‘For most of history, musicians have done what they are told’

‘For most of history, musicians have done what they are told’


norman lebrecht

January 03, 2016

The quote comes from a new book by the Oxford historian Dominic Sandbrook, The Great British Dream Factory, reviewed in the current issue of the TLS.

Glossing swiftly over the misuse of the present tense (what they are told), the statement itself is demonstrably false. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, took orders from no-one. Nor, so far as we know, did their predecessors.


handel halle


Being a good musician was always a transferrable skill. If a player didn’t like the orders that came down from on high, he did a midnight flit and set up in the next town, province or kingdom. Musicians were ever a discomfort to their patrons. A few, like Haydn, might have bowed the head in the interest of a quiet life. But Bach often bucked the system and Handel set up his own business in London.

On the basis of what we know of the lives of leading musicians they may have pretended sometimes to do as they were told but seldom did. Sandbrook needs to clarify that horrible generalisation.




  • Eddie Mars says:

    Another Oxford twit in a mortar-board.

  • Peter says:

    Her summary is much closer to the truth than your’s. They all obeyed. Moments of rebellion were the exception, not the norm. Even life long bachelors like Beethoven, freed from the responsibilities to feed a family, had to bend to the realities. Your romanticized view is far from true.
    What you – typical for a child of 20th century western civilization – totally lack, is understanding of the mental implications of life under aristocratic or any other totalitarian rule, the mental separation it creates between inner world and outer world.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Aristocratic rule is not the same as totalitarian rule. And of course, musicians played along (in both senses) in their contacts with their clients, as they do today, in general. But also they could transcend the outward limitations of their position to do what they wanted to do themselves, otherwise there would not have been any development in music history. And we only have to think of Mozart quitting his Salzburg job to realize the margin of freedom that was always there, so in contrast with, for instance, life under Stalin or Hitler.

      • Peter says:

        Aristocratic rule is totalitarian, it is one form of it, arguably the most relevant one for classical music.

        “Mozart quitting his Salzburg job… freedom…”
        That’s a very romanticized version. He – had to – quit because the Archbishop increasingly fell out with him. Faced with the option to make up with the archbishop, which would have required a major subjugating “kissing his feet and asking for forgiveness” effort, he chose to leave, the only alternative option available for avoiding a dishonorary discharge.

        Also Mozart was an exception, a genius floating above, not representative for the majority of music life back then.

        And Bach… A whole life of passion (in its Christian double meaning) obeying orders of aristocrats and city administrators in a life long attempt to find profane material security for his family and the material framework necessary for his creative mind. Bach’s freedom was “constrained” to the unlimited universe inside of his musical and spiritual mind.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Mrs Meriam-Webster is not quite right on ‘totalitarianism’ but it’s useless to go into that subject here – enough would be to mention that autocratic rule had many different shades and gradations, as for instance the situations for artists in Italian renaissance clearly shows.

          And the Mozart story…. he was unhappy with his job, where the bishop was a strict autocrat not much interested in music, so very different from that other autocrat, prince Esterhazy. If M’s boss had been as welcoming and interested as Esterhazy, he would probably never have left his job. As for genius: we know that now, but in his own time during his Salzburg tenure he was merely one of the excellent musicians that were around.

          • Peter says:

            Sorry, but that’s just all wrong. The full spectrum from benevolent to tyrannic applies to all totalitarian systems, including aristocratic toralitarianism.
            And the Salzburg episode as well as contemporary awareness of Mozart’s exceptionalism are well documented quite indisputable facts.

