Introducing Performer Patronage as Research Field

The Genius of Music, Italian, late 15th–early 16th century (Rogers Fund, 1938, public domain, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It all seemed so simple, not so long ago: composers (white, male, European) were directly in touch with their muses (mysteriously and unmediatedly – but also overcoming doubt, struggle and hardship), and were at the same time the obedient servants of the destiny of the material. Under the twin guidance of these absolute forces, but somehow also fired up by moments of inspired subjectivity, the music poured out effortlessly onto the page (Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn), or was hewn into shape with superhuman effort and hard-won musical logic (Beethoven, Schoenberg, Boulez). And then along came faithful, unflinching performers, ready to renounce their identities in their service to The Work, […].


The discipline musicology for a long time was defined by a focus on the (autonomous) work and its author (the independent, foremost male and white genius). However, recent generations of scholars, catching up with cultural historians and sociologists, established a more inclusive approach towards music and the various actors involved in its realization, dissemination, and preservation. Especially the question of performing music has lately received more scholarly attention. But performers do not only enter the stage once a completed masterpiece is placed on their music stand. Their involvement has all along been essential in processes of musical creation and repertoire formation, although it has not yet garnered much of the academic spotlight. Especially when performers appear as patrons, as the providers of the economic, the institutional, and other ressources needed for the production of new music, there still remains a lot to be uncovered what could give us a better understanding of the entanglements between actors, agencies, and actions in the sphere of classical music (in the broadest sense) and might open new perspectives on aspects such as repertoire formation, canonization, and reception histories.

In his dissertation on a theory of patronage, Louis Epstein has pointed out that “the funding context of music often determines its historiographical reception.” [EPSTEIN:2013, 3] Marianna Ritchey recently noted that “much of the great music of the past was created with at least one eye toward pleasing the financially solvent of a given era,” and she further relates even aesthetical changes to shifts in the question of who might take this position. [RITCHEY:2019, 23] Alongside the capitalistic developments within the music market and the specialization of musical professions (those who compose/those who perform), both gaining momentum in the nineteenth century, performers entered this circle early in the twentieth century. While we should never imagine them as “renounced identities,” in the context of our questions here it is all the more essential to understand them as active agents shaping musical repertoire, aesthetics, and history.

Since a change in perspective also means a change in the object we’re looking at, we might need to find an appropriate vocabulary to capture and comprehend what we see now. But this doesn’t mean we’d have to reinvent the wheel. Several disciplines provide us with useful concepts. Historian William Weber, for instance, whose foundational research often focuses on the socio-cultural history of music, introduces a socioeconomic understanding of musicians as entrepreneurs:

We tend to lean on certain clichés: the musician as an inferior at court, as a fashionable object in public, as genius unmindful of the public, or as an avant-garde force in his or her own world. We need instead to ask how musicians worked as active agents within musical life and thereby within society as a whole. Thus, we must start taking musicians seriously as business people and as social forces.

WEBER:2004, 3

Although Weber does not distinguish between composers and performers (he is talking foremost about the eighteenth century), this idea of musical entrepreneurship can fruitfully be applied to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and to both, composers and performers. In fact, it was a performer who established this concept for our present days: Flutist Claire Chase identifies herself as an “arts entrepreneur” on the website of the MacArthur Foundation, when she was named MacArthur Fellow in 2012. And she indeed represents the twenty-first century performer patron when she not only funds commissions to composers, but generally engages in developing new funding models for the realization of contemporary music. Recently, she has initiated the New Music Solidarity Fund, which aims to support musicians impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To define the space in which those musical entrepreneurs take action we might embed them in an art world, which Howard S. Becker, sociologist and also practising jazz pianist, drafts basing on the premise of all artistic work as being a joint activity:

Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art.

BECKER:1982, 34

In those art worlds, anyone involved engages in the creation of the art work. And performers may embrace various roles – as distributors, intermediaries, patrons. The last decades of the twentieth century have up to now featured a structural shift from the traditional (and hierarchical) production/perception chain of “[patron ->] composer -> performer -> audience” towards more interactive and spontaneous forms of collaborations and new models of raising money for realizing them. Additionally, we are witnessing right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how a global crisis, with its political, social, and economic implications, causes earthshaking challenges for artists and cultural professionals worldwide and will certainly result in diverse shifts in the now even faster changing art world of music. Facing such a watershed moment, it is crucial for scholars to provide a differentiated view of such processes, both previous and ongoing, to understand the present and create a basis for future discussions and decisions.

All artistic work, like all human activity, involves the joint activity of a number, often a large number, of people.

BECKER:1982, 1

Leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below – and stay tuned for an upcoming post on Becker’s art worlds as a framework for investigating performer patronage!

  • Becker, Howard: Art Worlds, Berkeley et al.: Univ. of California Press, 1982
  • Clarke, Eric F. and Mark Doffman: “Introduction and overview,” in: Distributed Creativity. Collaboration and Improvisation in Contemporary Music, ed. by eidem (Studies in Musical Performance as Creative Practice), New York: Oxford Universtiy Press, 2017, 1-18
  • Epstein, Louis: Toward a Theory of Patronage: Funding for Music Composition in France, 1918–1939, PhD diss., Harvard Universtiy, Cambridge/USA, 2013
  • Ritchey, Marianna: Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019
  • Weber, William: “The Musician as Entrepreneur and Opportunist, 1700–1914,” in: The Musician as Entrepreneur 1700–1914. Managers, Charlatans and Idealists, ed. by idem, Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2004, 3-24
Cite this article as: Elisabeth Reisinger, "Introducing Performer Patronage as Research Field," in Performers as Patrons of New Music, 11/08/2020,

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