Why Composers Didn't Need A Day Job

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Becoming a composer of classical music isn't easy. Oh, it is easy enough to compose when you've got the musical talent and training and get the knack of it, but unless you're also a concert performer, usually on the piano, such as Franz Liszt, it's hard to make a go of it financially. To paraphrase a quip of Woody Allen's, composers can't live on inspiration alone; they also need a patron. And until foundation grants came into being in the 20th century, it was always the wealthy who paid the composer's freight. Without their support, most composers would have had to remain in their cold attics or give up to become waiters.

Of course, in the old days of the baroque period of music and into the classical era, where composers looked for handouts was in the purses of aristocrats. Oh, how many obsequious letters had to be written by composers to those whose purse strings they hoped to loosen. It was a degrading enterprise, but necessary if an ambitious composer was to make his way. And, of course, aristocrats would often employ composers, as in the famous case of Joseph Haydn who served for decades as a court musician for the Esterházy family of Austria where at first he was treated merely as a servant and took his meals with them -- until he became the most famous composer of his day. But Haydn needed to eat, too, and not just compose. And patronage under the rule of the aristocrats could not only be humiliating but also unrewarding, and in more than one sense. You've probably heard of and listened to some of Bach's Brandenburg concertos, six of Bach's most celebrated orchestral compositions. They were commissioned by the Margrave of Brandenburg (hence their name) who stiffed Bach who never received the German equivalent of a dime for them. Well, there are many more such stories, but that's not the story I want to tell you here.

Eventually, when the aristocrats were ushered off the stage of history, composers had to find other sources of funding. Enter the plutocrats, or more usually, the wives of plutocrats, very wealthy women who had a yen for classical music and the men who created it. So it was that beginning roughly in the middle of the nineteenth century, we encounter in the history of music the age of the patron. These days, these patrons are mostly forgotten or, at best, are mere footnotes to the lives of great composers, but in their day, they were indispensable. Without them, the world of classical music would have been much impoverished. Not just those whose work they sponsored, but we today continue to owe them a great debt. So they don't deserve to live only in oblivion. Let's bring out at least a few of them for a posthumous bow.

Of course, the rich are also often eccentric, and so it is with patrons. Perhaps the zaniest example of all was Tchaikovsky's patron, a woman by the name of Nadezhda von Meck. She became, after her husband's death, the wealthiest woman in Moscow. She was also mad about music and determined to further the work of the composers she favored. For a time, it was the young Debussy, whom she called De Bussy, but when she was introduced to the music of Tchaikovsky, that was it -- kismet. She was to provide munificent support for him for fourteen years during the very peak of his career when he would compose his greatest and most enduringly popular works. Without her support, emotional and financial, it's doubtful that most of these works would ever have been written. During that time they exchanged hundreds of letters. Tchaikovsky would sometimes stay in her villas in Italy while she was absent. They had an extraordinary and intimate relationship -- yet they never met!

Nadezhda was a recluse; Tchaikovsky himself was not only a closeted homosexual but pathologically shy. They had an understanding from the beginning: they must never meet face to face, and they never did.

The whole story of Tchaikovsky and his patron is absolutely fascinating -- and ultimately tragic -- but it is by now well known. (Indeed, I have also written about it at length in my books about composers and their muses.) Rather than retell it here, however, let me instead introduce you to a couple of other less well-known patrons who nevertheless played important roles in the lives of a number of now famous composers. They, too, were a little -- and maybe more than a little -- dotty, but there is no doubt that they were as eccentric in their own way as Nadezhda was in hers.

The Princess de Polignac

Winnaretta Singer, true to her name, was indeed a singular person. Nevertheless, she might well have been lost among the two dozen (!) children sired by her famous and obviously prodigiously fecund father, Isaac Singer. Singer of course was famous not only for the number of offspring he produced, but for something else he fathered, the sewing machine. Actually, Singer didn't invent the sewing machine, though everyone thinks he did, but whatever the history of this world-changing mechanism, it made him an enormously wealthy man who could certainly afford to procreate as many children as his wives could be induced to bear. Winnaretta checked in as number twenty. She would prove to be one of the children who in her lifetime would be become almost as famous as he, though in her case "scandalous" might be a more appropriate adjective.

