Haydn’s career is in many ways revealing
of the nature and importance of the patronage system in the evolution of Western music. After struggling as a freelance musician, he received a position as the Kapellmeister, or “court musician”, of the powerful Esterhazy family. He worked at the family’s palace for a total of thirty years, with a brief pause in the middle of his career in which he travelled to France and England, and in return received financial support. Haydn’s isolation in the palace allowed to him to establish a unique musical identity, and the Esterhazys’ constant demand for new works of music essentially led to Haydn composing 106 symphonies, incidentally also garnering the title “the Father of the Symphony”, and inventing the string quartet. Despite how how uniquely intimate the relationship between patronage and Haydn’s career may appear, in reality Haydn was part of a long-standing tradition of musicians, such as Bach and Handel, who composed for royalty and nobility.
Patronage played a substantial role in early modern Europe and arguably provided a basis for much of the cultural and artistic development during the era. Though patronage had been practiced in Ancient Greek and Roman times, its modern re-emergence in Europe began during the late Middle Ages and eventually blossomed during the Italian Renaissance. Popes, kings, queens, princes, princesses, and nobles all commissioned work from artists, originally primarily religious art, in an exchange that allowed influential people and families to assert their wealth and power and that provided artists with the resources they needed to thrive and to produce more art. Perhaps the most famous example of Renaissance patronage is the Florentine Medici Family, who for years commissioned works from Michelangelo. For centuries, the patronage system sustained prolific culture of arts and music in Europe, and numerous artists’ careers came to depend on this system. However, in the 19th century, as European society became increasingly capitalist, patronage by governments and powerful families gradually declined and gave way to a culture of more freelance artists and individualistic expression.
Today, elements of patronage still exist but generally take the form of certain people or institutions commissioning individual works from artists. The former cultural centrality of patronage and the dependence of artists on patrons that could be seen from the 14th through 18th centuries no longer exists. This change has both its benefits and drawbacks. Patronage allowed for a proliferation of art and music that had not been seen for the last millennium. Additionally, it ensured, at least to an extent, the survival and well-being of artists. Ultimately, it secured a steady production and cultural presence of art by providing incentives and opportunities for artists. That said, an artist’s relationship to a patron was highly unequal, and patrons generally could dictate what an artist would produce. In many ways, patrons “created” culture by ordering artists to produce works that suited their own tastes, and the more organic and diverse flourishing of arts that came in the 19th century was not seen. Finally, musicians, essentially vulnerable to the demands of their patrons, were forced to compose numerous works in often short amounts of time (perhaps Haydn himself is the best example of this), a situation that many musicians found undesirable.