As we approach the 128th anniversary of Labor Day becoming a national holiday, I started to think about how many composers we wouldn’t know today if they hadn’t followed their hearts. So many of them were ordered by their fathers, or ill health, or financial circumstances, or even the constructs of society, to forget about having careers in music and “get real jobs” instead. And so many of them were miserable as a result. Luckily, some broke free of their non-music careers. Here are a few of their stories:
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was given music lessons by his musician-father, Giovanni Battista Vivaldi, from when he was a young child. Due to ill health, which modern medical researchers now suggest could have been caused by severe asthma (he was a violin virtuoso, but couldn’t ever produce enough air to play wind instruments), the teenaged Antonio gave up his dream of becoming a musician and studied for the priesthood, instead. He gained the nickname, “The Red Priest,” because of his red hair. He served as a priest for only about one year, however, before turning back to music.
The story gets a bit muddy here. Some accounts say he couldn’t concentrate on saying the Mass because a musical phrase would jump into his head and he’d just leave the altar mid-Mass to write it down! Other stories emphasize that the mysterious illness, which included a tightening of the chest, made him too weak to finish saying a Mass completely. He was given special dispensation from having to say Mass as part of his priestly duties, and instead became a music teacher for the girls at a Church-run orphanage in his native Venice. Boys would leave the school around age 15 after learning a trade, but the orphanage included musical instrument training so the girls would learn desirable skills to become governesses.
Vivaldi is credited with writing over 600 concertos, (over 500 of which have been found so far), and a number of them were pieces he wrote to highlight the musical abilities of his students. Wealthy patrons of the orphanage would be invited to school recitals and hire governesses for their children based on the girls’ musical talents. In his spare time, Vivaldi also accepted commissions from royalty and wealthy patrons. He eventually moved to Vienna, concentrating on staging his own operas. He died there in 1741.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach. Although Emanuel had been given music lessons by his dad and had planned to follow in his father’s musical footsteps, it was his father who advised him to pursue a law degree at the University of Leipzig rather than music, so that he wouldn’t be treated as a servant once he got out into the working world. Emanuel studied law, philosophy and theology, and obtained his law degree in 1738, but never practiced. Instead, within months after graduation, he was hired in the service of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, later Frederick the Great. He became a member of the royal orchestra, thus launching his performing and composing career.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) showed musical talent from as young as five when his older brother started giving him piano lessons, and his father, a local school master, gave him violin lessons. Schubert quickly outgrew their abilities. His father sought out music lessons for him from a local church organist and choir master. Antonio Salieri, then the leading musician in Vienna, became aware of the young man’s talent and took over teaching. It was clear that under Salieri’s tutelage, Schubert’s compositional and instrumental abilities flourished. He wanted nothing else but to be a professional musician.
His father, however, had other plans. Franz was sent to a one-year course to become a teacher, and then went to work for his father at his school. By all accounts, Schubert was miserable being a teacher, but continued giving music lessons to make some money, and composed on his own time. He was a prolific composer and his name started to be mentioned in the press. He won a position as a music teacher to the children of Count Esterhazy, which provided him with both more money and more time to compose. He moved out of his father’s house eventually and devoted himself to his music. He spent the next 7 or 8 years pursuing his music career, as he died young, at only 31.
Alexander Borodin (1833-1837) was born the illegitimate son of a married 25-year old woman and a wealthy older man. Societal dictates of the day resulted in the father not acknowledging the son, but instead registering him as the child of one of his serfs, named Borodin. When Alexander was seven his biological father emancipated him from serfdom and provided for the boy and his mother with a house and private tutors, and when he was 17, he enrolled in the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy to become a doctor. One can imagine how important it was to him to shed the shame of “illegitimacy” and to “become somebody.” He served a year as a military surgeon, and then went on to do advanced study in the sciences. He returned to the medical college as a professor of chemistry and spent the rest of his career in teaching and research there. He was highly regarded as a medical chemist and always considered that his actual career, while music became an avocation. In fact, he didn’t even begin music lessons until age 29 when he began studying composition with Mily Balakirev. He became an accomplished cellist, and a respected composer of symphonies, chamber music, and opera.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) It is amazing to think that the composer who gave us The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets, plus operas, symphonies and piano and violin concertos, almost had no music career at all. Like Schubert, he was given piano lessons starting at age five and within three years he was reading music at his teacher’s level. Despite his love for music, however, Tchaikovsky’s parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, with the hopes that he would be trained for a civil service job. Musicians at the time in Imperial Russia were considered no better than peasants, and his parents hoped a civil service career would elevate his status. Upon graduation he started his civil service career in the Justice Department, a position he held for three years. During that time, however, he continued to take music lessons, compose and make connections in the music industry. It was his private pursuit of music that eventually won him enough notice that he could devote his full attention to it, and a career was born.
Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) was given music lessons by his school teacher, shortly after beginning primary school. Even at six years old he showed his musical talents and the teacher encouraged his father, an innkeeper and butcher, to let the boy move forward with music lessons. His father eventually agreed that young Antonin could pursue a music career, but only as an organist, believing that there would be work for him in area churches and that he could earn a living. Dvorak played in a local orchestra, gave piano lessons (which is how he met his wife), and composed on his own time, all while he helping his father run the inn and butcher shop. It wasn’t until 1876 (at age 35) when he won the composition competition known as the Austrian Prize, that his composing career was launched full-time.
Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944) was born into a musical family, and was given her first piano lessons by her mother. As early as age ten, she was assessed by a leading music teacher at the Paris Conservatory and approved for study there, but her father forbade it. He said that a music career was improper for a girl of their social class, whose “job” would have essentially been to get married. She was allowed private lessons, however, and to her father’s dismay, she excelled at them, and so her real passion, and career, was born.
At one point she brought some of her compositions to Ambroise Thomas, the leading French opera composer of the day, and asked him for his opinion. While it seems like a backhanded compliment to our 21st century sensibilities, his declaration that “This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman,” was seen as a great compliment. She often toured in France and England, and did a 12-city concert tour of the U.S., but only performed her own music, and always to high acclaim. In 1913 she received the title “Chevalier” from the French Legion of Honor, the first for a female composer.
These are the brief stories of only eight composers. We will never know how many other talented and brilliant composers never “made it” to their dream careers, nor what beautiful music they might have written, but for opportunity, finances, or family and societal expectations. The need to “get a job” is real, but so is the need to follow one’s heart. As we approach Labor Day 2022, I offer a wish and a prayer that all those with the talent to pursue a music career be able to do so in a way that’s meaningful and fulfilling to them.
CODA: Richard Lewis, a member of the singing group, The Silhouettes, wrote “Get A Job” in the 1950s. He said: “When I was in the service…and didn’t come home and go to work, my mother said ‘Get a job’ and basically that’s where the song came from.“ Their first song became a No 1 hit!
A couple of fun facts about it: the song was featured in a number of movies, including American Graffiti, Trading Places, Stand By Me, and Good Morning, Vietnam; and the group Sha-Na-Na said they took their name from the “Sha na na na, sha na na na na” in the song!
Happy Labor Day!