  • John Borstlap says:

    “A few, like Haydn, might have bowed the head in the interest of a quiet life.” This suggests a meek and timid acceptance of a humiliating position. But that was not true: Haydn’s boss, the Prince Esterhazy, lavished a good salary on Haydn, plus a small appartment in the castle of his estate and free food, and the full and free use of a symphony orchestra and an opera theatre, staffed with excellent players and singers, plus chamber musicians to play quartet with, where the prince himself played the cello part (being an excellent musician as well). Exceptionally, Haydn had all the means and freedom, plus the economic security, that a composer in his time could dream of. He was treated well by his boss, who understood and appreciated his qualities. This situation gave Haydn the opportunity to freely experiment with symphonic form and expression, and with orchestral instrumentation, thus forging the impressive genre of symphony and string quartet. I think no other composer ever got into such position…. except, maybe, Wagner for a short while in the first year of the patronage of King Ludwig II. Probably the only reason for objection occurred when the prince played a wrong note in his quartets.

  • william osborne says:

    It may be that the composers mentioned, Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, never took orders, but I also can’t think of any genuinely notable examples where they stepped out of bounds either. There would have been consequences. Under established authoritarian systems, people do not need to be told what to do. They know the rules and obey them. How many musicians can be named that strongly defined the authoritarian systems under which they worked? We see that the vast majority of artists did what was expected of them, and that they didn’t even need to be “told.”

    It’s helpful to looks at occasions when musicians were not obedient. In 1583, for example, Giulio Cesare Brancaccio was fired by the Duke Alfonso II d’Este for insubordination when he refused to sing on the spot for Anne, Duke de Joyeuse. Two years later he tried to get back in the duke’s good graces through a series of letters and with the help of Giovanni Battista Guarini but was unsuccessful. The circumstances under which Brancaccio worked were the norm for several hundred years.

    We might also look at Mozart and Salieri to understand the social dynamics of court power. The rulers may not have told artists what to do, but those who were most obedient were those who were often most patronized.

    Of course things are different today. Just look at all those star conductors who refused to work with the VPO when it categorically excluded women. With their keen sense of justice, musicians are the paradigm of integrity…………..

    • John Borstlap says:

      In pre-enlightment times, ALL people knew what was expected of them, both rulers and civilians, because the world view of those times defined a social structure in which everybody had its ‘natural’ place. In other words: musicians were part of the general culture and probably thought the same way as their rulers, and naturally felt that this was to their advantage as well. It is wrong to project our own modern ideas into a past where they did not exist. It seems unlikeley that artists before 1750 became aware of some injustice in their social position, especially when you think of the immense support of the arts in those times and the importance it had. Today we are all free and many artists are completely free to be brilliant or untalented, and / or to get rich of their work or to rot away in some squalid corner, and everything in between. The romantically-inspired profile of the artist as rebel, heretic, priest, climbing the barricades of progress, is a 19C idea when they had to adapt to a market rather than to the specific wishes of their clients.

      • william osborne says:

        Brancaccio was a very proud, if not pompous man, who very much resented the constraints under which he was placed.

        • John Borstlap says:

          He probably was not alone in this; people like Rafael, Michelangelo, Bramante and Leonardo seemed to feel on equal footing with their commissioners, which sometimes worked-out well, sometimes not. But both parties needed each other and belonged to the same cultural framework, that was my point. Where, from a modern point of view, artists of very individual streak seemed to struggle against an authoritarian social framework, in reality they messed-up advantageous opportunities, as for instance the life story of the famous poet Torquato Tasso demonstrates:


          The position and the treament of musicians and composers was different – as far as I have understood – from painters, architects and poets. Due to humanism, such artists were considered as unusual individuals inspired by ‘the spirit’, and got quite some leeway, but composers were part of the musician gang and more seen as artisans in the service of church and nobility. Composers’ and musicians’ social standing began to change by the end of the 18th century, when they began to assume the status of poets and writers. That is the reason that Beethoven preferred to be called a ‘tone poet’ and not a composer; a tone poet referred to a status comparable with famous Goethe and Schiller.

          • Peter says:

            The reason why certain branches of art were valued higher by the ruling elites than others, was not due to some “humanism” but to their usefulness for the iconography of power.

            Painters were needed to portrait the rulers, poets needed to write their praises. Musicians were not so relevant. Exception: trumpeters, which were the VIPs among the musicians back then, due to their privileged role as heraldic accompanists of supreme rulers.