The distinguished Singer family, as well as having its own eccentricities and share of scandals, moved around a great deal, mainly in Europe, both before and after Isaac's death in 1875. But eventually Winnaretta made her home in Paris where at the age of twenty-two she married a prince, though not (yet) the Prince de Polignac. Unfortunately for that prince, Winnaretta had by then become a lesbian. On her wedding night, it was later reported, she climbed upon an armoire and threatened to kill her unsuspecting groom if he came near. Apparently, Winnaretta relented somewhat, since the marriage lasted five years before it was annulled. But Winnaretta did not only have a hankering for ladies, but also for princes as well for she soon found another one who proved to be much more suitable since he was gay. Prince Edmond de Polignac was also an amateur composer and since Winnaretta was keen on music, their marriage was a match that suited them both. From all accounts, they were a very devoted couple, though they never did, finding their sexual pleasures elsewhere.  But their mutual love of music and respect for each other's "proclivities" ultimately created a strong bond between them.

Though we will be mainly interested in Winnaretta's patronage of composers, her extramarital amatory life is fascinating, so I will allow myself to linger a bit more here to devote at least a couple of brief paragraphs to it.

In her affairs with women, which were numerous throughout her lifetime, Winnaretta had no qualms about being both flagrant and flamboyant. As I've said, and as is well understood, wealth can buy you more than trinkets; it can also purchase privilege and the freedom to do as one chooses without suffering undue risk. She had affairs with women during her own marriages and often during theirs. One incensed husband once stood outside Winnaretta's Venetian palazzo where she had been carrying on with his wife, and shouted, "If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me." Winnaretta's response, if she deigned to give one, is not recorded.

She had affairs with painters and with members of royalty, such as the writer and socialite, Baroness Olga de Meyer, whose father was reputed to be Edward VII. The most celebrated woman composer of her day, Ethel Smyth, fell deeply in love with Winnaretta during their affair. And so on with writers, artists, musicians, etc. until her death. What a life!

But now let us move from Winnaretta's lively boudoir to her glittering salon whose glamour would certainly rival any of those of other wealthy salonnières of her time. Just take a look at her guest list:

Winnanetta's salon was frequented by the famous dancer, Isadora Duncan, whose child was fathered by Winnaretta's brother, Peter Singer. Other celebrated artists included Jean Cocteau, Claude Monet, Sergei Diaghilev, Le Corbusier, and Collete. Among the musicians for whom Winnaretta became patrons and who attended her gatherings were Nadia Boulanger and pianists Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. Of course, her lover, Ethel Smyth, was sometimes in attendance, too. And guess who else?

Marcel Proust of course! Many of the author's evocations of salon culture were based on his experiences during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac drawing room.

And these grand occasions not only featured the illustrious guests I have mentioned but entire ensembles of performing musicians, singers and dancers: members of the Ballets Russe, the Opera of Paris and the Orchestre Symphonie of Paris also added to the musical fare and flavor of these evenings.

Finally, I must mention that Winnaretta was more than a patron of the arts; she was a talented musician herself who often performed at her salons as a pianist and organist. She was also an accomplished artist whose works had been exhibited at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. One of her paintings was even advertised as being a Manet!

It was in 1894 that the Prince and Princess de Polignac established their salon in Paris in the music room of their mansion on Avenue Henri-Martin. The Polignac salon came to be known as a haven for avant-garde music. First performances of some of the works of Chabrier, d'Indy, Debussy, Fauré and Ravel took place there. The Ravel episode deserves a little elaboration for it had far-reaching consequences for Ravel.

For the young and ambitious composer, whom his teacher Gabriel Fauré introduced to the Winnaretta salon, it became the social and professional springboard for a highly successful career. On their first meeting, Ravel presented Winnaretta with the dedication of his newest work, the Pavane pour une infante défunte. Instead of asking and waiting for her permission, Ravel had simply gone ahead and presented her with the score and dedication. In any event, Winnaretta accepted the dedication and became one of the most passionate supporters of Ravel's music. The pavane became of her favorite pieces and was played at her husband's funeral seven years later.

