15 penniless composers
Which composers all too often felt the pinch?
Money. Dosh. Wonga. Call it what you will, but all too often when it comes to art we like to ignore this unpalatable necessity. Ever since Beethoven, we’ve harboured the Romantic idea that composers simply live for their art alone, unfettered by everyday trivialities such as paying the bills or buying food. History, however, has shown that money – or a lack thereof – was often more than a bit of a worry to composers. Some had to battle with the uphill task of making money from their music, while others wrote smash hits but couldn’t channel the profit back into their pockets. Some lived wildly beyond their means, while yet others had unhappy experiences trying to invest the money they did have. Here are 15 composers from across the centuries for whom money was, at one time or another, a bit of an issue…
Embroidered silk couches, rich tapestries, walnut dining tables, Japanese dressing gowns, flamingo-feather-lined carpets, satin shirts and pale pink silk underwear were just a few of life’s little luxuries in which Richard Wagner liked to indulge. The German composer’s spending habits were as vast as his operas and he was always being pursued by one creditor or another – on one occasion, when he was director of the opera in Riga, he even had to flee the city to escape his debts. It was only when the wealthy King Ludwig became Wagner’s patron that the composer had the funding for the lifestyle he wanted and was able to build his opera house at Bayreuth.
2. Erik Satie
Nicknamed the ‘Velvet Gentleman’, the eccentric, whimsical Erik Satie was always impeccably turned out. Left a small inheritance in 1895, he bought seven identical chestnut-coloured corduroy suits and became a fixture of the Montmartre nightlife in Paris… and by the summer of 1896 he was penniless. Still, it was a shock to his brother and friends to find out at Satie’s death in 1925 that the composer, who earned money as a café pianist and writing cabaret songs, lived in miserable conditions in his flat on the outskirts of Paris. No one had visited it for 27 years. It was dirty, full of newspapers, umbrellas and – ever the sartorialist – 84 silk handkerchiefs.
3. Niccolò Paganini
The ‘Devil’s violinist’ was something of a thrillseeker. Breathtaking virtuoso fiddle antics aside, Paganini liked to gamble. At one stage he even had to pawn his violin to pay off his debts, though as luck would have it he was leant, then given, a Guarneri instrument instead. More disastrous, though, was his concert hall-come-gambling den, which he set up in Paris in 1838. Described as a ‘casino’, the venue was refused its gambling licence and Paganini made big losses as a result. The stress of the situation did little to help his already poor health, and he died two years later.
4. Gustav Holst
Give or take a detour or two, it’s 100 miles from London to Cheltenham. Not far, you might think. Until, that is, you make the journey by foot, as Gustav Holst used to do. According to the composer Edmund Rubbra, Holst was too poor to afford the train fare when he was studying at the Royal College of Music, so he’d sling his trombone across his back and set off home. He even stopped to serenade the sheep in quiet Cotswold fields, until a farmer blamed this wild trombone practice for making his flocks lamb early.
One day in 2006, the Master of the Queen’s Music tried to take £40 out of a cashpoint. His request was declined, and Maxwell Davies twigged that something was wrong. Quite apart from the £15,000-a-year stipend for his Royal appointment, he is a prolific and well-known composer – the royalties should have been flooding in. And they were, just to someone else’s bank account. His trusted manager of 30 years, Michael Arnold, had defrauded the Orkney-based composer to the tune of half a million pounds, apparently spending the money on online gambling. ‘It was probably the biggest shock I’ve had in my life,’ Davies told The Herald. ‘To be hoodwinked for all those years and then find out that one had been earning very good money and had seen almost nothing of it… but then it’s only money.’
6. Moritz Moszkowski
Moszkowski’s Spanish Dance No. 5 might have achieved silver-screen fame in Brief Encounter, but the composer’s own life followed a much less glamorous path. The Pole had made a considerable amount of money from his compositions and performances at the start of the 20th century, but he invested it all in Polish, Russian and German bonds which, by the end of World War I, were worthless. In 1921 his friends, including composer Percy Grainger and pianist Wilhelm Backhaus, organised a benefit concert featuring 14 pianos played together to help the destitute and by now ill Moszkowski, raising $10,000. Sadly the money only reached him in 1925, shortly before his death the same year.
7. Erich Korngold
Moszkowski wasn’t alone in lacking shrewd investment sense. In 1931 Erich Korngold heard rumours that the large Darmstädter Bank was in trouble. ‘Ridiculous,’ he said, and hot-footed it to his nearest branch, pockets filled with the not inconsiderable earnings from his score for Die schöne Helena (a German-language version of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène). The bank had closed for the day, but Korngold convinced them to let him in to make the deposit that would show his confidence in it. The very next day the bank went bust.
