Talk to techno-utopians and well-meaning libertarians about the crisis in culture today – the increasing demand for musicians, artists, and scribes to work for free or almost nothing – and you’ll hear a cheery solution. Patronage! If everything else that used to help creatives get paid has fallen through, what about the tribe of noble rich people – especially those groovy, socially progressive folks in Silicon Valley who just love music and culture — dialing it up directly?
The composer Joseph Haydn invented the symphony and the string quartet. The bulk of his career was spent with the House of Esterhazy, where he wore livery and dined with the servants. Monteverdi wrote the most important early opera, “L’Orfeo”; when he left royal service in Lombardy after two decades of labor, he had about enough money to buy himself lunch. Velasquez was responsible for painting the portrait of Spain’s King Philip IV as well as overseeing the royal janitors.
Musicians and artists who left their posts could be thrown into prison.
Now, we could see the moguls in Silicon Valley loving to have an artist or jester on a string. Some of their culture love may be sincere. “Musicians, comedians, writers,” a character in Dave Eggers’s Silicon Valley novel “The Circle” says of one of the founder’s passion project, “to bring them here to get exposure, especially given how rough it is out there for them.” This artsy founder brings artists in to the Google-like campus: He just doesn’t pay them.
Timberg's article would make it seem like it was arbitrary and nasty for a duke or prince to have some artist arrested for deserting a post but let's not skip over the thing Timberg so conspicuously skipped over. There's this decades old lecture given by H. C. Robbins Landon about Haydn's time within the patronage system of his age. The lecture starts off with a grim but matter-of-fact observation that artists of various types, but particularly composers and musicians, dying in abject poverty was more the norm than the exception:
In recent years we have become ever more fascinated and horrified by the fate of Mozart, whose earthly remains were buried in an anonymous grave outside the city walls of Vienna. That event, the indignity of which gradually became infamous, took place in 1791, not quite a decade before the eighteenth century came to an end. But Mozart’s death - though particularly appalling in view of his special genius- was by no means unique. Thousands of more modest composers and performers were igno-anonymous overnight. A roll call chosen at random might include:
Antonio Vivaldi, once the astonishment of settecento Europe, died in abject poverty at Vienna in 1741. His grave is unknown, and for many years it was not even known that he had died in Austria.
Carlos d’Ordoñez, a then well-known composer of Austro- Spanish parents, died in penury at Vienna in 1786.
Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, once the most popular composer of German-language operas, died at Neuhof in Bohemia in 1799, his desk drawer full of symphonies that no one wanted to perform or publish.
Anton Huberty, once a celebrated Parisian music publisher and string player, who had issued Haydn’s first symphonies in Paris in the 1760s, died at Vienna in 1791. His effects were hardly enough to keep his daughters from starvation.1
Luigi Boccherini, the Italian composer once famous throughout Europe, died ‘in dire poverty’ at Madrid in 1805, his music no longer fashionable.
The anonymous and already-forgotten deaths of many musicians and composers is the way the world works under normal circumstances.
It's important to bear in mind what Robbins Landon pointed out in this lecture, that Esterhazy musicians were engaged as OFFICERS. Technically, a musician in the court there was engaged in a military capacity. So while Timberg may have wanted to highlight how disastrously bad it would be for a musician who left a post or was not at post for a patron, he didn't necessarily give a reason WHY this would happen. Omitting that "why" is a big omission. Think about this for even one second and it becomes abundantly clear that if you're on contract in a military role and you weren't at your post without prior permission you could and would get punished on the basis of the contract. Court martial and arrest and so on.
The other thing that is worth noting, for those who haven't already familiarized themselves with the Robbins Landon lecture, is that Haydn wasn't exactly being compensated on the basis of mechanical royalties but for services and labor. This can help explain why old Lefties like Dwight Macdonald could in all seriousness assert that the old aristocratic patronage system for the arts was more humane and human than the corporate enterprise variations of the 20th century. You can disagree, of course, but it helps to get a clearer understanding of what the patronage systems entail before you do.
Timberg's lament rings so hollow because whether he'll admit it or not we've had a patronage system in the last century and it's been the corporations that constitute the music publishing and broadcasting industry.