Music Post: Composers who also had other careers


Charles Ives, the successful New York insurance executive.

In the Roaring Twenties a New York insurance agency was famous for having invented estate planning, and the head of the firm was wealthy and a hard man to see – unless you were a musician. Then he would clear his calendar to chat with you.

The firm was Ives & Myrick, and while most New York movers and shakers knew Julius Myrick was a great promoter of professional tennis, few knew that Charles Ives was a composer.

Ives was not an amateur composer: he studied music at Yale under Horatio Parker, and his father had been a bandleader. By the Roaring Twenties he had written most of the works we know today, but revised them to the end of his life.

The people who knew Ives as an insurance industry magnate would have been surprised to learn Ives was a composer but they would have been shocked – shocked! – learn that he was avant-garde, fond of dissonance and polyrhythms. He got this from his father, and from hearing two marching bands playing different tunes at the same time. Even his Symphony Nol. 1, a student work, shifts into almost every key.


Alexander Borodin, the important chemist who composed.

Four of the five members of Russia’s Mighty Handful were citizen composers, at least at first. The leader of the gang, Mily Balakirev, who exhorted the others to write a specifically Russian music, had conservatory training himself. But later he more or less disappeared from the music scene and was later found working on the railway. Of the others, Moussorgsky was a bureaucrat, Borodin was a chemist (still mentioned in books on chemistry for his work on aldehydes, or so the music history books say), Cesar Cui was an Army engineer who specialized in fortifications, and Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, though he would later resign his commission and “turn pro,” teaching at conservatory.


Jean Cras, French naval officer and composer.

Contrasting with this was Jean Cras, a lifelong French naval officer who composed excellent music his spare time. Cras’ chamber works were performed in Paris to good reviews while he was still in uniform working on navigational aids that still bear his name. Like Rimsky-Korsakov, Cras wrote music hinting at exposure to many musics on his early naval tours.


Kurt Atterberg, the composer who worked in the Swedish patent office.

Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974) was a well-known composer in Sweden for most of his life, and is now coming to international notice, but spent most of his adult life working in the Swedish patent office, and eventually would head it. Throughout those years he was known and respected in Swedish musical circles.

by Lemuel Francis Abbott,painting,1785

William Herschel, composer, who discovered Uranus.

William Herschel (1738-1822) is an especially interesting case. The famous astronomer who discovered Uranus was a musician first, composing 18 symphonies for small orchestra and six for large orchestra over a 22-year period from 1760 to 1782, so, while he lived to 1822 and published his astronomical discoveries from 1780 into the 1800s, his musical career falls within that of Haydn. Astronomy was an avocation for Herschel until the British royal family paid him enough financial support to switch to stargazing full-time. After that, astronomy became the family business, with valuable help from his sister and his son, who made important discoveries of their own. Uranus was almost named Herschel, and the symbol for it includes an “H” in his honor.

There are a couple interesting cases of composers whose “day jobs” were working as heads of state. C.P.E. Bach was music director for flute-playing Frederick the Great (1712-1786), king of Prussia for 46 years. Based on the difficulty of the flute parts in C.P.E. Bach’s music, his boss was, if not a virtuoso, significantly better than one would expect from an amateur. He composed four symphonies and more than 100 flute sonatas himself.


Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani, poly-instrumentalist and prolific composer.

Liliuokalani (1838-1917) became Hawaiian queen in 1891 on the death of King David Kalakaua, her brother. Hawaii was sought as an ally by England, Russia and other countries, but grew close to the United States instead, only to find itself a vassal state, with the monarchy overthrown in 1893 and the queen imprisoned until it became clear she would live quietly if left alone. In Washington, one political party and president supported restoration of the monarchy, but the other opposed it, and came to power in the next administration. While the matter was argued in Washington until 1898 with plenty of manland lawmakers sympathetic to the monarchy, they didn’t win the day, and in that year Hawaii became a U.S. territory. Liliuokalani sued for restoration of sovereignty in 1909 but the effort failed. (Hawaii readers know all this; I include it for others.) The queen played guitar, ukulele, piano, organ and zither, sang in English and Hawaiian, and composed more than 100 pieces including “Aloha ‘Oe.” Several of them were arranged for string quartet.


Pope Gregory, who did NOT write the Gregorian chants.

No survey of composers with other careers would be complete without mentioning the interesting case of Pope Gregory I (540-604) and Gregorian Chant.

But not because he wrote the chants.

We used to think that. But as years went by and musical research increased, the number of Gregorian chants grew until there were far too many to have been written by any single person. What we know is that Gregory I (a senator’s son and himself the prefect of Rome before becoming a church emissary) reorganized the church, standardizing worship in all its regions, so a Christian could travel anywhere in the Roman world and recognize the church service. Using approved chants was part of this. Gregory didn’t write the music; he wrote the policy that led to it. And Gregorian chants are still performed 15 centuries later.

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