After her husband's death, Winnaretta used her fortune to benefit the arts, sciences, and letters. She decided to honor Edmond's memory by commissioning several works of the young composers of her time. Among them, Igor Stravinsky's Renard and Erik Satie's Socrate, which I've never heard or even had heard of until I read in one of the American composer Ned Rorem's diaries something to the effect, as I recall, that he regarded it the greatest piece of music he knew. However that may be, if it weren't for Winnaretta's patronage, who knows whether Satie would have been able to complete this composition. And did you know -- I didn't -- that she even interceded to keep Satie out of jail for some kind of indiscretion when he was composing Socrate? She could pull strings, too!

She also supported the work of Darius Milhaud and other French composers including Francis Poulenc, Jean Françaix, and Germaine Tailleferre. And not just French composers. She also provided support for Kurt Weill when he was composing his Second Symphony and Manuel de Falla's El ratablo de maese Pedro was first performed at Winnaretta's salon with no less than the legendary Wanda Landowska playing the harpsichord.

How much does the world of music owe to the largesse of the wondrous Winnaretta, the Princess of Polignac!

The music mad (or maybe just plain mad) Wittgensteins of Vienna

Let us next consider the Wittgensteins.

Of course, these days the only Wittgenstein that most people know is Ludwig, the gnomic philosopher who is generally now regarded, with Heidegger his only serious competition, as the greatest and most influential philosopher of the first part of the twentieth century. However that may be, he was certainly the strangest. The eminent British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, who knew Wittgenstein well and encouraged him to pursue philosophy, declared that he was "the most perfect example of genius he had ever known." He later told Wittgenstein's sister, Hermine, "We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother." Russell later changed his mind, but that is another story, and not the one I have to tell here.

And what that story is concerns not just Ludwig, but the Wittgenstein family because most of them were extremely gifted musically and were passionate about classical music. For them, music was almost a manic obsession, and it seems to have driven at least some of them mad and to suicide. So it was not just Ludwig who was strange; the whole family seems to have been bonkers.

Consider this description from Terry Eagleton's account of the family life of the Wittgensteins:

The father, Karl, was a brutal autocrat as well as a high-class crook. He was an engineer by vocation, and his son Ludwig would later do some original work in aeronautics at Manchester University. A fabulously wealthy steel magnate, Karl rigged prices, bleeding his workers dry and doing much the same to his timorous wife Leopoldine. She once lay awake all night, agonized by an ugly wound in her foot but terrified of moving an inch in case she disturbed her irascible husband. She was an emotionally frigid mother and a neurotically dutiful wife, from whom all traces of individual personality had been violently erased.

The family was a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders. Leopoldine was afflicted by terrible leg pains and eventually went blind. Her children had their problems too. Helene was plagued by stomach cramps; Gretl was beset by heart palpitations and sought advice from Sigmund Freud about her sexual frigidity; Hermine had dodgy fingers; Paul suffered from bouts of madness; and little Ludwig was scarcely the most well balanced of souls. Almost all the males of the family were seized from time to time by bouts of uncontrollable fury that bordered on insanity.

But one thing is for sure: they were also mad about music.

The Wittgensteins, who, by the way, were extremely wealthy, seem to have been a musical family for generations. Ludwig's grandmother was the celebrated Jewish violinist Joseph Joachim's distant cousin; in fact, Joachim became an adopted son. Ludwig's father, Karl, was highly musical as was his wife, Leopoldine. The elder Wittgensteins eventually came to know Joachim's accompanist, Johannes Brahms, who became a family friend and gave piano lessons to some of Ludwig's aunts. By the century's close, during Brahms's last years, he had become a fixture at the Wittsgenstein Palais, where his clarinet sonatas and quintet had their first private performances.

A brief sidebar about Brahms who was a very contrarian character. In an age and on a continent where anti-Semitism was common, he was a philo-Semite. Not only was he long associated with Joachim, but he was also friends such Jewish composers as Karl Goldmark, although eventually their friendship cooled because Goldmark came to find Brahms's personality too abrasive. There is a famous story about Brahms when he was about to leave a dinner party. Before his departure, he was heard to say, "If there is anybody here I have failed to insult, I apologize!" But he certainly was a favorite at the Wittgensteins' home.

