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Saturday morning quotes 3.20: Professionalism

September 28, 2013

Today’s post touches on a theme that needs mentioning from time to time, and we begin by revisiting a quote from Julia Sutton’s summary of Jean Baptiste Besard’s instructions for the lute (1617):

“Besard first asks the student to treat this “divine art . . . cultivated by men of the highest position” with proper respect. One should try to learn to play well enough to please others; if, however, one develops professional skill, be sure to charge adequately for one’s performance in order not to cheapen the art!

Today, the DIY industry and the internet offer vast opportunities for those with sometimes aggressive ambitions for a more public personality to advance themselves, using technology to blur the distinctions between amateur, dilettante and professional musicians.  Again, if we take the time to read and heed history, we find that this is by no means a new phenomenon.

First, a few words of definition:

“The dilettante differs from the man of science not in degree, but in nature; and so does dilettante knowledge from professional knowledge.  For instance, a musical dilettante may have more knowledge of music than a professional musician; but it is not exactly the same kind of knowledge.  He may even play the piano, or any other instrument, better than it is played by some acknowledged virtuoso.  Nevertheless, he remains an amateur musician; and for that reason there is in his music some quality which the professional musician will detect (and perhaps dislike) as unprofessional.”

– Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, “An Essayist of Three Hundred Years Ago,” The National Review, Vol. 1 (March, 1883), p. 189

Moving forward in time, we offer a more generous excerpt of these appropriate words from Charles E. Watt writing for the venerable magazine from yesteryear, The Etude:

“According to Webster the dilettante is one who pursues music (or any of the fine arts or sciences) merely as a pastime.  The Amateur, according to the same authority, is one who cultivates an art or study from love of attainment and without reference to gain…The Student, basically (although all musicians must remain students of a kind through life), is one who has not yet sufficient technic, repertoire or interpretive intelligence to entitle him to be ranked as ready for paid work.  The Professional, on the contrary, is one whose attainments in all these lines and in many others is such (or should be) that he is amply ready to take up any definite piece of employment in his particular line and do it skillfully and artistically, with due reference to the art in general and of all other educational consideration.”

“The amateur and dilettante classes are absolutely necessary for the proper development and support of music in a community: for it is they who buy tickets for concerts and in every way support the growing musical interests of the place.  Without students the prospect for any continued life for music in any given locality would be indeed meager.  But, all of these are positively in different relation to the art and to the public than is the professional musician; and this relation should be understood both by them and the public.”

“The professional musician always has been too much absorbed in his own work to think much about this and “too busy” to take the proper steps to protect himself: but, in these times of difficult living, a state of things has arrived when he must take the necessary actions or he will be utterly overthrown by the force of circumstances.”

“The Public accepts work at the appraisement of the workers, and for musicians to falter in their determination to set standards and prices and maintain them is but to invite an indefinite continuance of the idea that all music is, sometimes, procurable for nothing.  The dilettante and the amateur should, as a rule, stay out of paid positions, or at least they should not work gratuitously in those which should yield pay: and in those few cases where it seems fair and desirable for them to do any public work at salary they should stubbornly maintain a price and conditions which will aid professionals to hold the same ground.”

“A certain young contralto whose career on the American concert stage was an object lesson of what can be done by a brainy, talented American girl to bring herself to the very top, married a man of wealth and immediately and permanently retired from all public life.  “For,” said she, “I no longer need the money and therefore, if I sing for money, I am taking it away from those who need it more.  If I sing for nothing I am ruining the market for all professional singers and so hereafter I will only sing only when the spirit prompts me to give a musicale at my own home where I can invite my personal friends merely as guests and where my singing becomes just a part of the entertainment I have to offer them.”

– Charles E. Watt, “A Square Deal for the Music Teacher: Let Us Have a Better Financial Status for the Professional Musician,” The Etude, Vol. 39, September 1921, p. 561.

You can read a more realistic and up-to-date take on the issue from columnist,  Igor Saavedra, and you can even examine more quasi-scientific information on the neurological differences between musicians and others.  But the fact remains that professional musicians make a difference.   Indulge in your music at home but support the efforts of those who dedicate their lives to their art.

