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"Post-Humorous Works," Music Magazine

by Michael Colgrass

I have always been fascinated at how a composer's value escalates with his death. I can't remember a composer ever saying he felt he was paid adequately for a composition, but even a mediocre composer will easily be paid more than he deserves when he's no longer around. Take for example a relatively insignificant figure like Russian composer Vassili Kalinnikov, who was a contemporary of Rachmaninoff's. When Rachmaninoff took Kalinnikov's music to a publisher to obtain funds for the deceased composer's widow, the publisher (Jurgenson) said: "Don't imagine that I pay this tremendous sum without a definite reason; I pay it because the death of the composer has multiplied the value of his works by ten." (A smooth way of telling the living Rachmaninoff not to expect the same deal.)

I realize it is considered uncouth for a composer to discuss mere money, but since we must pay our way through life like everyone else III give you an insight into the comparatively rare profession of the symphonic composer. A "good" commission from a major symphony orchestra pays normally around $1000 a minute for a major work, which may or may not include copying costs. The work will average some twenty minutes in length will take about a year to write. Royalties from all of the works performed of a successful composer in a single year might add up to as much as $10,000 more. Add to the above amounts some lectures at $500 each and appearances conducting his music and we might come to a total of $35,000 per year - if he manages to receive one of those orchestral commissions every year, which is unusual. These figures would represent the income for a major composer doing very well indeed. According to the organization Meet The Composer in New York, the average income for composers is less than $1000 per year. The composer therefore generally makes his living by teaching.

The income of those who write music cannot compare with the income of those who perform it. Yearly income for conductors of major orchestras, including guest conducting and recordings, can range from $100,000 to $500,000, and major soloists are paid as much as $25,000 for a single performance!

Beethoven expressed his frustration at this dilemma in a letter to Franz Anton Hoffmeister, dated 15 January 1801: "There should be a single Art Exchange in the world to which the artist would simply send his works and be given in return as much as he needs. As it is, one has to be half merchant on top of everything else, and how badly one goes about it." Of course, Beethoven now makes a great deal of money; the trouble is, he's no longer here to enjoy it.

So what, you might ask, is the solution? Let me offer a facetious one: that the composer be alive and dead at the same time! Impossible? Let's consider the idea for a moment. Let's say you're a composer and you want to reap the benefits of your death - while remaining alive, of course! The first thing you do is disappear, leaving behind a few tantalizing clues to stimulate people's imaginations - like a message scrawled on a top page of your latest manuscript saying: "My life is a failure." The last few bars of music could be written in a shaky hand trailing off the edge of the page. Your photo would appear in the press along with: "Has anyone seen this man?" and the evening news might show search parties scanning wooded areas near your last known residence adding a sense of ominousness to your disappearance.

The aura of mystery surrounding your name would ignite much gossip in the music world, and as the stories concluded that you were "missing and presumed dead," symphony orchestras and opera companies would clamor for works of this "much neglected composer" - especially works as yet unperformed, because a world premiere by a dead composer is a real coup.

In order to avoid any identity crisis, you might imitate members of the underworld by visiting a cemetery in a distant town and finding a gravestone with the name of a person whose age, sex, race, etc., closely matched yours. Using this new name you would apply to the federal government for a birth certificate, which the authorities customarily grant without question by mail. As a new and different person you may apply for credit cards, food stamps, relief checks and a checking account in your new name, which would provide you with the income to tide you over until the royalties start rolling in. Then you find a nice, quiet place and settle down to write as many posthumous works as possible, which you would plant at strategic points around the country to be "discovered." You might even plant intriguing bits of information about yourself to be found by the authorities - like a packet of unmailed letters to a mysterious unnamed woman, revealing fascinating romantic tidbits or evidence that would point to eccentric personal habits. This information about you would attract writers and articles would begin to appear in the Sunday supplements.

When your success begins to peak, you play your trump card: A return to life! Any composer can die, but how many have come back from the dead? Fame is now yours forever. International news magazines would run cover stories; TV talk shows would hound you for appearances; and offers from orchestras for commissions and guest conducting would abound at astronomical fees. Lawsuits might arise accusing you of fraud, but you would be in the clear because no crime had been committed (except for your false identity, which you've since burned). What's wrong with your having gone into seclusion to compose? And the fact that you failed to inform your friends and loved ones would simply be attributed to your "lack of contact with reality" - just an ordinary state for a composer.

Enough of these flights of fancy! In all seriousness, I am very concerned, especially for the younger composers, who feel generally unwanted and see the university - or writing jingles for television - as their only financial refuge. I think those with a genuine creative gift have the right to expect a public that cares and a music profession that will support them. When a composer can make at least as much money in a year for writing a symphony as did the secretary who typed the letter informing him or her of the commission, then I'll say we're beginning to get somewhere.

As a post script to my friends: do not grieve on the day I die. I might be basking on a beach in the Bahamas (no taxes down there) between visits to my numbered accounts in Switzerland. Eat your heart out Ozawa - you won't make a dime more after you die!

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