"Work thou for pleasure," poet Kenyon Cox told artists at the turn of the century. Starve if necessary because, "Who works for glory misses oft the goal; who works for money coins his very soul ."
THOSE WHO WRITE music nowadays are bound to find that message bitterly ironic. Composers are obliged to work for their own pleasure. Not only are they rarely paid, but writing music costs them money.
Consider the following:
When Robert Parris attempted to have his out-of-print composition, "The Book of Imaginary Beings," re-recorded, he offered a record company free use of his valuable master tape. Even then, cost of the reprinting was $2,500. Parris paid half.
After writing a concerto for piano and orchestra, the composer Russell Woollen was delighted to find a symphony orchestra willing to give the work its premiere. Woollen paid $1,200 to have the orchestral parts copied from his master score. His total fee was $40 -- as a performer. He played the piano part.
When Thomas Beveridge's cantata, "Once," written in memory of Martin Luther King, was recorded with a grant from the Ford Foundation, the project ran out of money before anyone could be hired to act as narrator. "I volunteered my services, since they had to have someone who would do it for nothing," the composer said. No one bothered to mention the name of the narrator on the record jacket.
"The composer," says Steve Burton, perhaps Washington's most financially successful composer, "is always the last to get paid."
This dilemma probably had its origin in the 19th century. It was then, perhaps, that music became exalted beyond the mortal concerns of pecuniary advantage. Samuel Johnson's blunt advice from the 18th century, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," became, a hundred years later, transformed into the concept that artists should be happy to "paint, or sing, or carve/The thing thou lovest, though the body starve...." What was mere money compared to the immortality that would be theirs, once they were securely dead?
"Beethoven had $9,000 in the bank when he died, and in 1827 that was a lot of money," Burton says. "Mozart lived in high style.
"Yet we still cling to the notion that a composer should be willing to starve. You wouldn't ask a violinist to play for free, but somehow it's an honor to write for nothing. We composers have to take a stand. We are human and we have to eat."
For the purposes of this discussion, "composers" does not denote one who hires out his talent for commercial films, TV shows or documentaries, or the superstar whose success is assured.
It means one under a compelling urge to write music loosely described as "serious" or "classical" and who makes his living elsewhere: as a college professor, a plumber, an accountant, a cab driver or a pianist.
Washington has more than its share, including Leonardo Balada, Ulf Grahn, Douglas Major, Jerzy Sapieyevski, Robert Shafer, Julia Stilman, Richard Bales, Dr. Lawrence Moss of the University of Maryland and Emerson Meyers.
Burton, who teaches at George Mason University, had his first opera, "The Duchess of Malfi," performed at Wolf Trap Farm Park last summer, and has received commissions and performances from the Chicago Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the National Symphony, among many others. He received $30,000 in Bicentennial commissions.
Not surprisingly, Burton is insistent upon being paid for a new work, however small the fee. Many other local composers are likely to consider a performance as payment enough.
Norman Scribner, founder-conductor of the Choral Arts Society, and a composer of many anthems and choral works, says, "The financial problems of the composer are infinitely complex but basically simple: the art of the composer is very hard to market. The only measure is, how well does something sell? We are below the marketable range in a public commercial sense."
Scribner acknowledges that the avantgarte music of the last quarter century has been persistently rejected by mass audiences, and that musicians and singers have found it almost impossible to perform. Record companies, realizing that potential sales were small, refused to record without a handsome financial guarantee, either from the composer himself or a foundation; the "serious" recording company becoming, in effect, a vanity press.
Music publishers, the traditional mainstay of the composer, faced problems of their own. As the costs of engraving plates -- traditionally the preferred method of publishing -- escalated, the audience was disappearing. Then came catastrophe -- the advent of the copying machine. Laws to prevent copyrighted music from being reproduced are almost unenforceable, and composers widely believe that choral groups which once bought 39 copies of their anthem, now buy a single copy and photostat the other 38. This lack of sales has its predictable results on the composer's royalties and the publisher's willingness to take a chance on an unknown.
The commissioning of works has been the composer's main lifeline, although, once delivered, said composer is unlikely to realize another penny for his work. Symphony orchestras and other performing groups seldom pay a performance fee, although they may pay about $50 for the rental of the orchestral parts. Commissions have not kept pace with inflation or the rising cost of having parts copied.
