An item in the paper last week about improving the finances of the Portland Conservatory of Music brought back thoughts of a column I had intended to write a while ago about the horrific bankruptcy of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (They have emerged, scarred but relatively healthy. Other orchestras have not.)
I didn’t write the column because the subject was too depressing. When a national treasure is allowed to fall into such disgrace, there is something wrong with the world. But maybe the orchestra wasn’t as good as it was under Ormandy, or maybe they should never have left the Philadelphia Academy of Music for Kimmel Hall.
The financial support, or patronage of serious music has been a vexing question for several centuries now. Originally the responsibility of the Church alone, it devolved, at least partially, to the aristocracy during the reign of the Medici, who were passionate, dedicated and discerning supporters of all the arts, even though their morals left something to be desired.
The aristocracy remained a primary source of funding from the time when Haydn was a house servant to the Esterhazy family until Beethoven’s death, when a prosperous middle class, which had already begun subscribing to concerts rather than waiting to be invited to some prince’s musical evening, took up the burden.
Dependence upon individual patrons had its drawbacks – late or no payment, unapproachability, fickleness and so on – and required a certain amount of fawning until the Romantic era, when the artist became a hero rather than a craftsman. Its advantage was a one-to-one relationship with a person who was knowledgeable about the art and tolerant of its practitioners. This rare relationship still exists in pockets here and there. If you play your cards right, you can become immortal for the price of a Buick.
Now the middle class itself is declining, the aristocracy is the subject of tabloid gossip and the Church is closing churches. Which leaves corporations, our new aristocracy, which is just as fickle as the old one percent, without being as knowledgeable or caring.
At least part of the parlous state of music finances today is due to the value-free judgment of large corporations that they can get better “exposure” by supporting some less elite activity.
Except for hardened labor representatives, who regard all charity as “unpaid wages,” most people don’t realize that support for the arts already comes out of their own pockets in the form of tax breaks for donations, which have to be made up for in other sections of the 1040.
Which brings up the subject of government support, the worst of all possible sources. It has to be “safe” so as not to lose votes, it is allocated by committees, which have never accomplished anything important in the history of the world, and it tends inexorably toward the lowest common denominator and decisions by poll – see the MPBN switch from music to talk radio. In the U.S., of course, it is non-existent.
I cannot imagine any other country that calls itself civilized letting the Philadelphia Orchestra go down. Venezuela, which the press loves to denigrate, has raised thousands of children from poverty through classical music training.
I am not worried about classical music. It can take care of itself. I am concerned about a culture that undervalues its own greatest gift to mankind while more and more pursuing the evanescent.
As for funding, the answer may lie in numerous small donations from people who recognize that the value of the arts has nothing to do with money, and that large donations often require an element of control in return. A board member of one Maine orchestra, who, as usual, is a major donor, recently wanted to appoint a committee to dictate orchestral programming. So, individuals unite; if Green Bay can do it, so can we.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: