Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

telling tales

a room in the attic

January 13, 2012

In the Classical period, composers sought out positions in the courts of kings and dukes, who would pay these composers to write and perform music, and possibly conduct their musical ensembles. In return, a composer would receive food, lodging, and a salary. Haydn, for example, not only lived with the Esterhazy family for whom he worked, but also went with them on vacation. Remember that musical recordings didn’t exist, so if you wanted music, you needed live musicians around. It must have costs these patrons a lot of money to keep full orchestras at their disposal, but they were willing to pay the price, and their resources allowed composers to write some of the most lasting music from that time period.

We usually think of the patronage system as ending during the career of Beethoven, one of the first composers to rely solely on publishing and subscription concerts to make a living (but even Beethoven had patrons at different points in his life). However, the patronage system never really ended. The pages of history are full of patrons—not necessarily royalty—who have quietly helped composers make a living with their music. Their financial assistance might not be so grand as lodgings in a palace, but support from a patron may have allowed a composer to eat and keep a modest roof over his head without having to take on other work.

One of the most famous patrons of the nineteenth century was Nadezhda von Meck, a rich Russian widow who supported Tchaikovsky for more than a decade. When she first offered help to him, he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. The annuity she promised him allowed him to quit his day job and focus on his compositions. Tchaikovsky and von Meck never met face to face, at her request, although they did write hundreds of letters to each other over the years. Nadezhda von Meck also offered financial support to Claude Debussy and Nikolai Rubenstein.

English composer William Walton was also the beneficiary of this private patronage system. While at Oxford, Walton met a member of the Sitwell family, a well-to-do family from Yorkshire. He became friends with Sachaverell Sitwell, and later with his siblings, Edith and Osbert. After finishing at Oxford, Walton had no plan for his future, and at Sachaverell’s invitation, moved into a room in the Sitwell’s attic. He intended to stay for a short time, but ended up being there for years. His needs were cared for, and he was able to concentrate on composition and even collaborate with Edith, a successful poet. The connections of the family also allowed Walton to meet many musical icons of the day. The relationship between Walton and the Sitwells lasted for years, although he grew distant from them when he got involved in other relationships, including some romantic entanglements.

When he did finally move out of the Sitwells’ attic, he was successful enough as a composer to begin supporting himself, and, with the help of another benefactor, Walton bought his first home in 1934. He went on to compose film scores and classical pieces, and even became an important composer for his country. After Sir Edward Elgar’s death in 1934, Walton filled the void Elgar left, composing music for the state, including a march for the coronation of George VI. Walton was even exempted from military service in World War II because he was needed to write music for propaganda films.

Although he continued to compose for the rest of his life—albeit slowly—he never achieved the lasting fame of his contemporary and fellow Englishman, Benjamin Britten. Still, Walton’s legacy, especially in the pantheon of British composers, is undeniably important. And because of that, history owes a debt of gratitude to Walton’s patrons. The fourteen years Walton spent living in the Sitwell’s attic, sharing their home, their food, and enjoying their generosity, allowed the composer to find his voice, a voice that spoke for not only for Walton himself, but for England as well.

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