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Book Review: Musicians: from servants to superstars

Once the world’s finest composers were hired hands of the very rich, today they are the very rich themselves

By Steven Poole  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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What is the difference between Mozart and Elton John? Of the many possible answers, the one that interests historian Tim Blanning is the gulf in their social status during their respective lifetimes. Mozart, a hired hand of the archbishop of Salzburg, was seated with the valets and cooks at dinner. Elton, on the other hand, is hugely rich and hobnobs with the royal family. The process by which musicians climbed the respectability ladder — from servants to superstars — is the subject of this fascinating book.

At first, patronage meant exclusivity, harshly enforced if necessary. Bach was slung in jail for trying to leave the

employment of the duke of Weimar in 1717. Haydn’s contract with his master, Prince Esterhazy, determined that he would “be under permanent obligation to compose such pieces of music as his Serene Princely Highness may command, and neither to communicate such new compositions to anyone, nor to allow them to be copied, … nor shall he compose for any other person without the knowledge and gracious

permission of his Highness.”

When Esterhazy died, Haydn moved to London, just as “a massive expansion of music printing and publishing” was under way. Handel was an encouraging model, having become what Blanning calls “the first composer and musical impresario who made a fortune from a paying public.” But Haydn’s new freedom also had artistic consequences. The financial drain of full-time salaries for the musicians in Esterhazy’s exclusive employ had meant that Haydn composed symphonies for only 14 players. In London, there was a “much larger pool of professional musicians who could be hired by the season or even by the concert,” and so he began to write for orchestras of 50 or 60.

On the other hand, there was a new necessity to please a paying public, which contrasted in Haydn’s mind with his previous freedom to be “original.” Such ambivalence towards the multiple and often fickle paymasters that composers faced is a recurring theme. Once the musician has evolved from salaried artisan to expressive Romantic genius, thanks to the examples of Beethoven, Paganini, Rossini and perhaps especially Liszt (who also benefited, Blanning points out, from the new art of lithography, which could disseminate his good looks far and wide), he is increasingly tempted to think of those who do not understand

the latest extrusion of his genius as “philistines.”

Blanning also traces the material developments that helped spread the influence of music and its practitioners. He observes the changes in musical architecture, from the first dedicated concert houses to the opulence of the Paris Opera (designed mainly around the huge staircase where the rich could show off their jewels and furs), which is contrasted with the austerity of Wagner’s Bayreuth. (There is a beautiful interpolation here on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which Blanning relates persuasively to the apotheosis of Wagnerian Romanticism in Parsifal.) On we hurry, to London music halls in the 19th century and then cinemas, with their Wurlitzer organs on which snatches of Wagner could be played to accompany a cavalry charge in a western.

Technology, of course, has an important place in the story, evoked in the euphonious chapter title From Stradivarius to Stratocaster. Before the advent of recording, the single most important technological innovation was probably the invention of the piano, which reproduced in middle-class homes like a virus. Also important was the invention of valves for brass instruments, as Blanning amusingly notes: “As anyone who has had the misfortune to be drafted into a military band of bugles will know, although it is easy to extract a sound from a mouthpiece attached to a coil of brass ending in a bell shape, making that sound euphonious is a different matter.”

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