  1. alexander r. permalink

    Indeed, all this is absolutely proper to the “professional – amateur market” developed during the classical – romantic concert hall culture period – 18th, 19th and 20th century.
    But wait!
    Here we all are in a very different field, – the early music. And it has the third, and the fourth way, not akin to just a musician’s professionalism or dilettantism.
    The third way can be understood by the circumstances of creation and existence of the innumerable viol consort music. As well as the bulk of the lute music we peruse. All this material was created for the emotional-spiritual-intellectual pastime of the very large and varied audience. I would hazard to guess that about 80% of this music was not “performed professionally” before the 20th century. It was created and intended for the elitary peruse in the very small circle, or even in the solitary personal worlds of culture. Anyone with a practical connection to this music will attest, that this situation cannot be characterized justly in any of the above “profy – dilly” environments. This “third way” of the music in some ways is touching upon the “fourth way”, – the way of a spiritual musician. The brightest stars on the European horizon of this sky are Guillaume Dufay and Hildegard von Bingen. I do not see one of these “greats” uttering the phrase “make sure you charge money, if you are that good” – no matter what.
    All this does not justify of course the ridiculous lack of recognition and respect for the role of a musician in the society, and especially the need for his being there and survival, for the sake of the society itself, particularly in the money crazed cultures. Here we are left to tend to our selves.
    But as a part of the “authentic” presentation of the early music, we might need to look for a way to include the “environmental elements” of its’ very nature to the mix… Hopefully after our bellies are full.

  2. Thanks for your insights, Alex. Yes, the quotes are indeed drawn from the 19th-century and represent a point of view concerning the role of the professional musician and the competing interests of amateurs who perform in public. The quotes are relevant because they speak of a time before recordings or broadcasts indelibly altered the menu of choices for a public musical sustenance. Professional musicians were a necessary component of the public cultural life, and they also provided training and guidance for musical amateurs and dilettantes who made their own domestic music in the privacy of their homes.

    I have to say that we now live in an age that caters to the cult of personality, and there is an entire DIY industry built around encouraging every musical cobbler and his dog to bask in the spotlight and enjoy the fame and glory available to them on youtube (I utterly loathe youtube and find facebook to be nothing more than a sandbox for nascent narcissists – there, I’ve said it). The problem is that music has been downgraded from an aesthetic pastime to a mess of nasty noises, flashing lights and a complete lack of substance. When we perform historical domestic music that was once that aesthetic pastime, it is necessary to take it out of context because the context of domestic music today is something vastly different from what it was 400 years ago.

    There are exceptions, of course. For instance, a very fine quartet of musicians recently performed 400-year old music in an old barn up north, and a willing audience not only turned out in droves but the very cultured host was heard to have described the concert as “chamber music at its finest.” People are willing to brave the elements to hear real music played by real people, but there is an enormous cadre of narcissistic amateurs out there who are driven to not only compete for the gigs but to play them for free. Or worse yet, pay to play in public. This is not good. This is not right.

    As for Du Fay and Hildegard, I’m not so sure they were completely removed from the mundane world of making money for their music. Intuition tells me that we would have never heard of them if a monetary value had not been placed on their music at some point in time sufficient for it to have been copied and archived for posterity. There is more surviving financial information about later composers, Josquin for instance, that reveals quite a bit of shrewd bargaining here and there. Apparently, Morales was no slouch in negotiating for an ample reward, as was Palestrina. The difference is that their music was functional and essential in their times, unlike any kind of music today.

    You get no argument from this quarter concerning the importance of historical domestic music, since that is our specialty. We certainly like to encourage musical amateurs who enjoy early music to indulge at every opportunity. However, we don’t encourage musical amateurs to get naked, rent Carnegie Hall, put on a concert, and expect those in attendance to admire the Emperor’s New Clothes.

    • alexander r. permalink

      I have mentioned Dufay and Hildegard per their monastic lives.
      One hundred naked amateur young women playing bass gambas at the Carnegie… I’m wondering if i would drive down for that one…

  3. Bruno Figueiredo permalink

    Very good topic! Through my readings I suspect that up to the classical period musicians worked exclusively for someone (a patron – Court, Church, etc…), not for themselves. This is in opposition of our modern times. I also suspect that only a few of those brave musicians would have had enough support for a living without the help of a patron. Most lute music, actually, most solo or chamber music was out of reach to the general public, except to those who had received a good education. Is it any different from today? My impression is that we are mostly dilletantes nowadays, the chances to become a proffessional are very little. Yes, dilletantes may have as much knowledge if not more than professionals and sometimes even perform at the same level. So, why they don’t become professionals themselves? Well, any musician reading this will surely know the reasons…


    Bruno Figueiredo.

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