How do new pieces of classical music come into existence?

By Barry Kempton

How do new pieces of classical music come into existence? Of course there’s a nice simple answer here – composers write them!  One day I’ll invite a composer to write a guest blog about how (s)he writes music, because that in itself isn’t so simple – or so I’m told. 

But the point of this blog is that though composers create the music, there are usually other parties involved in making it possible for the composer to write and for us to listen to new works. Those “others” include individuals, organizations, foundations and often a consortia of organizations who participate in commissioning a work.

Performers, ensembles, choirs and orchestras all aspire to have new works written for them.  They might do this with their own funds, or often they will seek the help of generous individuals or foundations.  In my own experience, the musical results are normally best when the person or ensemble performing on stage identifies and makes first contact with a composer whose musical voice speaks to them as an artist. 

Most professional composers have a publisher – though self-publishing is becoming more and more prevalent these days.  These are for profit companies who not only convert the composer’s notation into quality printed materials which we the public can buy, but also rent out orchestra scores and parts to orchestras around the world and work very hard on behalf of their composers promoting their music.  A commissioning contract would normally be between the commissioner and the publisher and not with the composer.

So the commissioner pays a fee.  What do you get for that fee?  You get the first performance, you probably get the exclusive right to continue to perform the new work for many months if not a year or two.  You will likely receive a nicely dedicated and signed copy of the music from the composer.  But unlike commissioning a painting, there is nothing physical to keep in your home or gallery.  Indeed ownership of the music remains with the composer or publisher.  Many years ago I remember a conversation with a generous individual who sponsored a new work but found the business transaction of paying for a piece of music and then not owning it illogical as an outcome.       

Nevertheless, it is a fascinating process to be involved in.  Here in Minnesota, we are fortunate to have many individuals and foundations who support the commissioning of new music generously.  Indeed there is a commissioning club of individuals who have helped bring dozens of new pieces into existence over many years.  Organizations like the UK’s Birmingham Contemporary Music Group run highly successful programs inviting supporters to invest in new works by buying shares.  That might be something we develop at The Schubert Club in the coming year or two.  Watch this space.



The graphic above is part of a composition by composer David Evan Thomas.