Gluck was fairly well off for most of his life. But an unsuccessful deal in 1770 nearly cost him dear. Enthusiastic to see his new opera Paride ed Elena staged, and perhaps lured by the possibility of a quick profit, Gluck invested 30,000 gulden to become an ‘economic director’ of several Viennese theatres. One of his partners was the impresario Giuseppe d’Afflisio, who was also, as it turned out, a crook who ended up in prison. Profits from the theatrical venture proved poor and the German composer pulled out of the contract. While he didn’t lose any money, the debacle angered the aristocracy and the Viennese court.
9. Max Bruch
The problem with being a one-hit wonder is that you soon become a little tired of your hit. Or at least that’s how Max Bruch felt about his still popular G minor Violin Concerto, complaining that he’d written two even better violin concertos, but that no one wanted to play them. And just to rub it in further, Bruch had in fact sold all the rights for the 1866 work to the publisher August Cranz for a one-off payment. However many times the Concerto was played, he wouldn’t receive a jot. Not so wondrous.
Bruch Violin Concerto, Nicola Benedetti, BBC Symphony Orchestra
10. Jean Sibelius
Sibelius and Bruch might have sympathised with each other. While the Finnish composer’s reputation hinged on more than one work, it was one piece in particular that made a fortune – though sadly not for Sibelius. The Valse triste, his short melancholic waltz of 1904, was a runaway success. By the start of the First World War, it had run to 16 editions; by the 1930s, that number had reached 67. Sibelius’s contract, though, gave him only a tiny portion of the spoils – a royalty of 1.44 per cent – and none of the money from any of the countless arrangements that were made.
11. Claude Debussy
In truth, however, publishers are just as likely to help out their composers. Take Debussy, for example – another of those artists who had a taste for the luxurious life, spending far more than he earned. His publisher often came to his rescue: by 1912 Debussy was over 42,000 francs in debt to Durand, but by the time of the composer’s death in 1918 the total was just over 66,000 francs. Not that Durand was eager to hand out money willy-nilly – he once insisted that Debussy himself bought a score of his La mer to be sent over to Sir Henry Wood in England for a prospective performance.
12. Edward Elgar
Elgar was always worried about money. As a freelance composer, he relied on his music to pay the rent and often complained of being hard up. His poor negotiating skills did little to help his cause when it came to dealing with publishers. Perhaps, though, he was in part a victim of his times. A recent book by John Drysdale has shown how tough it was in Britain at the time for even the most famous of composers to make the sort of money writers or painters did. Where George Eliot was offered £10,000 for the serial rights to Romola, Elgar earned a measly guinea for the Enigma Variations. It wasn’t until the advent of the Performing Rights Society in 1914 that composers began to catch up.
Beethoven himself didn’t come up with the title for his piano caprice ‘Rage over a lost penny’ (Op. 129) but it does seem plausible that the moody composer might have understood the sentiment. And, in fact, he was no stranger to financially dubious dealings. Beethoven sold his Fourth Symphony to Count Oppersdorff after promising it to the publishers Breitkopf and Hartel; and promptly promised Oppersdorff the Fifth Symphony before selling it to the publishers. Beethoven also tried to negotiate his new works to be published at the same time in several countries so he could tell each publisher that they had the first edition.
14. Giacomo Puccini
Manon Lescaut was the opera that made Puccini’s fortune – after its successful premiere in 1893, and the similar popularity of Madam Butterfly, La bohème and Tosca, the Italian was able to build his own villa in the country and indulge his taste for fast cars, boats and hunting. But before Manon, Puccini lived something of a bohème-like life himself, as his letters full of comments about being hungry and in debt attest. ‘I’m not starving but I wouldn’t say I’m eating well,’ he wrote to his mother while a student in Milan. ‘I fill up with minestrone, thin broth – and still thinner broth.’
‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’ from La Bohème, Royal Opera House
Mozart was the most famous impoverished composer of them all. Or was he? While the tale of one of music’s geniuses ending up buried in nothing more than a pauper’s grave is legendary, research in the last decade or two has shown that we’ve most likely got it wrong. In fact, it was nothing out of the ordinary to be buried in a communal grave in that time and place. And Mozart’s earnings probably put him in the top five per cent of the population at the time – although that’s not to say he didn’t get into debt or live beyond his means…
Picture: David Lyttleton