An article from the Bell Magazine in July 1954 in which composer Frederick May writes about the role of the composer in society.
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A composer is simply somebody who has been gifted with the mysterious ability to record his imaginative impressions and experiences in terms of musical sound, and to do this he must make use of the various signs and symbols that go to make up what is known as "notation," the language common to all musicians. He will also have to submit himself to a thorough grounding in the intricacies of harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, so that he may have at his command a thoroughly serviceable technique. Indeed, if he feels he has anything worthwhile to say, he will want to do all this and more, for no truly creative artist would wish to incur the reproach of not taking his lifework with sufficient seriousness. Of course, those who have no touch at all of that divine fire, which Beethoven recognised so clearly in Schubert, are all soon forgotten anyway, and naturally they are in the vast majority. In all times and places there are, however, in each generation, just a few who have the gift of original creation, and who are capable of building up a heritage for succeeding ages. But, unfortunately, the work of many such artists never reaches full fruition, sometimes because they are born out of their period, so that they never succeed in coming to terms with the contemporary scene, and conditions of life around them, and sometimes because they are sacrificed in one of those periodic holocausts which appear to be so necessary for the preservation of civilisation. One might take as examples of composers born out of their time, Peter Warlock, a true Elizabethan if ever there was one, and Henry Purcell, the great Caroline composer who, however, never seemed fully at ease in all the flux and change that was affecting music during his lifetime.
As to artists cut off before their prime by the struggles of society with itself, Wilfred Owen, the poet, and George Butterworth, the composer, both of whom were killed in the first World War, stand forth as supreme examples. Both of these men had genius, and both were in the full spring-tide of promise and, although there was no conscription in force in those days to hurl them into Eternity, the moral compulsion was undoubtedly severe. It is, of course, much to be desired that the debates now taking place at high levels, will finally succeed in abolishing war, or the threat of it, but even if this can be brought about there still will remain certain problems which the composer and society must, between them, face and solve together, if we want to make certain that the composer will be able to give us the best work of which he is capable.
In former times there were two main possible sources of income for a composer, namely princes, rich patrons and the like, and the Church. Bach benefited from both of these at different periods of his life, and Josef Haydn became prosperous in the service of the Esterhazy family. But things did not always work out so smoothly, and some of the greatest composers of Haydn's period, such as Mozart and, a little later, Schubert, had an extremely rough passage through the world. It is on record that Mozart was forced, more than once, to borrow money, and ill-health, stimulated by poverty, dragged both these immortals down to a tragically early death. While the Church still, to some degree, extends her patronage to composers, offering them a regular income if they will serve her in the organ loft, the prince or rich patron no longer fulfills his ancient role, nor has he done so for a long time past, for the first World War reduced his power and influence to negligible proportions. Obviously, then, a vacuum had been created for somebody or something to fill, and the functions of the prince or duke, interested in music and anxious to encourage it, have largely been taken over by the great broadcasting corporations, the film companies and, in certain totalitarian countries, by the state itself. The unprecedented growth of state and semi-state patronage over the past 30 years or so has brought with it many blessings, but also certain insidious dangers.
If one person transfers money to another, either as a loan, as a gift, or as payment for work done, it inevitably places the giver in a special relationship with the recipient. In the case of a loan he may, should the necessity arise, apply varying degrees of pressure, ranging from gentle persuasion to dire threats, while in the case of payment for work done he will have the right to specify the kind of work he wants, to circumscribe his employee's freedom of action, and to withhold future favours from him should he fail to provide what has been required of him. So that when a broadcasting corporation or a film company engage a composer to do a job of work for them they have him, to a very large extent, at their mercy.