      • Pianofortissimo says:

        A short, relevant digression: The musicians who first played Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis were all Catholics who had a completely different relation to just that Music and just that Text that cannot be re-created today.

        • Peter says:

          Maybe not. The Missa Solemnis, while written for Beethoven’s friend and patron Archduke Rudolf von Österreich, was first performed in Russia in a secular setting for a secular purpose, a charity concert for the widows of musicians, in 1824 in St. Petersburg.

          Beethoven had sold a copy of the score for 50 gold ducats to the Duke Nicolas Galitzin who wrote back to Beethoven, praising the music and its uplifting impact on him in purely secular terms, without any religious reference. http://raptusassociation.org/missagpetersb.html

          While we don’t know exactly the religious denomination of the performing musicians, we can only assume, that most of them were of the official Russian orthodox faith, also reformed protestants, many of whom were headhunted by the Tzar’s emissaries in Europe to work in St. Petersburg’s court. Catholicism, the antagonistic rival to the orthodox fraction, was least likely or even illegal, except for some Polish provinces of the Russian Empire.

          The first performance of the Missa in liturgical context was only six years later in a small village church in Northern Bohemia in Varnsdorf, close to the Saxonian border.

          To summarize: many of the performing musicians might have had no direct relation to the liturgical words and the music was performed and perceived like today more for its absolute metaspiritual qualities.

          • John Borstlap says:

            ….. apart from the last bit of the work where a prayer for ‘inner and outer peace’ obviously refers to very worldly war, underlined by typical ‘war’- music.

    • Peter says:

      Yeah, Lenny, one of VPO’s most frequent conductors back then, was such an obedient slut to the rulers. (not)
      It’s a shame, how you kill a potentially worthwile argument with your “ritual-own-foot-shooting” VPO obsession.

      • william osborne says:

        Bernstein never challenged the VPO’s sexism and racism. He commented on the sexism, but did not criticize it.

        The FBI had an 800 page file on Bernstein, hoping to show he was a communist — part of the HUAC purges that help create the sanitized, obedient, apolitical atmosphere of today’s American arts. Many questions arise. Why did Bernstein emerge unscathed when so many other artists were destroyed? Is it that he was merely a denizen of “radical chic” as suggested by Tom Wolfe? Can any one honestly say Bernstein stood apart in protest from the establishment? Was he adept at survival, or one of the most clever collaborators?

        In any case, Bernstein’s 800 page FBI file illustrates the pressure put on artists to tow the line, and why they are so obedient. And of course, with that one example, presented with your usual anti-feminist urgency, we need consider the issue no further….

        • Peter says:

          I’m not an anti-feminist. I’m an agnostic looking for knowledge and enlightenment. I don’t let any dogmatic ideology, including feminism, define me.

          As for the rest of your words about Lenny: So?

        • william osborne says:

          An interesting article here about Bernstein’s Chilean wife, Felicia, who opposed the Pinochet regime:


          Even if Bernstein’s political activity wasn’t so radical, he stands out among conductors for his engagement.

          • Peter says:

            Good for him and his wife. Probably a lot of red flags were raised in the FBI, since Pinochet was just a proxy acting on behalf of US (corporate) interests, guided by the CIA, the decisive threads being pulled by state secretary Henry Kissinger.

            He did stand out in many ways. What probably saved Lenny – at least in a political sense, not from substance abuse – despite his compassionate personality which sometimes turned into hot-headedness, was his sociable character, and with it came a good amount of friends who protected him in one way or the other, warned him to take it a notch down etc.

            It’s quite intriguing to follow the paths of the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who led the musical program at JFK’s inauguration ceremony, the first (and last) catholic US president who even had made his catholicism an issue in his campaign, through his close collaboration with the Vienna Philharmonic at a time when it still had several members who had been active Nazis. He toured the Soviet Union with the NY Phil in 1959, playing a diverse program with a lot of music that was unfavorable for the authorities and he was eager to celebrate the fall of the wall with a memorable concert in Berlin days after the wall came down with a text change from “Freude” (joy) to “Freiheit” (freedom), possibly finally using the word Schiller actually intended…

            He might have been the rare prototype – and exception to the norm – of a musician who actually took no orders from anyone and did not except an authority except music and art itself.

