have a perfect fifth)

The Signals guy picks out “the characteristic note” of each: the note most keen to ‘resolve’, so to speak. That would be (assuming the tonic is C below):

  1. major/Ionian: the lead tone (B) which is a major seventh that wants to resolve to the octave.
  2. minor-lite/Dorian: the major sixth (A) which sets it apart from natural minor.
  3. uber-minor/Phrygian: the flattened second (Db)
  4. uber-major/Lydian: the augmented fourth (F#)
  5. major-lite/Mixolydian: the flattened seventh (Bb)
  6. natural minor: the flattened sixth (Ab)
  7. Locrian: the flattened fifth (Gb)

Note that, when improvising and unsure which mode the other players are in, the ‘poor man’s substitute’ of a minor pentatonic will work  with all three modes 2,3,6 (Dorian, Phrygian, natural minor), while a major pentatonic can fit all three modes 1,4,5 (natural major, Lydian, and Mixolydian)

Of course, the ‘flavor’ each mode has is intimately connected with the chords it implies. If you go by the major/minor character of the “three main chords” I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant):

  1. natural major: C, F, G major triads
  2. Dorian: Cm, F, Gm.   Note that both tonic (I) and dominant (V) are minor, while the subdominant (IV) is major. Note also the major chords on the flattened seventh and third: countless rock riffs exploit cadences like Cm-Bb-Eb-Cm or Cm-Bb-F-Eb
  3. Phrygian: Cm, Fm, Gm. Note the characteristic major chord on the flattened second: cadences like Cm-Db just write themselves
  4. Lydian: C, F#dim, G. The most archetypical cadence in Lydian is however I-II
  5. Mixolydian: C, F, Gm. The major chord on the flattened seventh step just begs to be used, though, and you naturally get cadences like (in E) E-D-A/C# (AC/DC’s “Back In Black”)  or (in G) G-C-F-C (Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Woman”).
  6. Aeolian: like Phrygian, all three of the I-IV-V chords are minor. But here the IIIb, VIb, and VIIb are the major chords, so cadences like C-Bb-Ab follow naturall

Note that in common practice harmony as practiced in Western classical music, the minor chord on the dominant was more or less verboten, which led to the development of a melodic minor scale (often explained as ‘sixth and seventh not flattened when the melody ascends’) such that the dominant chord could be major. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was still considered dissonant to end a piece on a major chord, so the final tonic chord of a piece would be turned major (a “Picardian third” as this was then known).

5/4: Dave Brubeck Day

Dave Brubeck’s probably best-known composition is the instrumental “Take Five” (for non-native English speakers: colloquial expression for “take a five-minute break”). Like the rest of the album “Time Out” (the first-ever jazz album to go platinum), it explores odd time signatures: in this case, 5/4.

Some jazz aficionados and music geeks, therefore, mark May 4 (or 5/4 in the US abbreviated date convention) as “Dave Brubeck Day”. Herewith, an original video of his quartet performing the composition.


Here’s to Dave. Take five!


Classical crossover delight: “Five” by Tony Banks

Tony Banks, keyboardist of Genesis for their entire existence and one of the band’s chief songwriters, just released a new album of orchestral compositions, “Five”. Somewhat unusually, he released videos of all five tracks on the album on his official YouTube channel. I posted earlier “Prelude to a Million Years” when it was released as a teaser: below are the remaining four pieces.

This is the third orchestral neoclassical album by Banks, and to me the strongest. Echoes of instrumental Genesis passages and of his own solo work are there, to be sure — but also of English Romantic composers (particularly Vaughan Williams), of Ravel, and of Rachmaninoff, plus film composers.

As a bonus, here is my favorite track from his first orchestral album. “Black Down” (named after a geographic feature near his home) was originally written for keyboard (string synthesizer) and then transcribed for orchestra.


Cato the Elder: ancient Rome’s broken record and his famous use of the gerundivum

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE), generally known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, senator, and statesman at the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

He was famous (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for interjecting into every speech, regardless of the subject — even if it were the price of vegetables, so to speak — the phrase:

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse

(often slightly ungrammatically misquoted as)

Ceterum censeo Carthago delenda est

In plain English: “Otherwise, I opine that Carthage is to be erased”. Countless Latin students remember this phrase, as it is a memorable example of the Latin gerundivum — a form of the verb that indicates necessity, timeliness, or desirability of an action. Another, more prosaic example: bibere = “to drink”, nunc est bibendum = “now it’s [time to] drink”.

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage is to be erased) would be grammatical on its own, but in the original, the entire phrase is the direct object of the verb “censeo” (I opine, I hold, it is my opinion) and hence has to be in the accusative case.

People who barely remember anything about Cato or the Punic wars may remember two things about the era: Hannibal’s elephants and Cato’s “broken record phrase”. The latter is sometimes paraphrased in jest, as “Ceterum censeo ___ delendam esse” (substitute Barney the dinosaur, Hollywood, …)





Fiction writing fact-check: Can Catholics ever marry non-Catholics in church?

