And if you show a non-musician friend the new CD of your music that’s just been released, the friend may ask you, “What does this music sound like?” Show it to a performing musician, and the performer will immediately flip it over to check the credits, to see which musicians recorded the disc.
And if you’re a musicologist and you tell a non-musician friend that you’re about to have a scholarly book published, your non-musical friend may ask, “What’s the book about?” Tell another musicologist about your new book, and the question may well be, “Who’s the publisher?”
These are all true stories, culled from my own real-life experiences. And, to my mind, these examples show how “professionalism” can sometimes overwhelm artistic considerations in the professional classical music world. Whenever people professionally involved in music accomplish something, it seems that many others are less interested in what they have done than in how they have done it. And often, this information is then used to finely re-calibrate the accomplisher’s position in the vast musical pecking-order. If you’re published by the University of Iowa Press, that’s one thing; if you’re published by Oxford University Press, that is quite something else.
All this reminds me of a little anecdote I once heard that is sometimes attributed to Jean Sibelius. (I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like it.) Apparently, the celebrated Finnish composer once remarked, “I prefer the company of bankers to musicians, because musicians only want to talk about money.” I get what he is talking about: I too have sat through dinners and after-concert pub meetups with musicians where the conversation around the table was all about chasing dollars.
I almost called this little essay “Against Professionalism.” But I decided that would be stating my position a little too strongly. The elaborate edifice of professionalism makes it possible for some musicians – a small number, and (ideally) only the very best – to commit themselves wholly to music.
Yet to those who would argue that professionalism is necessary to artistic quality, I would reply that yes, it can help, but no, it’s not necessary. And I would cite Franz Schubert, Modest Mussorgsky and Charles Ives as three examples of brilliant composers for whom musical professionalism was not exactly a strong suit.
Sadly, musicians can get carried away with the trappings of professionalism: maintaining “appearances,” collecting titles and awards, and, of course, acquiring money. Sometimes professionalism can eclipse art, obscuring the reasons for which musicians make (or should make) music central to their lives. This, I believe, is a self-inflicted wound: a commodification of art that is spiritually impoverishing and even damaging to musicians, and to music itself.
© Colin Eatock 2018