A young American composer c. 1950 was entering a music world in which the most respected living composers were Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, and the most performed composers were of the Respighi/Rachmaninov ilk. The previous decades had seen a wonderful and unprecedented surge of composer émigrés: musicians fleeing the Holocaust and the privations of war. Many of these Europeans came with prowess and experience that US-trained composers couldn’t match, and they were soon snapping up much of the Hollywood and orchestral commission work available.
What was left for a young composer trying to pay the rent? Well, there were a number of options, but one of the most fruitful possibilities was this nation’s belief in education: more than any European country, America believed that one could, through talent and hard work, become anything one wanted. In the early years of the Cold War, this belief in the value of education meant that resources were poured into the nation’s universities as never before. It soon became clear that professorships held a promise of patronage and security for the American composer on a level no other profession could match. More and more composers came to this oasis for the arts, and drank deeply.
The cost? In order to obtain and retain these professorships, composers had to focus on their intellectual and scholarly qualifications to an unprecedented degree. When it came time for tenure review, you had better be able to prove to your peers in other disciplines that you weren’t just dabbling in something frivolous; you had to show that what you were doing was just as complex and erudite as anything else in the sciences or humanities.
What was it like for these academic composers, when they came up for review? I wasn’t there, but I can only guess: it must have been hard to be taken seriously by scholars from other disciplines who were increasingly dividing the music world between the classics of the past and the fun-but-not-serious music of pop culture. What could composers do to protect their livelihoods? Publish articles in scholarly journals, shout out their credentials, take pains to distance their work from music whose calling card was the catchy tune.
It doesn’t seem fair to blame them. As I noted above, there were other options for putting food on the table, but this was one of the best. Sure, many of them abused their positions, destroying the lives of competitors, championing artistic stances simply because they stood in antithesis to what had come before. But is that so different from any generation of composers, in which the majority is just trying to stay afloat as the gatekeepers of musical employment shift from the bishops to the princes to the middle classes?