Thomas Beveridge, who has written over 300 compositions, including two symphonies, says that "Unless the commissioning group pays to have the parts copied -- and most are reluctant -- the composer either has to do the copywork himself or pay someone else to do it. However, at the present fee of about $1,000 a commission and $1,500 for a professional copyist, he is bound to lose money unless he does it himself."
If, then, composers are doomed to lose money, how do they survive? Russell Woollen, who has taught at a number of universities and has acted as pianist for the National Symphony for many years, said, "It never occurred to me. That was my artistic life and I earned my living as a professor and that was that."
Woollen also had two patrons: Mr. and Mrs. Gregory Smith. "We got to know each other," he said. "They wanted an introduction to the musical life of Washington, which I was happy to provide, and I needed some way to pay for the endless copywork which kept coming up. They paid for all of it. That was an enchanting four years."
Then, one day, the Smiths returned to New York, separated from each other, took up other interests and stopped being patrons of Russell Woollen.
"I received an official letter from his lawyer saying that it was costing his estate too much money. That was a very traumatic day in my life. I remember calling my mother and father in Connecticut and I must have sounded terrible because my father wrote me a letter. It was the only letter I ever received from him."
Woollen has just had his seven-part cantata, "In Martyrum Memoriam," performed by the Chicago Symphony, a performance which he half-jokingly says cost him $2,000 (to take his family there for the opening). Woollen has another major performance coming up in April, when Robert Shafer will direct the Oratorio Society of Washington in the world premiere of Woollen's Symphony No. 2 at the Kennedy Center.
The economics of this event: Woollen wrote the symphony in honor of Shafer, a young musician whom he much admires. Shafer, who is director at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, decided to give the work its premiere there and had already found the necessary $10,000-$12,000 in foundation money, when a wealthy patron of music in Washington, known for her generosity, asked whether the work could be adequately heard at the National Shrine.
When Woollen conceded that parts of it would not, because of the echoes in the building, that lady offered a further $8,000 to $10,000 to have the work performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Total cost? Something like $23,000.
What will be the composer's fee? Woollen said, "I haven't even inquired. I expect, about $100."
Like Woollen, Robert Parris, who is head of the department of theory and composition at George Washington University, has supported his composing habit by teaching. Unlike Woollen, who has tended to dismiss the price required, Parris is ruefully aware of the almost insuperable obstacles which prevent the composer from being heard by a wide audience.
Parris points out that, in order to have his work recorded, the composer must pay his musicians union scale, and that this is expensive enough to keep even modestly scored works from being heard, let alone a symphony. After Parris found an "angel" for his work "The Book of Imaginary Beings" -- in this case, a committee of his own university's graduate school -- and shopped around for a recording company, and had the piece recorded, and paid the extra fee required for adequate rehearsal time, Parris found out that the saga had not ended.
"The recording company kept it in the catalogue for a year, didn't tell me that they were dropping my record, and then fished around for an institution to which they could donate the unsold records as a tax dodge."
After much sleuthing Parris learned that 800 copies of his record had been donated to the Corcoran School of Art and were in the basement of that august building. Parris then began a war of nerves to get the records.
The school was at first not willing to part with the cache, but finally Parris was told, "Come and get them." The records, packed in their original boxes, are now stacked neatly in one of his cupboards.
The work has since been reprinted by another company, and last year's sale, according to Parris' royalty statement, was 36 copies. At 10 cents a record, which is the composer's royalty, Parris has received so far: $3.06.
The question of royalties can make composers speechless with rage. Burton, who managed to acquire one of the few profitable publishing contracts, is preparing a lawsuit -- which he declines to discuss. Beveridge remembers one publisher he hadn't heard from for three or four years. He happened to know that a festival, involving 1,000 girls, was taking place in Oklahoma, and that they were all buying copies of a Beveridge madrigal which the same publisher had printed. Beveridge wrote a letter remarking on this happy state of affairs and, in due course, received his first substantial royalty statement from said publishing firm.
The whole subject of publishing contracts is a sore one, since most composers, while supposedly "selling" their work, receive no advance royalties. Instead, for the privilege of acquiring the copyright to the work, a publisher will grant the composer a 10 percent royalty on the wholesale price. (In contrast, most book contracts pay a percentage of the retail price.) Supposing that an anthem sells for 50 cents retail, this means about 2 1/2 cents a copy for the composer.
