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  modern british composers  Team Gaughan at 12:24 on 14 March 2009

As a composer from Britain I have been looking at Doctorates as well as how established modern composers in Britain achieved their positions.

I don’t intend this to sound bitter but it seem to me after extensive research that 85% of ‘full time’ composers in my own country are either rich enough to be able to do so or well connected sons & daughters of well established older composers, conductors or musicologists with well connected families. Talent I am afraid doesn’t seem to come into it. Most composers’ careers I have looked at for guidance are established as they are the son/daughter of so and so or from a hugely rich and well connected family.

Now this is not the case with all composers, there are a very very very small few who achieve their well deserved positions due to their talent and work, but these are rare indeed.

I have purposely not mentioned any names here and am interested in other people’s opinions.

Sadly ‘talent’ as a composer seem like the last thing that is need in the vast majority of cases in this country at least.


I should just add I am referring to very well known ‘established’ composers who are often celebrated in the musical press, composers who receive Prom premieres and opera commissions from the Royal Opera House etc.


In addition I would also like to say I do like a majority of the music by the composers you may feel I am ‘slagging-off’, this is not in question. I am merely discussing the route to being a well established composer does not rely on talent alone, if at all in many cases.

  Re: modern british composers  atticmusic at 21:59 on 14 March 2009

I agree. I know one of such composer (and they will remain nameless) who was supported by their wealthy family well into middle age. Mind you, I would have taken it if offered the chance!
I teach every day in a busy school and time is very short for composition. I think composers with wealth behind them, who do not have to work for a living, have a distinct advantage. They are more likely to find time to be in the right place at the right moment with the right stuff.

  Re: modern british composers  scott_good at 01:12 on 15 March 2009

Perhaps this is rather naive, but, isn't classicism still a major part of the British identity structure?

Of course, this exists everywhere, but I think it is especially pronounced in England. So, wealth may only be a side issue to class (even if they almost always go hand in hand).

Just a thought.

But if anyone thinks there is any professions in which the rich are not privileged, and any activities that are perfectly fair, I would love to know about it! When I was going to enter music school, a rather wealthy friend of mine said he thought it would be impossible to become a classical musician unless you were rich, with the cost of instruments, lessons, attending festivals etc etc.

I, of course, do not agree with this. But then, I play the cheap old trombone!

  Re: modern british composers  MartinY at 09:09 on 17 March 2009

I think I might have a bit more to say about this but I would just like to agree with Scott about it not being just in music that wealth and influence is an advantage! There is an old biography of Robert Oppenheimer (Dr. Atomic in John Adams) where it is mentioned that his fellow students were jealous of the fact that Oppenheimer had a personal collection of all the classic texts in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, at a time when the real price of books was much higher than it is now, which gave him a great advantage over them. (The other fact that he actually read them all probably gave him an even greater advantage but we will not go into that.)

Even for a successful composer I imagine that the great labour of producing a viable orchestral score, (and discarding an amount of material 4 times the length of the final version, a process I am greatly in favour of...), means that the earnings per hour will be below the minimum wage. (Virgil Thomson years ago worked out that a successful composer in America earned 50 cents per hour. I do not know what a modern figure might be but I think 10 dollars per hour would be a big over-estimate. I do not work very hard now! but in the past I would have lost count of the long evenings spent messing about with manuscript paper until midnight.

  Re: modern british composers  Misuc at 16:29 on 17 March 2009

Money of course plays a big part in anyone's career in music and everything else. The universities are now asking £5000 a year tuition fees even before would-be students have found somewhere to live. Most earning composers survive through college and university positions. How they get these positions, and how competitions are won, awards granted, publishers found, works commissioned etc. is not however directly a question of money or actually of class as such: it is a question of talent and industry.

Given that nothing can be achieved without 'connections', it is the devotion, energy and natural grace or the success in the cultivation of a mysterious [slightly - but not too - eccentric] or 'interesting' image that builds careers:a successful composer will devote his whole life to building his career: this means making no distinction between brand-image and personal 'friendships', charm offensives at dinner parties, a suitable wife or partner, the real or imagined ability to grant or return favours, a good eye for selecting who to work on in this regard and who's a waste of time.... I know of one composer who named his son after the critic he wanted to win over at the time. I know another who sent letters to a range of influential composers out of the blue, telling each that he was the greatest English composer since Purcell. Sometimes a nice home-cooked Indian curry will do the trick at a certain stage in a developing relationship: the choice of wearing or removing a pigtail or the required type of beard, the proper accent/posture (e.g. affecting to love 2nd rate pop bands, of hating modern music, or not believing in 'content' - or worshipping Mozart or whoever - or the reverse of all these things) or adopting an odd religion for the sake of an eccentric millionaire devotee. Above all, media connections are of the utmost significance. One very serious composer I know was prepared to spend the rest of his life showing off to the nephew of the ex-head of BBC TV light entertainment [Uncle had ensured a media career for him].