No, this is not a religious screed, but a fact-checking item for something likely to come up when writing romance novels or romance subplots in other fiction genres. (It has come up in both “Winter Into Spring”, and in two works in progress.)

Full disclosure and disclaimer: I am not a Christian and hence am an outsider to intra-Christian doctrinal disputes. The following text attempts to summarize the actual situation in canon law (see also Canon Law Made Easy) and makes no value judgments. It is assumed in the discussion below that the partner does not convert to Catholicism — otherwise, there is no difference with a Catholic marriage other than the conversion itself and all it entails.

Otherwise, the RC Church distinguishes between two broad categories:

• “mixed marriage“: the other partner was baptized in a way that the Catholic church recognizes as such. This is the case for the mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian,…) as well as for the Orthodox Churches. The latter are a special subcase because they are not considered “heretic” but merely “schismatic”, and broadly have the same understanding of marriage as a sacrament.

• “disparity of worship“: the other partner belongs to a non-Christian religion, or to a Christian denomination but never underwent baptism in a way recognized as such by the RC Church. (For instance, LDS/Mormon baptism is not recognized; or the partner may have been raised Baptist but never have undergone adult “Believers Baptism”.)

“Disparity of worship” (Canon 1086) is a “diriment” (separating) impediment in canon law: any such marriage is considered null and void unless a “dispensation for disparity of worship” is obtained.

In contrast, “mixed marriage” (Canon 1124) is merely a “prohibitive” impediment: if, for example, a priest were to marry a Catholic-Lutheran couple without dispensation, such a marriage would be “illicit but valid“. That is, the marriage is forbidden unless a “dispensation for mixed marriage” is obtained, but if the priest were to marry them regardless, the couple are considered married. [Jewish law has a similar situation for a marriage between a cohen — a male direct descendant of the first High Priest Aharon/Aaron — and a divorcée or a female convert to Judaism: the marriage is forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 21:7) but if it were to take place regardless, the parties are married in every respect.]

What is a “dispensation“? In plain English, if a rule is imposed merely by ecclesiastical law rather than by (the Church’s understanding of) natural or Divine law, then in cases where its application would create a hardship, the rule may be relaxed ad hoc by “competent authority”,  “for just and reasonable cause”, while it still remains in force for the community at large. In this context, ‘competent authority’ generally means the diocese in which the marriage is taking place.

We have already mentioned two types of dispensation related to marriage: “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship”. A third that may arise in this context is “departure from canonical form” (Canon 1127), i.e., with a non-Catholic clergyperson (co)officiating at a non-Catholic marriage ceremony. This sample application form illustrates all three forms of dispensation. (The same sample form also states that for Catholic marriage by a priest or deacon, but at a venue other than a Catholic church, a simple request in writing suffices and no dispensation is required.)

For both “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship” dispensations, the Catholic partner has to undertake in the presence of the sponsoring priest and the other spouse to do everything in their power to raise the children as Catholics.

So what does all this mean, “brass tacks”?

(1) Roman Catholic with a member of a Catholic Church of Eastern Rite (Uniate, Greek Catholic, Maronite,…): from a Catholic POV this is a Catholic marriage in every respect. Subtle issues of “jurisdiction” may arise.

(2a) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox Church and ceremony: this is considered a valid marriage even ifythe Catholic partner did not petition for “departure from canonical form”.

(2b) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in a Catholic ceremony: in principle “mixed marriage permission” is required before the priest or deacon will marry you, but the marriage is valid even if he married you without permission. (He may be in hot water with his superiors though.)

(3a) Roman Catholic with Anglican, Lutheran,… or other mainline Protestant, by a Catholic priest or deacon in a Catholic Church: “mixed marriage permission” is required, but the marriage is valid even without. Increasingly, as in this sample application form , the reservation “with disparity of cult granted as a precaution” is added.

(3b) Ditto, but in a Protestant church or secular venue, with a Protestant minister officiating: both “mixed marriage permission” and “departure from canonical form” are required, otherwise the marriage is invalid. One recent high-profile case was the marriage of the Dutch Crown Prince, presently King Willem-Alexander (Dutch Reformed) to the Argentinian Princess Maxima (Catholic). This case also arises when a brother, father, or uncle of the Protestant partner is a practicing minister of that denomination and wishes to (co-)officiate.

(4a) Roman Catholic with non-Christian or certain special cases (Baptist who never underwent adult baptism, LDS,…), by a priest in a Catholic church: “disparity of worship” dispensation is required, or the marriage is invalid. This dispensation is generally harder to obtain, for obvious reasons.

(4b) Ditto but at another venue, with an officiant other than an RC priest or deacon: both “disparity of worship”  and “departure from canonical form” dispensations are required.

Summary in Table form

RC with: in RC church in non-RC partner’s place of worship
Eastern Catholic Like RC[*] Like RC[*]
Eastern Orthodox mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid
Baptized Protestant mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise invalid
Others (LDS, Baptist without adult baptism, non-Christians) disparity of worship dispensation, otherwise invalid both disparity of worship and canonical form dispensations, otherwise invalid

[*] subtle “jurisdiction issues” may arise that are beyond the scope of this post