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.