            He was a true peace maker, through his overwhelming compassion, never overcome by low instincts of revenge or hatred, bringing people together in the one and only universal language all mankind understands over national and ideological borders: music.

        • Robert Levine says:

          Only a guess, but…

          1) LB was the first American superstar conductor at a time when the country wanted to demonstrate its prowess in every field, including European classical music. Destroying Lenny would have been a very big black eye internationally, in a way that going after the writers on the Hollywood blacklist would not have been.

          2) LB’s bosses didn’t much care about what the FBI thought; their audiences likely leaned left anyway (especially in New York) and probably even the NY Phil board of directors didn’t much care.

          3) The FBI et al knew that classical music was a pretty lousy vehicle for spreading what they might view as un-American views – unlike, say, films.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      [[ but I also can’t think of any genuinely notable examples where they stepped out of bounds either.]]

      Perhaps because you simply don’t know of them?

      Handel became hated by the general public in Britain during his own lifetime – for “rising above his station in life”. There is a famous interchange of letters between the Comptroller of Royal Fireworks and another official, in which they say that the King will not be told what to do “by a fiddler” (ie Handel). (Handel insisted on having a string section for the Royal Fireworks – the King wanted only trumpets).

      Handel was not only the composer for the Italian Opera in London – he was also the business manager (at times in partnership with others). He refused to accept any post as a servant, and was proud of his independent status.

      • william osborne says:

        Ah, the courage of standing for strings. What a revolutionary! And of course, we all know that Austria and Germany, just like Britain, submitted to the Magna Carta 400 years earlier, so the situation for Handel in London can certainly be taken as a paradigm for the continent………

        We might contrast that with Schiller a century later who was not even allowed to leave Stuttgart without permission from the Duke, and thus once traveled to Mannheim in secret to see a performance of one of his plays. We might think of how Schiller changed the Ode To Freedom to the Ode to Joy, because the word freedom was entirely too subversive……….

        And another 150 years later let’s not even mention the massive collaboration of Germany’s arts world with the Nazi regime. Ah, those fearless artists……

        • Eddie Mars says:

          Ignorance is bliss, eh, Osbourne?

          Now tell us again about Asians at the VPO?

          Laughable, and grounded in ignorance.

  • Peter says:

    “A few, like Haydn, might have bowed the head in the interest of a quiet life.”

    Funny that. Haydn was lucky to enjoy exceptionally generous private sponsorship. (see J. Borstlap’s fitting words above)

    NL makes it sound like there is something wrong with benevolent private sponsorship by the upper 1%, the umbilical chord of the anglo-american classical music scene.
    Let’s hear more about it.

    • Peter says:

      Something doesn’t add up there, since LB was himself a homosexual*. Koussevitzky using the inside knowledge, attained possibly from LB but is there proof(?), to prevent Mitropolous getting the Boston gig I believe, but Lenny’s sinister intent as stated in the link I’m not convinced about.

      He was married and had children(like many closet homosexuals in that repressive time), but his wife knew right from the beginning of their marriage, what his true sexual orientation was, evidenced by the recent publication of letters.

  • Robert Levine says:

    Hypothetical book: “For most of the 20th century, musicians did not make a living wage.”
    Hypothetical Normal: “The statement is demonstrably false. What about von Karajan and Perlman?”

    In my line of work (playing in an orchestra), musicians do what they’re told or get fired. It’s called “insubordination” and it’s taken very seriously by all the orchestra managements I know.

    • Saoshyant says:

      …and it’s the norm for about 99.9% of all jobs, all of which have a boss and a set of rules they have to comply with.

  • Thomas says:

    No mockery of the author’s grammar skills seems indicated. As anyone can find out on books.google in the original print the sentence goes correctly: ‘For most of history, musicians have done as they were told’