Then there's what they write. It's got to be original - but original in such a way that there's nothing that could cause the slightest flash of pain or enlightenment to the most boring philistine.

You've got to be young, predictable and productive. This is because your fate is determined by that of your publisher. Your publisher is most likely an off-shore tax-haven private equity company who are not in it for the musical experience you offer. If you don't get them their returns they will stick to the coal-mines, hotel-chains or pension-funds etc. which may prove to be decent earners. A composer cannot expect to recoup their upfront costs in retainer-fees etc. for perhaps ten years. If he doesn't produce the goods, or if they are not what the market expects, then the publishers lose out and the composers are dropped. I am not guessing all this. It is more or less verbatim what I was told at the time when a certain publisher was temporarily interested in helping my career.

I had got that far because I used to be a journalist - Classical Music Editor for 'Time Out'. I know this wasn't 'my scene': that I was living on borrowed time. Music shops/publishers I had lingered at till they started looking at their watches and then actually breathing down my neck and accompanying me to the door suddenly remembered my name and greeted me with smiles and jokes. The fact that I was in a position to print people's photographs became my door to success. On my very first day, before I knew where to find anything, I got a telephone call: "Hello, Julian" "Do you know me?" "Not yet, but I'm sure we'll soon get to know one another" "?" "You're very lucky, So-and-so's in town." [I hadn't heard of her]."You don't know her? She's the best... she's just done a season at the Met and (between ourselves) she's fabulously wealthy." "?" "Can we have one of those little photographs?" "What is she singing" "Not coming? But at least come to the reception. There'll be real champagne ..." (etc. I'm not making this up) Suddenly an old 'friend' of mine offered me a job that he had refused me for for years in a college. The principle of the college met me and said direct: "Oh glad to have you here. You'll be able to get photographs up for us won't you?" And then the orchestra conductor there commissioned these pieces from me (gratis of course). Hence the performances: hence recordings sent to this publisher (another 'old friend': the same one who'd earlier refused me a job somewhere on the grounds that I was 'over-qualified'. He affected or experienced great excitement. "Let's see." (rubbing hands) "We'll have to get So-and-so to write an article about you in "XXXX" music journal. We'll get this out to our people in Germany, France, Italy the States" and on and on. So it goes. "Here's So-and-so [famous composer] on the phone from Austria. Do you want a word with him?" [Sing-song voice from other end of telephone]:"Ach! Hello. Silverman. Good name for a successful composer. Making a lot of money? Eh? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" [literally collapsing with laughter at his own 'joke']. After we went on strike and staged a sit-in at 'Time Out' I lost my job and was in no position to offer favours (I never had anyway). The publishers were no longer interested. Doors of opportunity started slamming shut again. Music Shop keepers started glancing up at the clocks again.

Once I was goings to apply for an Arts Council grant. It was strictly for composers with an established reputation. Now I knew you could buy a national reputation for the price of a glass of champagne.

  Re: modern british composers  scott_good at 16:40 on 17 March 2009

Misuc, another great post! Thanks for sharing that.

  Re: modern british composers  MartinY at 22:18 on 17 March 2009

Thanks for that great post Misuc, which circulates around how we get the career success / failure we deserve because of what we focus on......

To 'succeed' you must not be interested in the fundamentals of your subject or in people. People are there to be exploited. If you are speaking to a nobody at a conference and someone more important comes in, abandon them and go and network with someone 'useful'. Charm up and dump down.... Do not have personal relationships which are not an advantage to you, even to the extent of who you marry or divorce. Blame your spouse for not achieving what you deserved in your career.

Thankfully there are not many people who operate in this way and the ways Misuc described but you have probably seen somebody who behaves like that.

In practical terms I hope no aesthetically successful composer would exploit people like that, but if you add to what we have talked about getting other people to be secretaries for your scores, to promote your music at their expense and run off with their spouses we have not far off described the life of Richard Wagner!

At least in music you can't get other people to write your compositions for you, (unless they have been dead for 70 years and you are really brazen....), wheras in science you can get co-authorship of research papers that you have done little towards if you know how to work it.....

'I feel much better since I have given up hope, (D. B. Cook, quantum chemist}.'