“Look, what patrons!”


THE FILM AMADEUS mythologized Emperor Joseph II, patron of The Marriage of Figaro, as offering this assessment of the opera backstage to Mozart: “There are simply too many notes. Just cut a few, and it’ll be perfect.” To which Mozart supposedly responded, “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?” The fabled comment seems all the more impudent when we recall the The Marriage of Figaro’s politically charged narrative about clever servants thwarting an unfaithful aristocrat’s efforts to bed a servant against her will. The story of this backstage encounter may be made up, but the humiliations that Mozart sometimes endured at the hands of his employers are well known. Mozart was never paid his promised commission for the Flute and Harp Concerto you’re hearing tonight, and was once booted down a set of stairs by the Archbishop of Salzburg’s steward.

These experiences contrast rather sharply with the milieu in which his peer Beethoven operated. (And even more sharply with that of Bach, which is analyzed brilliantly in our 30 January concert with the superlative Tafelmusik Baroque Ensemble.) Unlike Mozart, Beethoven died a rich, well-connected man, but not on account of his good behaviour. The composer chastised Goethe for bowing to nobles and initially dedicated his third symphony to another upstart commoner, Napoleon. Despite his sympathies for Enlightenment talk about the rights of man, Beethoven’s rebelliousness was more that of a self-important artist than a true political radical, although perhaps for that reason he could be all the more strident in his dealings with employers. Beethoven was arguably the greatest composer of the nineteenth century, a feat he achieved while deaf. But his image as the quintessential Romantic—as an aloof revolutionary of titanic will power—surely also owes something to his reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon. And his ability to sustain that image, in its flattering aspects, probably owes more to the fortunes of historical circumstance than many realize.

Beethoven may have only been 14 years Mozart’s junior, but he came of age artistically in a different and rapidly changing Europe. By the early nineteenth century, Europe’s industrial revolution, while slow to start in Germany, was nonetheless establishing a new commercial environment on the continent, one that prioritized private property rights. It’s in this context that the music publishing industry really took off in Germany. While Beethoven still earned a generous income taking commissions from the aristocracy, he made a killing selling his music to publishers. This rendered Beethoven financially independent from aristocratic patrons in a way that Mozart was not. Thus Beethoven could make a point of personally offending Counts and Dukes, and as long as he was merely rude rather than subversive, he probably didn’t risk much worse than fewer invitations to their parties.

The irony is that the same capitalist transformation that was making Beethoven rich and independent, would also transform societies in ways that shook classical music off the throne of Western popular music. The rise of the market also meant the decline of the aristocratic patronage system and the emergence of mass culture, which has tended to relegate classical music to a supporting role in popular art—such as soundtracks to movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons. In this connection, it’s fun to analyze the impressionist music of Debussy (as heard tonight) and Ravel, which often sits somewhere between romanticism and jazz, classical and pop. Although Ravel denied Gershwin musical lessons, he paid the one-time Tin Pan Alley song-plugger homage by copying Gershwin’s style in his jazzy Piano Concerto in G Major, which the MCO performs with Jan Lisiecki on 24 April.

Today many distinctions and definitions in the music world that once seemed clear no longer are. For example, the word ‘patron’ once denoted the sort of relationship between aristocrat and artist that we’ve been describing. Now it encompasses virtually everyone—donors, audience members, and sponsors—who come together as a community to support the charitable and arts programming of local non-profits, like the MCO. While it’s fun to get lost in the world conjured by Amadeus, we tend to prefer today’s more inclusive approach.

On this note, I can’t resist reminding you that the MCO’s President’s Campaign, raising funds for MCO’s vital outreach with underserved populations as well as our Westminster concerts, is currently on. For those who’ve already donated to this campaign, the MCO is tremendously grateful. In the words of Figaro, “Guardate che avventori!” (Look, what patrons!)

— Conrad Sweatman