Commissions, Technology, and the Educational Experience
You’ve probably heard this story, but I hope you don’t mind indulging me for a moment.
The year was 1943. The man was small and frail, looking much older than his fifty-nine years. He had recently arrived in the United States, nobody knew who he was, and he was essentially dying of leukemia. Actually, several people did know who he was, including one man, a conductor, who visited him in his hospital room. Who knows how exactly the conversation went, but the conductor offered the man, who was a composer, $1000 to write whatever he wanted.
The conductor was Serge Koussevitzky; the composer was Béla Bartók; the piece that resulted was Bartók’s monumental Concerto for Orchestra.
It’s impossible to know for certain, of course, but it’s widely speculated that Koussevitzky’s commission did more than just inspire the Concerto for Orchestra; it may have also re-ignited Bartók’s creative juices and kept him writing for longer than he would have otherwise. Both the Sonata for Solo Violin and the Third Piano Concerto were composed after Concerto for Orchestra.
Commissioning, in other words, is a very good thing, for many reasons. Not only dues it guarantee the creation of new music, but it is, frankly, the way composers make money. Publishing and royalties tend to bring in meager income at best, while commissioning can do a lot to keep a composer working, and writing. I would argue that commissioning can also be highly educational, in more ways that I would have expected. What I’d like to do is provide a case study of sorts, centered around a project that I completed.
Not long ago, the process of commissioning a new work would look something like this: Someone — a conductor, teacher, musician, patron, etc. — would reach out to a composer and offer them a certain amount of money to write a certain kind of piece.