Some composers have given up trying to get royalties from publishing works and are selling the work themselves.
Woollen says, "I had four publishers who promised everything and did nothing. I would get enough royalties for one dinner a year -- for one person.
"Then three of my publishers went out of business and one of them wrote to say that they would dump the remaining copies of my work in the garbage, or mail them to me at my expense. So I went into the music business. I have a store in my studio and you'd be surprised how many copies I sell." Woollen has felt much better about it ever since he learned that Handel did exactly the same thing from his house in London.
Like Washington's older composers, Jeffrey Mumford has been quick to learn the lesson that, if he wants to be heard, a composer will have to help create the opportunities himself. Shortly after he moved to Cleveland Park, Mumford met Lou Stovall, the Washington printmaker, and told him about his dream of having a demonstration tape made of a new work which he had written for the New York String Quartet.
To pay union and studio fees for a 13-to 14-minute tape, plus copying and mailing costs, would cost about $1,500.Mumford's next plan is to submit the tape for a possible grant by the Rockefeller Fund for Music. Mumford's budget is $1,997.85: the cost of having his work appear on one side of a record.
Stovall suggested a benefit concert to raise money for the master taping, and became the major organizer.The result was "200 Years of Classical Music," held recently at the Museum of African Art. Warren Robbins, director of the museum, said that the exact sum raised is not yet known but that it will go "a good part of the way" to pay for the tape.
Mumford, who has a bachelor of fine arts from the University of California at Irvine, has also received scholarships to the Aspen School of Music. His music has won several prizes and has already had a number of performances.-To make ends meet, Mumford is teaching piano, working on small commissions and, "I take out loans occasionally." As for being a composer, he says jokingly, "I knew the job was dangerous when I took it...."
Mumford continued, "I want to be performed and heard. I think I have something to say. I think I write good music. And so -- I'll just continue writing all the time." How will he survive? "Any way I have to."
Some composers, Burton among them, believe that the plight of the contemporary composer is a result of the direction modern music has taken. As it rejected the 19th-century Romantic esthetic and replaced it with music which was more intellectually satisfying than emotionally moving, many people, including Christopher Kendall -- leader of the Twentieth Century Consort, a contemporary Washington music group -- think that music needlessly alienated its audiences.
Perhaps when the composer became just a composer and was no longer directly involved with the performance, he lost contact with his audience and subsequently lost their interest. Some would like to see composers return to their earlier involvement with the performance.
A five-year-old program, "Meet the Composer," which began in New York and now hopes to become nationwide, has had enormous success in doing just that. In addition, Mary MacArthur, who directs "The Kitchen," an arts center in New York with a distinguished reputation for performing new music, says that the majority of composers there perform their own work.
Despite the minimal opportunities and the lack of financial reward, whether or not to compose does not seem to be the issue. Ultimately, composers have to write. Scribner said, "I sent a copy of my choral work, 'The Nativity,' to a publisher which took a year to turn me down. The reply was, 'Choral conductors like yourself won't take a chance on new music.'
"That turn-down didn't bother me, whereas I can see that the normal career-oriented person might have been devastated by it. Ultimately, it's what I think of my own work that sticks with me...."
Parris goes on writing because, "I found out 35 years ago that if I didn't write for weeks, I got slowly depressed. It's the reason why I am here. I know perfectly well I am not Mozart. I know perfectly well I am pretty good."
Isn't it difficult to write something, knowing that no one may ever hear it? "You can't possibly feel that way," Parris said, "or else you would never write at all." CAPTION: Picture 1, By Ken Heyma, (c) 1968; used by permission of Viking Press; Picture 2, Robert Parris: He fought a war of nerves. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Thomas Beveridge: "They had to have someone do it for nothing." By Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post; Picture 4, Steve Burton: "We are human and we have to eat." By William T. Haroutounian;
Photo on Page H1 from "The Private World of Leonard Bernstein" by John Gruen, taken by Ken Heyma -- (c) 1968 in all countries of the International copyright union by the Ridge Press, Inc., and Viking Press, Inc. Photo used by permission of Viking Press.