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Since composers are frequently commissioned to write music by various organisations, it is presumed that they are paid for doing so. It is probably also to be assumed that in this ideal situation there would be more chances of the organisation, or individual having a natural desire to get their money’s worth by promoting as many performances as possible. In the first place though, composers have been motivated, even if not actually inspired, to create music because of an inner compulsion towards self-expression. The young musician who first feels the urge to create his or her music is not initially concerned about this activity being a money-making one. If that had been a prime concern he would, if he or she had a shrewd and realistic instinct about every-day economics, have opted instead to get a job as a paper-boy every morning, helping on a local market stall, or in some other rewarding occupation that it was obvious would be an ongoing social need. Only some time later, perhaps after a few small early successes as a composer, might he begin to wonder if writing original music could provide him with a lucrative earning potential. In this, of course, he would, for the most part, be absolutely wrong, building unlikely castles-in-the-air, or viewing the world through rose-coloured spectacles, or indulging in any other of the self-deluding contemplations the mind can lure one into. Elgar famously remarked about just such a young man who had said he wanted to be a composer: "God help him then?"

Once a degree of success as an amateur composer begins to be apparent there sometimes comes - perhaps as a flattering surprise - an invitation from someone or an organisation to write a new piece of music for which he or she would be paid a fee. There is no doubt about this: it is flattering since it assures one that other persons think his or her music is good enough to warrant encouragement.

However, the spark that is so often romantically called "inspiration" is an elusive quality that no one has ever really been able to understand how it ever comes about. On the face of it there could be experiences which might appear to have a bearing, directly or indirectly on how a creative mind responds to stimuli of all kinds, both intellectual and emotional, prosaic or romantic. It may be too much to claim, but it seems likely that the world’s finest, enduring and most appreciated musical creations have been inspired by some inexplicable experience known only to the composer, rather than having been ‘paid’ for, the urge to compose having been artificially stimulated by the promise of material reward and, it has to be admitted, the sense of prestige that might follow.

Despite this idealised view of how composers might best find their ideas, there is no shortage of examples of composers over the centuries having been commissioned to provide music of every possible kind. The court composers of classical times - Haydn notably - were in effect almost invariably commissioned to write music; it was not a casual or merely occasional occupation, but rather a full time employment in court service.

Many later examples could be thought of: the film composer on the staff of a production company for example.

On the face of it this would seem to imply that music being formally paid for would be much used and performed. Like any other commodity if one pays for it - a washing machine, a pair of shoes, or whatever else - one does not buy them merely to put away in a cupboard unused and ignored.

However, this idealised state of affairs does not generally work out in this way, though one might be forgiven for thinking that it should. Consider first of all the nature of a commission; If one commissions a builder to erect an extension to your house it is expected that he will follow strict guide lines as to exactly what you want from him. You do not leave it to him to erect whatever his fancy suggests, otherwise you might end up with a garage when what you really wanted was an extra bathroom or conservatory. But in effect when you commission a creative artist, a painter or a composer, you are to all intents and purposes giving him a free hand to create whatever he chooses. More often than not of course, a commissioner will stipulate that he would like a new string quartet, a song-cycle or a large-scale symphony; perhaps a portrait of a specific individual, or the view of a favourite landscape. In cases like this the artist has some fairly clear idea of what he is being asked to create. It would be unappreciated were he, being asked for a wind quintet, finally to say: "oh, I thought you’d like a 'cello sonata instead, so here it is?" But in essence, within fairly specific guidelines he knows what is required of him. Even being aware of this just as often brings total disappointment and disapproval to the commissioner. In the late 1950s or maybe the early 1960s, a grateful House of Commons commissioned a portrait of Winston Churchill. Its unveiling ceremony brought shock-waves of horror when it was at last revealed. There was consternation, albeit politely suppressed, but a few years later, after Churchill’s death, his widow is said to have had this very expensively commissioned painting destroyed.

This not infrequently happens with new commissions in music. For the most part the situation is accepted and maybe a formal "first performance" is politely promoted. Such happenings are tolerantly regarded as experiments that are worth taking a risk with; "Let’s see what the composer comes up with" seems to be the philosophy. Sometimes the results are a memorable success, such as Stravinsky’s "Symphony of Psalms" (dedicated by the composer in the rather incongruous phrase: "To the Glory of God and in honour of the Boston Symphony Orchestra" or some such wording). This is certainly a commissioned work that has continued to be widely performed.

It is not invariably so. Furthermore it has to be mentioned that not a few commissions awarded by august funding organisations, having been generously paid for, have not in the end resulted in any performance at all! It is as if to say; "we provide the monetary stimulus, but it is up to the composer to find a performance himself".

What about ‘pure’ inspiration then? The music that a composer feels just has to be written, not on account of filthy lucre, but because there is an inner compulsion to express something that he yearns to share with others? Does this stand a better or lesser chance of staying in the repertoire than a work that is artificially stimulated?

There is no way of predicting how a musical work, once having been performed, will fare in the future. Sir Thomas Beecham, that great British conductor of shrewd and at times caustic wit, once remarked that the only chance a new British work might have of being heard more than once, was for it to have its first performance take place in the Royal Albert Hall, where the infamous echo would ensure it being heard at least twice!

Unhappily there has always remained a grain of truth in this remark. In the days before broadcasting performances did depend on an actual live concert being promoted. Recordings, so crude at the time, could hardly be taken seriously, and only the most familiar music - the classics, operatic excerpts and overtly popular music - managed to get on old-fashioned discs. "New" music of any serious pretension hardly got a look in. Similarly newer music rarely achieved more than a first or second live performance unless it managed to get its message over to a generally suspicious, doubting and unadventurous audience at the very first performance. A damning review of a first performance could kill it immediately.

On balance it might be that there is no real difference whether a new and therefore totally unknown work has been the result of pure, innocent inspiration or whether it has been mollycoddled into existence by having been championed by an influential promoting body. Some popular music has been artificially boosted by shrewd marketing, but this has not generally been the case with ‘serious’ music.

Whether it enjoys a long concert life does not in the end, depend at all on whether it has been generously commissioned or has had to struggle into public recognition as best it can. The only thing that matters is whether it comes to be regarded as music that appeals or not.

Arthur Butterworth


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