Personally, I believe it does a composer no harm to submit himself to such discipline from time to time and to work, as it were, to order. Had Delius and Bax, two composers whom I greatly admire, done so they might have been cured of a tendency towards aimless rambling which mars certain of their works ; of course these two gentlemen were, luckily for themselves, people of leisure, one because he married a lady with means, and the other because he was left comfortably off by his family. But there are two obvious dangers which beset the path of a composer who writes consistently for the films ; the first is that his writing will degenerate into backwork, so that the fount of his inspiration will be poisoned at its source, and the second is that even his purely original work will begin to sound like incidental music for films. The quickening tempo of life and the relentless commercialism, which are two such marked features of our contemporary world, have exerted a baleful influence over more than one living composer. There are at least two I have in mind who, especially in their later works, seem too often to be asking themselves "have I given my music sufficient zip and played tricks clever enough to secure the publicity headlines to which I have rightly become accustomed?" rather than "have I tried to create something beautiful according to the light which has been given to me?" To withdraw completely into an ivory tower is both bad for one's art and also, except for a lucky few, quite impracticable, but to become too much absorbed in the buying and selling of the market-place may have, in the long run, an even more fatal effect. The problems of Sibelius were solved for him in an ideal manner by the government of Finland which, while he was still a comparatively young man, granted him an annuity on the understanding that he would faithfully follow his chosen career as a composer. How well he honoured his side of the compact is known to all, and his art is now one of the chief glories of his native land, where his sixtieth, seventieth and eightieth birthdays were celebrated as national festivals.
In our own country things have improved quite notably within the past few years, and it was very necessary that they should, for they could not well have been worse. Nowadays, Radio Eireann awards prizes annually to Irish composers without too many strings attached, and arrangements of Irish Airs for orchestra and for choir are paid for as well. I believe myself, however, that more stress, should be laid on the value of original work as such ; for instance, a composer might feel a compulsive desire to write a work that would not fall into the category of music for which prizes were being offered at that particular time. Supposing that, in a certain year, the Carolan Prize was offered for a 'Cello Concerto ; now, there might be a composer who, though unable to produce a satisfactory concerto with its stereotyped three movements, could compose a Rhapsody for 'cello and orchestra, possessing the terrifying grandeur of Bloch's Schelomo. Admittedly, such a thing is not very likely to occur, but if it did, surely it would be unfair that the composer's splendid effort should go unrewarded just because he was unable to produce music according to specification.
Another source of encouragement to composers in Ireland is the emergence of An Tostal, the annual festival which has infused our national life with some much needed colour and gaiety, as well as providing material for controversy upon a matter which has, happily, little to do with music and which is still very much a live issue. In any case, An Tostal has done well in sponsoring a series of Chamber Music Concerts that will help to fill a regrettable gap in our musical life, for the R.D.S. Concerts, although admirable in themselves, are only for the select few, in fact only for people with some means who live within easy reach of Ballsbridge. As is well known, the Society has never permitted these concerts to be relayed, nor have they even allowed their visiting artists to broadcast from Dublin during the period of their sojourn in Ireland. Some relaxation of these over-rigid rules, and a little encouragement, however modest, for Irish composers, would be welcomed by many.
But taken by and large, it must be gladly acknowledged that the outlook for composers in Ireland at the present time is far from unfavourable. Society has at length become aware of their existence and wants, I think, to do its best for them.
The main problem facing the composer in Ireland, is, as I see it, how to get the time and the freedom from outside worries and preoccupations to do his creative work properly without jettisoning the various other odd jobs which he must see after if he is to earn what is regarded as a reasonable living.
This is a problem which each of them must tackle and solve in his own way, but all must be aware that their struggles are being followed with an increasing measure of sympathy, understanding and goodwill and that, in addition to Radio Eireann, there are other bodies like An Tostal and the Music Association of Ireland who are pledged to do their best for them. And it is for the composer himself to try and arrange his life so that somehow, sometime he may, during his span on earth, say what he knows he has it in him to say, relapsing neither into cynicism nor despair ; and thus, in spite of all imperfections and apparent failures, life and art may ultimately merge and fuse together into a perfect, and rounded whole.