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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Aristocratic Composers in the 18th Century

Publication Date: Nov 1, 2018

Would an aristocratic composer be socially accepted?

Painting of the Prince of Wales playing the cello
Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, and His Sisters by Philippe Mercier

Much of the research for The Duke and The Enchantress focused on music, namely such topics as soundproofing, patronage, style and tonality, and reputation.

Two great articles to start with are Dr. Derek McCulloch's research in "Aristocratic Composers in The 18th Century: A Study of a Category of Composer and its Relationship to the Musical Life of its Own Time and its Reception by a Musical Establishment Both in the 18th Century and in More Recent Times," as well as an article that can be found here from Professor Scott McLetchie in the Student Historical Journal of Loyola University. Music composers during the late 18th century depended on patrons for their livelihood, typically those patrons being wealthy aristocrats, the church, or the Crown. The largesse from patrons was not only needed for survival, but also the upkeep of instruments, supplies for penning the music, and the cost of the libretto for operas.

One might think, then, that if a wealthy person wished to compose, what a success that would be! Composing was considered a trade rather than a talent, however. Composers were, essentially, servants of aristocracy. No self-respecting gentleman would compose. That's what hired composers were for--create the music to entertain the gentleman. A crude comparison, but what gentleman would build himself a table when he could have it built for him? There were gentlemen and aristocratic composers, however, although they were rare and typically kept their compositions to themselves. One such anomaly is none other than Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales (son of King George II), who did not hide his love for the arts, including his cello and viola playing, his painting, and his patronage. The prince's tale is a sad one, though, involving a family feud and national scandal.

Since music composition was a trade (like carpentry), music was written on request, dictated by the tastes and interests of the wealthy patrons. Until the rise of the middle class, only the wealthy could afford to attend musical entertainment, not to mention afford to have a composer on the payroll, so to speak. The patrons' taste sculpted the style since the music was written for them.

Excerpt of the composition from Handel's The King Shall Rejoice
Handel's The King Shall Rejoice

The Age of Enlightenment was a pivotal time in music history. As industry expanded, so did the wealth of the lower class, enough to create a new class--the middle class. The audience for musical entertainment widened from aristocracy to middle class. The style and tone preferences of the classes differed, as did the views of the composer as an artist versus a servant. Read a bit more about this changing time in the Metropolitan Museum's article on "Nineteenth-Century Classical Music" by Jayson Kerr Dobson: here.

Instead of music being used to entertain aristocrats, music served new and varied purposes. Handel was a leading figure in such philanthropic work, arranging charity concerts quite early in the 18th century. My research findings on his charity concerts inspired plot points in three separate books: The Duke and The Enchantress, The Baron and The Enchantress, and A Counterfeit Wife. Read more about Handel's charity work at these two sources: Caro Howell's article in The Guardian on "How Handel's Messiah Helped London's Orphans--And Vice Versa" and Kathryn Hogg's article in Philanthropy Impact on Handel The Philanthropist. And as an extra little bonus, if you're in or around the London area, The Foundling Hospital often hosts special presentation about Handel, 18th century music, and similar topics. Visit their website for more information and upcoming events.

Sketch of the Foundling Hospital Chapel
Foundling Hospital Chapel

Spoiler alert! In The Duke and The Enchantress, we see a few things happening to showcase the societal and stylistic shifts. Style is one of the most important elements. Drake, a composer in hiding, isn't crafting his art for anyone's taste but his own, and thus his style doesn't follow the conventions of his time.

He writes what he wants to hear and experience--passion. His music rebels against tradition in an attempt to move the listener. The intention is to show the beginning of these shifts where the Classical transitions to the Romantic, the audience transitions from aristocracy to middle class, and the composer crafts for a far different audience and motivation.


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