Serenade for Strings in G Minor is one of Mozart’s most well known and respected compositions. It was written during a time period when he was composing the grand opera Don Giovanni. However, not much else is actually known about this piece. It did come to be known as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “A Little Night Music” because that was a notation Mozart used to record this composition in a log book of his work that he maintained. We only know this because after his death, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, sold many of his manuscripts to a publishing company in order to finance her life as a widow. That so much of Mozart’s great work was unappreciated or even unseen at all by others during his lifetime sheds a lot of light on his life and on how composers, in general, managed to earn a living. So, let’s take a few moments and learn a bit about that, shall we?
There were many tremendously talented composers who produced great music during the height of the Classical Renaissance from between 1750-1850. These composers lived their lives in varying states of recognition, influence and wealth. Often, their status had little to do with the quality of their compositions, which, generally speaking, were all of high quality. Instead, the standard of living enjoyed by a composer seemed to be more political and more dependent upon his ability to connect with powerful people in his immediate social realm. As such, here is a brief list of the main ways that composers such as Mozart were able to generate wealth from their work.
1 – The main way in which composers of the day earned a living was by having wealthy patrons. This means that the composer worked in the employ of a member of the aristocracy and produced work for their pleasure. Consequently, many of the compositions produced via the patronage system tended to be conventional in topic. This means that those composers created works that reflected the glory of God, or else the glory of those already in power. It also meant that composers created music that would be played during funerals or celebrations at balls. Thus, some of the most talented composers of all time created their life’s work at the behest of those who directly paid their bills and who often provided their accommodations and supplied the equipment (musical instruments and orchestra players) that enabled them to create the masterpieces that they did.
2 – In addition to creating compositions for wealthy patrons, many composers were also expected to be teachers as well. In higher society, it was an expectation that the children and wives of wealthy men would become competent in the Arts. For many, that included giving recitals. Thus, the giving of private music lessons was one avenue that allowed composers to supplement their income outside of the composition circuit. Not surprisingly, having access to the children and wives of the wealthy was not something attainable by just anyone. Political connections helped composers gain entry into the world of the upper class and with it, access to the best paying students. In the movie, Amadeus, which is a fictionalized account of Mozart’s life, there are many scenes in which Mozart and, separately, his wife, Constanze, can be seen begging officials of the Royal Austrian Court for access to well-paying students. According to the movie/play, Mozart chafed at being restricted to the conventional musical norms of his time, and he often refused or was unable to “play the political game” that was expected in polite society circles. Consequently, his personality grated upon the nerves of those in positions of authority, and therefore he was purposely steered toward students of lesser means and influence during his lifetime (which ended at age 35).
3 – A third method by which composers could earn a living was by creating symphonies and operas for public viewing in theatres and opera houses. Obviously, not all classical music was created solely for members of the Royal Court. There were many plays and operas that were commissioned by the owners of opera houses and other public venues. In these cases, the opera house owner would either pay a lump sum to a composer for a commissioned work or else, more often than not, would offer a composer a share of the profits that his opera would generate. Again, politics would come into play because a composer whose work was favoured by those in power could count on those connections to bring people to the theatres. If, however, a composer had fallen out of favour or was just starting out, then those elite personalities could simply ignore this composer’s new work and consequently, use their influence to cause common folk to stay away. Again, in Mozart’s case, many of his greatest public works opened and closed in relatively short order due to the lack of political support he had in Vienna at the time. It was only years later, after his death, that the originality and creative genius of his work came to be appreciated by mass audiences and critics.
As you can see from just these three examples, a composer’s ability to earn a living during the years 1750-1850 was highly dependent on the patronage and political connections of others. It wasn’t until the late 1800s/early 1900s that the independence of composers was allowed to flourish. The thing that allowed that to happen was something called copyright law and royalties. Prior to the late 1800s, whenever a composer created a musical composition, it was either given directly to the patron who had commissioned it (at which time the patron assumed ownership), or else it went into the public domain where the work was free to be performed or altered by anyone. As we have seen in previous posts, some composers tried to protect the sanctity of their work by destroying it upon their death so that lesser musicians couldn’t alter it and ruin it in the eyes of the composers. So, the idea of retaining ownership and control of one’s work was something that a lot of composers felt strongly about as the Classical Renaissance rolled along. The first instance where a composer was granted a form of copyright occurred in Paris and concerned a composer who objected to his work being performed for profit by others in cafés throughout the city. A lawsuit was launched to either stop the concerts, or else to pay the composer a fee for each performance (or a royalty, as it has come to be known). The verdict came down on the side of the composer. From that point onward, especially since the invention of the printing press meant that sheet music was now able to be produced cheaply and in greater quantities, composers had a bit more of an ability to control how their creative work was used and were able to profit from their own labour in ways that were determined as much by them as by political connections.
As we have seen in many music posts about Rock ‘n Roll, it wasn’t really until the 1960s that songwriting copyright really became the tool that it is today in terms of generating income for the composer. This was especially true in the early days of Hip Hop when rappers sampled liberally from the work of others in creating many of their own unique songs. Having legal control of creatively produced work is important in that it helps the composer protect the integrity of their composition, as well as ensuring that they are rightfully compensated for their efforts. Not that I am comparing myself to the likes of Mozart, but you will note that I end all of my posts with a copyright disclaimer. I have no immediate plans to take these posts and reproduce them in book form, but, if I did, claiming copyright privileges as I go gives me some legal protection should anyone decide to copy my work and release my work as theirs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not have the legal ability to stake a claim to his own work. It sounds difficult to believe that this was the case but it was. Because he lived his creative life at odds with the existing musical patronage establishment, Mozart did not often profit from his creative genius during his lifetime. Consequently, brilliant work such as Serenade for Strings in G Minor or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ended up being sold for pennies after his death. It is quite likely that Mozart never heard this particular composition played publicly in his lifetime. That makes me sad…as songs in G Minor tend to do.
The link to the video for Serenade for Strings in G Minor can be found here.
The link to the official website for a museum dedicated to Mozart’s life can be found here.
The link to the classical radio station in my hometown can be found here.
The link to the video from the movie Amadeus which shows Mozart’s wife attempting to sell his original compositions at the Royal Court in order to help him gain access to well-paying music students, can be found here.
Header illustration link can be found here.
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