But the family's cultural life really centered on the grand Musiksaal on the first floor of their main house. Besides Brahms's frequent presence, Joachim's famous quartet played in the Musiksaal several times each year. Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, and Bruno Walter attended the Wittgenstein soirées, as did the most famous musical critic of the day, Eduard Hanslick. Contemporary revolutionary composers, such as Schoenberg, also came to the soirées several times, but Mahler, whose music Ludwig later dismissed as "worthless," came only once and was not invited back after he left before the end of the evening's entertainment.

Music was more than entertainment for the Wittgensteins, however. They were also important collectors as well as patrons. Their collection included autographed scores by Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, and Bruckner. A Bach cantata, two Mozart piano concertos, a Haydn symphony, and one of Beethoven's last piano sonatas were smuggled to Ludwig in Cambridge during the Second World War. One of Ludwig's sisters' sons successfully hid Schubert's "Die Forelle," Brahms's "Handel Variations," some Beethoven letters, Wagner's sketches for "Die Walküre," and other treasured musical mementos for safe keeping during this fraught time as well.

Unfortunately, as I have implied, the Wittgensteins' love of classical music had a dark side. Besides Ludwig, who was the youngest, there were four brothers, Rudi, Hans, Kurt and Paul. Hans was a prodigy whose extraordinary musical perception became evident at the age of four; Gustav Mahler's teacher, Julius Epstein, called him a genius. Both he and Rudi seemed destined for careers as keyboard virtuosi, but each was driven to commit suicide as young men. (There was speculation that Hans may have been homosexual. Rudi and Ludwig were known to be.) The third brother, Kurt, also died by suicide at the age of forty. After the tragic death of each of these children, Karl forbad their names from ever being mentioned again. Ludwig often thought of killing himself, even, he said, as early as the age of ten, as did his only other surviving brother, Paul. Paul, never considered the family's best pianist, nevertheless achieved great success for a time, even after losing an arm in WWI. But, he, too, was a deeply troubled man, sometimes suicidal, with many eccentricities and tics who suffered from his own version of "the Wittgenstein curse." But let us leave Paul's story for later and return now to Ludwig's whose own musical tastes and talents were peculiar and idiosyncratic enough.

Some of his musical gifts and sensitivities were both weird and remarkable.

He was an extremely acute listener. Once, on hearing a Schubert record playing at the wrong pitch, Ludwig interrupted his conversation to adjust the turntable's speed. He would also unhesitatingly correct others' inaccurate humming or singing.

Then there was his prodigious skill as a whistler! Yes, whistling was one of his specialties. Oddly enough for a Wittgenstein, Ludwig seems not to have mastered any musical instrument as a child, though as an adult he learned to play the clarinet well enough play Brahms's sonatas. But as a whistler, he was unexcelled and legendary. He would enjoy impressing his musical friends with his virtuosic whistling performances. Several Cambridge dons recalled hearing him whistle the solo part of an entire concerto while a pianist played the orchestral part. His repertoire included Brahms's "Variations on a Theme Haydn" as well as other symphonic works.

His taste in music was surprising and characteristically eccentric. He had no patience for or interest in contemporary music. For Ludwig, music seems to have ended with the end of the 19th century. Instead, he insisted there were only six truly great composers, all Germans or Austrians: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms -- and Labor. Who was Labor, you ask? A blind organist and family friend who was also the beneficiary of the Wittgenstein patronage. Ludwig himself seems to have been very fond of Labor, and when visiting Vienna, would sometimes prefer to spend time with him rather than with his batty family.

Needless to say, Mahler's music had no interest for him; indeed, as I have mentioned, he appears to have despised it. Likewise, and not surprisingly, Wagner's operas were not for Ludwig. He even had no use for the music of Richard Strauss, a family friend, who used to play piano duets with the young Paul. In music, Ludwig was strictly one for the classics in which fixed forms and tonality were adhered to as matter of course. In philosophy, he was an iconoclastic genius and broke new ground, but in music, he was not only content to tread on familiar ground; he insisted on it with an almost manically rigid and obsessive fanaticism.

