Performers as Commissioners – New Research Project

The last quarter of 2021 held something special for me: the start of my new research project “Performers as Commissioners of New Music in the Twentieth Century: Preconditions, Self-Conceptions, Impacts.” It is funded by an Elise Richter Grant (with a volume of € 379,095.37) from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and runs from October 2021 to September 2025 at the University for Music and Performing Arts Vienna. As a follow up to my work on Benny Goodman, this study includes further artists, who essentially shaped their instruments’ repertoires and aesthetics by hiring composers to write for them (see below), and takes the questions investigated within the Goodman-pilot onto a broader level.

For centuries, the act of sponsoring art was performed by the socioeconomic and political elites, but in the sphere of classical music (in the broadest sense), the twentieth century witnessed a new phenomenon: performers who commissioned and financed composers to write for them and who often generated entire new repertoires for their instruments. This is related to the decrease in the previous model of musical professions, in which composer-virtuosos staged their own works, and to the subsequent consolidation of a functional distinction between those who composed and those who performed. Scholarship in music history for a long time focused on the former, the creating genius, while the latter were barely considered proactive agents in the process of musical creation. Over the recent decades, musicologists have increasingly challenged this concept and developed a more inclusive approach toward those individuals who are essential to a composition’s execution as an actual sound event – performers. Presenting a foundational systematic elaboration of performers taking a proactive role in the formation of a new repertoire – as the ones who not only distribute but instigate and finance it – my work will enhance a differentiated understanding of their agencies within the power structures of art production and of their impact on the history of classical music.

The following three main topics will build the structural framework to organize the source material and its analysis, which shall result in a comprehensive monograph presenting the first systematic approach to the, as yet, underresearched field of musical sponsorship through performers:

1) Preconditions: Which economic and social circumstances brought performers into the position of hiring composers to write for them, and on what individual basis did they draw, such as personal networks, institutional support, or financial resources?

2) Collaboration and Self-Conception: How was the collaboration between performer and composer realized, and how did performers conceive of themselves within the creation of a new repertoire?

3) Performance and Reception: What relevance did the commissioned pieces have in the performers’ careers, and how did a work’s connection with a certain performer influence its further performance history, distribution, and artistic/academic valuation?

The analysis centers around five individuals:

Paul Wittgenstein (piano, 1887–1961) had already found considerable success as pianist before the outbreak of World War I. The devastating caesura that this event meant for him made a fundamental rethinking of his professional situation necessary: recruited for the Austrian army, he lost his right arm in battle. Further pursuit of a pianistic career meant the establishment and promotion of a repertoire that had barely existed before: piano music for the left hand only. Not only did Wittgenstein himself rearrange an extensive amount of especially nineteenth-century piano music (such as Liszt and Brahms) for this purpose, but he also collaborated with numerous composers, some based on friendship and some more distant. Paid assignments represent a notable section of this engagement and contain works by, among others, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, and Franz Schmidt, whom the pianist held in the highest esteem. 

Marian Anderson (singer, 1897–1993) was an established concert artist in the US and Europe from the 1930s on and the first African-American soloist to be engaged by the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. An important part of her concert repertoire consisted of spiritual songs, of which many were written or arranged especially for her.  Notably, such spirituals were frequently stylistically arranged to better suit the tastes of white American and European audiences. A protagonist in this context was the African-American composer Harry T. Burleigh, with whom Anderson collaborated regularly and also maintained a close friendship from the early stages of her career. Furthermore, Anderson engaged in supporting younger and unknown composers by performing their songs in concert. This explicit effort to promote unknown composers indeed represents a most interesting aspect of Anderson’s patronage, especially in comparison with the other investigated performers, who rather focused on the promotion of their instruments, special repertoires, or their own careers by primarily commissioning already established composers.

Paul Wittgenstein at the piano, date unknown (retrieved from Wikimedia Commons)
Contralto Marian Anderson, 1920
(retrieved from Wikimedia Commoms)

The commissioning activities of Benny Goodman (clarinet, 1909–1986) formed the focus of a recent research project of mine as a preparative pilot study. In the late 1930s, Goodman represented the epitome of swing music and the American entertainment industry. Around this time, he also added classical repertoire to his performance and recording portfolio. Having not only gained great popularity but also enormous wealth, Goodman further commissioned several established classical composers to write new pieces for him.  His case provides a framework by which to illustrate contractual negotiations, the role of various involved persons, and how commissioning his own section of classical solo repertoire played a role in establishing himself in this field as a nonclassically trained performer.

Sylvia Marlowe (1908–1981) and Antoinette Vischer (1909–1973) played a major role in establishing the harpsichord as a modern instrument. By systematically commissioning new compositions, they transformed it from a historical artifact devoted to Bach to a versatile medium, giving voice to composers such as Luciano Berio, Carla Bley, John Cage, Duke Ellington, and others. In her hometown New York, Marlowe granted her first commission to Vittorio Rieti in 1945 (Partita for flute, oboe, and string quartet with obligato harpsichord). Further projects with Rieti and numerous other composers followed, including Elliott Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord (1952). Around the same time in Basel, Switzerland, Vischer instigated similar projects. Proceeding from her cooperation with composer Rolf Liebermann in 1952, she granted more than 40 commissions. 

In this project, five fascinating cases come into focus, which are not only characterized by uniqueness in their musical-historical relevance and source situation. I also employ them as representative prisms, shifting the focus away from the “(male) creating genius” paradigm in the writing and thinking about classical music and providing a more open and inclusive view on its pluralities, represented not only by my protagonists themselves but also by the diversity of the individuals and lifeworlds that surrounded them. Scrutinizing the conditions for access to or exclusion from the system of commissioning/being commissioned will be a constant task in the process. This will especially include addressing the impact of factors such as social class, gender, and ethnicity. All of the presented individuals faced several obstacles and biases (to differing degrees), because of socioeconomic background, physical constitution, gender, skin color. In every story told herein, the protagonist reached a point where they actively engaged in the patronage of musical creation – a moment of empowerment. My goal is to determine, describe, and define this moment. This will provide points of contact for a variety of interdisciplinary research fields, such as cultural and gender studies. Additionally, my work will inform the current discourse about music as a result of collaborative actions, which has gained momentum over recent years. Thus, it will not only generate an innovative contribution to the field of musicology, but it can also form the basis of discussions within a variety of disciplines, especially in studies of the performing arts (such as theater or dance), as well as for art and cultural histories or literary studies.

Cite this article as: Elisabeth Reisinger, "Performers as Commissioners – New Research Project," in Performers as Patrons of New Music, 10/01/2022,

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