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Sound of money: free-market economies and long-hair music

February 25, 2008 |  5:45 pm

KUSC ran a richest-classical-composer feature a few days ago, which drew its top-10 list from a 2005 survey by a U.K. radio station. It's unlikely the numbers — which were apparently calculated in adjusted currencies — have changed much since then, so here's the list:

1. George Gershwin
2. Johann Strauss II
3. Giuseppe Verdi
4. Gioachino Rossini
5. George Frideric Handel
6. Joseph Haydn
7. Sergei Rachmaninoff
8. Giacomo Puccini
9. Niccolò Paganini
10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 

Why is this interesting (to me at any rate)? Because longhair music is pretty much universally recognized as an art form that can't compete in an open market and must be supported through royal or (these days) public patronage. Yet this list is remarkable for the lack of patronage its members enjoyed. All but two of the composers on the list date to the industrial revolution or afterward, and the two who came earlier than that — Haydn and Handel — did plenty of lucrative for-profit work in Britain, which boasted the most liberal economy in Europe. Verdi, Rossini and Puccini were all piece-work producers who were less interested in pleasing the royal ear than in filling up the house with paying customers. Paganini and "Waltz King" Strauss were expert self-promoters and brand builders, Rachmaninoff made much of his fortune on recordings and performances, and Gershwin made it to the top of the list strictly by producing music for a large popular audience. I'm not sure he ever got a dime of public support.

By comparison, Richard Wagner, another 19th-century rock star with a long list of patrons and supporters including a king who built the composer his own mansion and theme-park/mini-city, didn't make the list. That's a special irony given how massively popular Wagner was and still is, not just in opera houses but throughout the popular culture.

You could counter that money earned is no indication of musical achievement, and that wastrels like Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert, or humble workers like J.S. Bach, would top a list of actual composing value. True enough, but hardship and poverty are the default positions of human existence. It's success that's the unusual thing, and the numbers here indicate success becomes a little more likely in a profit-centered environment. Interestingly, Gershwin and Rachmaninoff, who both died before the middle of the 20th century, are the most recent names on the list. Audience indifference has since encouraged classical composers to avoid the uncertainty of the marketplace; but maybe all those composers with academic sits would have been better off trying to make a bigger buck. Maybe classical music needs more market discipline, not less.

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