How different he was from his brother, Paul, whose taste in music was completely different, but no less eccentric in its own way.

Between these two, who ceased to have any contact with each other after 1939, there was often great tension and displays of temper. One day, for instance, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, "I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!" They seem frequently to have been at loggerheads since their temperaments were so different.

Paul's real tragedy came later. As I've mentioned, he returned from World War I with only one arm, his left. Even so, he was determined to continue to play, and even while recovering, worked furiously and ingeniously to develop techniques that would enable him to perform. Once he had recovered, he often practiced for up to seven hours at a sitting. He was nothing if not driven and ambitious.

And in time, he was rewarded with considerable success, at least at first. At the height of his career, in the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties, Paul's concerts drew wildly enthusiastic reviews from respected critics. For a pianist limited to the use of only one hand, he was a phenomenon. Indeed, during his lifetime, for many years he was more famous than his brother.

It didn't last. His abilities seem to have become eroded, and in consequence, his reputation as a pianist suffered a sharp reversal.

Today, if he is remembered at all, it is not so much as a one-armed pianist, but as someone who commissioned a series of piano concertos for the left hand alone from some dozen composers, among them such famous ones as Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul HindemithErich Wolfgang Korngold, and Maurice Ravel. Alas, today, only the Ravel is sometimes played, and even so it is far less popular than his jazzy G major concerto.  But what is memorable about many of these commissions was Paul's disputes with some of these composers and the sorry fate of their offerings.

Robert Gottlieb gives an amusing account of these commissions, including the not altogether admirable pecuniary motives of some of the composers for undertaking them:

Strauss extracted a particularly large fee, and Britten, at least, affected to be in it just for the money. ("I have been commissioned by a man called Wittgenstein," Britten wrote to his sister. "He pays gold so I'll do it.") Paul often insisted on changes to the music, especially when he thought that the orchestra had been overscored and would drown out his playing. (Britten groused, "The man really is an old sour puss.") There was also a colorful dispute with Ravel, who complained for the rest of his life about his dealings with Paul. There was worse in store for poor Hindemith, who wrote his concerto in 1923: Paul couldn't understand the composition, so he filed it away. It was discovered eight decades later, in a Pennsylvania farmhouse that had belonged to Paul's widow ... Paul couldn't fathom Prokofiev's concerto, either, and he shelved that, too.

Like his brother, Paul also had his share of eccentricities quite apart from his disputatious tendencies and fits of temper. Most of Paul's eccentricities were perhaps the normal ones for a loner who had been brought up amid vast wealth. He was a fiercely private man who liked to book entire railway carriages for himself, even when travelling with his family. His wife, Hilde, who was half blind and had been his pupil, bore him two children in Vienna before their marriage; the elder child had been conceived shortly after their first piano lesson, when Hilde was eighteen years old and Paul was forty-seven.

They were forced to flee Austria after the Anschluss in 1938 and eventually settled in New York. But Paul appears not to have lived with his family, at least not all the time. He set them up in a house on Long Island while he retained an apartment on Riverside Drive. Once, when his clothes were stolen from a hotel (used to the privileges of wealth, he had left them outside his room, assuming that someone would wash them), he sat around in bed sheets until someone pointed out that it might be possible to buy a new outfit at clothing store. Another time he apparently left the hotel wearing a hat that was still attached to its box.

Sometimes it seems as if Paul, lacking one of his arms, had only half a brain, too. He died at 73, outliving his now by far more famous estranged brother by ten years.

And with Paul ends this improbable and bizarre story of the musically mad Wittgenstein family. Despite their personal foibles and family tragedies, however, I do not mean merely to poke fun of them for we must remember how much they did to promote and support the musicians and composers of their time as well as to preserve the heritage of the great composers of the past. As such, they are only one, if certainly one of the most memorable, of the very important families of Vienna who made a lasting contribution to the history of music, not only in Vienna but of the world. They were just more loony than most Viennese wealthy patrons, but as in the world at large, so in the world of music, "it takes all kinds."

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