During the CBC coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (which I was watching when I began this blog entry over a year ago… and then abandoned it 'till just now), there were musical performances by a children's choir, bagpipes and drums, cello and flute, solo cello, and others. For a while, the CBC had two sound sources playing simultaneously in a split screen, creating a strange cacophony between a live performance by the NAC orchestra in Ottawa and the background music that accompanied the reading of victims' names in New York. This cacophony was occasionally taken to the next level by a CBC studio anchor talking over the reading of names while two different musical soundtracks played. All very Charles Ivesian, except that I'm not sure Ives would have endorsed the notion that the public needs a gabby news anchor interpreting what we see and hear as we see and hear it.
But I digress. The pervasiveness of music at public events, be they solemn (memorials, funerals, religious ceremonies) or celebratory (weddings, coronations, inaugurations, milestones of any kind), suggests that there is a widespread view in our society that music has an important role to play in such events.
All of this music had to be created by somebody, and that's where composers come in. There is a plethora of music commissioned for religious functions that has made it into the Western canon by a multitude of composers, such as Machaut, Lassus, Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and many others. Palestrina is one of my all-time favourite composers, but if you removed church music from Palestrina's list of works, you would have very little left over; the church was his patron for his entire career. Handel was a prolific and highly-successful composer, writing numerous operas, oratorios, hymns, concerti, concerti grossi, solo and trio sonatas, suites, works for orchestra, and more, but if he had not written the Messiah, his place in history would likely not be what it currently is.
Music has traditionally had a significant role in weddings, be they royal or commoner; William and Kate's wedding service involved two choirs, one orchestra, organ, and a fanfare ensemble, which may have actually been modest in comparison to some royal weddings of the past. All of this music had to be written by composers, and in many cases (including William and Kate's wedding), some of the music was commissioned expressly for the occasion.
Governments, both democratic and totalitarian, and political movements have long believed that music could be used as a tool to sway the masses in some way. According to Lenin:
Every artist, everyone who considers himself an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases. We must systemically guide this process and form its result. (Lenin, O Kulture i Iskusstve (About Culture and Art), Moscow, 1957, pp 519-520)Joseph Stalin enacted numerous restrictions for music which limited content and innovation. Classicism was favoured, and experimentation was discouraged (Soviet Music and Society under Lenin and Stalin: The Baton and Sickle, edited by Neil Edmunds, Routledge, 2009, p 264).
For example, Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was denounced in Pravda as "formalism" and soon removed from theatres for years. This, and the fact that people close to him were disappearing, never to be seen again, understandably terrorized the composer and made him fear for his own life. To learn more, I highly recommend reading, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich; it is a disturbing but controversial (due to a dispute over the degree to which the words and sentiments were Shostakovich's own, or those of the Solomon Volkov, the book's editor) account of the composer's life.
Here are some interesting articles on this topic:
- Music and Politics (Wikipedia)
- Soviet Music (Wikipedia)
- Formalism in the Soviet Union (Wikipedia)
- Strange article on "The Government-Sponsored Music Festival" in China
- The Government-Sponsored Music Playlist (YouTube video; humorous and disturbing)
Music is powerful, and it is everywhere! How can composers benefit from this?
- If we realize that there seems to be a never-ending demand for music of all kinds for different purposes, we can aim to become skilled at writing music in a variety of styles and for a variety of functions.
- If we can figure out where music is needed, and write high-quality music quickly that fits the bill for different needs, we might be able to make a successful career of composing, although, like any competitive career, there are many other people trying to do the same thing, so perseverance, flexibility, discernment, smarts, chutzpah, luck, and, oh yeah, high-level skills, are all necessary.
- Another important factor is "who you know;" a lot of opportunities — perhaps the great majority — come to composers based at least in part on who we know. This is a topic into which I may delve at greater length in a future blog, but it's good to be aware of it. The first priority should always be to get good at composing, but it's also important to get to know people who are in a position to programme/use your music.
- More generally, and from a purely practical viewpoint, it is useful for aspiring or established composers to consider the many roles that music has in society, and the many kinds of music needed for different purposes. What kinds of music would you like to write? Are there types of music you would be unwilling to write?