If there was a survey asking people to know the composer they’re most familiar with, most people would likely name either Beethoven or Mozart. The fact is that there are composers from all over the world writing in this genre every single day. But their role has certainly evolved over time. Let’s face it, much of the music performed at classical concerts was composed centuries ago by composers whose lives were very different than of the composers around today. Being a composer today is a versatile and varied career that can include anything from community projects to concert and opera music. Composing can be rewarding, enriching, and challenging. But how has their role changed throughout the course of history?
The very first classical composers were employed by either the monarchy, the church, or a rich aristocrat who assumed the role of their patron. Being a patron meant that the individual employed the composer privately, giving them a wage, but, at the same time, little by way of creativity, as it was the composer’s the job to write whatever the patron wanted. Shortly before the 19th century, society was evolving. Composers were taking a more independent approach in the pursuit of their careers, selling and marketing their work. Patronage remained commonplace, but composers were allowed more creative freedom and were now being recognised as artists in their own right.
The reputation of the composer grew in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the era’s finest composers were well-known virtuoso performers who delivered international concert tours. For example, Franz Liszt was a bona fide celebrity in his day. Long before the world’s first pop star, the term ‘Lisztomania’ was uttered in 1844 as a way of describing his devoted fans. His virtuoso piano performances gave him recognition throughout Europe.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more and more diverse opportunities for composers began to open up. The introduction of cinema and radio granted the opportunity to write music for new audiences and mediums, and provided a new source of income. Seeking stability, composers accepted positions at conservatories and universities. They were given commissions from independent sources such as public bodies, foundations, and trusts. This new financial security enabled them to express more creative freedom and have the opportunity to try more subversive ideas and take risks. By 1926, a composer by the name of Arnold Schoenberg turned his back on conventional harmony, opening up vast possibilities for young composers to experiment with new sounds.
Late 20th century
Music became more experimental in the mid-20th century. Composers disagreed on where contemporary music should go and would meet to talk about artistic ideas. Various schools of thought appeared with vastly different styles. At the same time, composers were showcasing their diverse talents, writing everything from film and television music to contemporary opera. Composers of all kinds were achieving great success in their respective genres, such as new-classical expert Francis Poulenc and experimental artist John Cage.