23 July 2011

Musical Philanthropy

Suffering the bouts of sleepless nights and distracted days which are the lot of any free-lance writer and musician worried about where the next bit of money is going to come from to pay for his daughter's schooling, clothes and toys (not to mention her insatiable appetite for pony rides), to run his car, to pay his rent or to settle any one of the myriad domestic bills which are the stuff of life, I yearn for someone to call up and offer me money to let me sit down in peace and seriously get down to work on my book.  A book, I should add, which will immeasurably enrich the lives of anyone foolish enough to read it if and when it eventually sees the light of day.  How I pray for a munificent benefactor.  But my prayers will be in vain; who has ever heard of anyone handing out cash to a humble-ish music commentator to write a book of necessarily limited appeal?

But, there again, who has ever heard of anyone handing out cash to a humble composer to write a symphony which will be of even less interest to the great swathe of mankind?

Actually I have – many times - and, by a pleasing coincidence, even as the red bills come and the petrol gauge on the car is reading empty, a commission comes in to write some notes for a series of concerts featuring all seven Sibelius symphonies.  True, the fee - what with fluctuating exchange rates and criminal bank charges – will be swallowed up the first time I fill the car's petrol tank, but it's work, and I've never been one to turn my nose up at that.

It could be very easy work if I didn't have a certain sense of old-fashioned honour.  I've written about the Sibelius symphonies countless times, and it would be the simplest thing in the world to do a cut-and-paste job, churn out properly researched but hardly original notes, and watch the "DR" column on the bank statement reduce by an infinitesimal amount.  But I do take pride in always coming up with something new, and even if an inevitable by-product of having been a writer on music for almost half-a-century is that some stock phrases get churned out time and time again, I always try to look at even the most familiar works from a new angle each time I write about them.  So with the Sibelius symphonies I decided to avoid the customary angle – Internationalisation of Finnish nationalism, blah blah, blah – and go for the financial one.  After all, if something is at the forefront of one's thoughts 24 hours a day, what better than to turn it into a creative force?  My notes about Sibelius have often touched on his profligate life-style (booze, fags, syphilis – you know the sort of thing) and his frequent chronic cash shortages, so why not look at the symphonies as potential cash-cows rather than expressions of Finnish cultural ideals.  And that's where I came across a munificent benefactor.

Often I have mentioned the figure of Axel Carpelan as being pivotal in starting Sibelius off on the road to symphonic greatness.  The common belief is that Carpelan was so impressed by the First Symphony that he passed Sibelius the money to get down to work on the Second.  Deciding to follow up on this line, I searched for references to Carpelan.  Who was this generous spirit?  Might he have relatives alive today who might be similarly predisposed to pass on their cash to impoverished musicians (like me)?  It was a lot more difficult than usual, not least because Carpelan seems to have been an utterly insignificant figure in history.  Eventually I found a genealogical reference which showed him to be a Baron.  Ah!, thought I, an aristocrat with too much inherited wealth and not enough to do with it.  But then came two shocking comments. An American research paper referred to him briefly as "a penniless nobleman", while a single sentence about him on a French website suggested he "had no money".  How was he then able to give funds to Sibelius?  Where did they come from?

The answer came with some recent American research, cryptic references in various books and encyclopaedias and, best of all, a paragraph in the second volume of Erik Tawaststjerna's exhaustive study of Sibelius.  I learnt that Carpelan was ambitious to become, in one memorable quote, "a friend of great men", that he spent much of his life writing letters (mostly anonymous ones) to the rich and famous, had wanted to be a violinist but smashed up his instrument in a fit of rage when his parents banned him from pursuing musical studies and that he was, to put it bluntly, a total weirdo.  Tawaststjerna is a little more generous describing him as "a hypochondriac who had done little with his life, had precious little money and eked out a bachelor existence in lodgings in Tampere".  However correspondence Carpelan had with a wealthy Swede called Axel Tamm resulted in the latter frequently sending money to him.  Nobody can explain why Tamm was so willing to give financial support to a man who was by all accounts a total wastrel (and there's a word I don't think I've ever used before!), and one reference makes a fleeting but wholly baseless mention of homosexuality.   The fact is, though, that Carpelan certainly had some pull with Tamm, and when he first befriended Sibelius and realised that money was urgently needed, he generously devoted his time to extracting some from Tamm.  Sources differ about the extent of this, but Carpelan was clearly one of those people with a gift of sniffing out funds, not for himself, but for others.  Oh, how I wish I were to come across a modern-day Carpelan!

There are, of course, plenty of other examples where money has been paid to musicians from generous philanthropists who appear to have no motive other than to see great – and mediocre – art flourish.  The trouble is the financial world is such today that we tend to look first to governments and commercial organisations to do the work of these philanthropists; and they often do have an ulterior motive.  We don't talk about the "Carpelan Symphony" or even the "Tamm Symphony"; both men's absolutely vital contribution to the existence of Sibelius symphonies is now virtually forgotten.  Can you imagine the same thing happening today?  The "BBC Proms", the "UBS Verbier Festival", the "HSBC Piano Festival", "Toyota Classics", "Petronas Philharmonic Hall" clearly show what the driving force is behind modern-day philanthropy.

In a brief moment last week when UK Phone Hacking (why the shock-horror at this, by the way, when anyone with half a brain knows that it's been going on for years?), the Greek debt crisis, the imminent collapse of the Euro and the Famine in parts of Somalia had become merely tedious news stories, the British press – especially the down-market end of it where news is driven by jealousy – told of a Scottish couple who had won an inordinate amount of cash in a lottery.  Newscasters had a field day discussing what they would do with the money, and when we eventually saw the two Scottish winners it was clear that they would not need to spend any of their easily-earned cash on food and drink.  So the question was what would they spend it on?  Holidays, Cars, Houses, Handouts to Relatives, Donations to Charity (ha!  Pull the other one!); that's what we all expected and that's what we got. No surprises there.  What would have been the reaction were our Scottish couple to say "We'll give 100 million to sponsor a new orchestra, encourage a new composer, subsidise an opera season, finance a penniless music commentator's new book.  We'll give it all to promoting the arts"?  There would have been incredulity and questions about their sanity.  After all when an oil company in Malaysia did some of that (minus, sadly, the music commentator's book) the country's third-world-mentality politicians and gormless "social commentators" set up howls of anger and outrage.

Please don't think I'm knocking commercial sponsorship of the arts (indeed, I'd positively encourage commercial sponsorship of my book - I'd happily call it "The Shell, BP, Caltex, Rolex, OCBC, RBS and Standard Chartered Guide to Writing About Music"), but I am asking what it is that has changed in society which means that philanthropic gestures are no longer entirely without self interest.

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