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Side Hustle: Composers With Other Jobs

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We're off the clock this week, looking at composers who had second careers! (Pixabay)

It’s become the big story of our modern economy: wages are flat, so people are now working a second or third job—a “side hustle,” as it’s called—to supplement their income. But is this a new phenomenon?

This week, we look at composers who had other jobs or hobbies outside of their music. It’s a show we’re calling “Side Hustle.”

Check out our hard-working playlist below:

  • Antonio Vivaldi, priest Having a job to fall back on when music didn’t work out was a concept Antonio Vivaldi was familiar with from an early age. His own father and first violin teacher Giovanni Battista had been a barber until he was able to perform and tour full time. Following his father’s advice, Vivaldi studied and set himself up with a side hustle as a priest when he was 25. Ironically, it was the obligations of priesthood that became more problematic for Vivaldi than music. He suffered from asthma for most of his life and chanting mass several times a day became too much for his health. Luckily, he landed a job as a music director at a Venetian orphanage and music conservatory only five years after his ordination, and was able to pursue music full time for the rest of his life. He went on to write 500 concertos and 90 operas

  • Alexander Borodin, chemist – Alexander Borodin has a relatively small output of work, and also had trouble finishing his work in a timely manner. But considering that he was a chemist by day and composer by night, the amount that he achieved is incredibly impressive. Borodin spent his days discovering new reactions in the field of organic chemistry. But that wasn't enough. In 1869, he also took on the monumental task of writing an opera based on the Slavic epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which eventually became Prince Igor. The opera is set during the medieval period in which the growing Russian empire battles a nomadic Central Asian tribe called the Polovtsy—this tribe is the basis of the opera’s famous “Polovtsian Dances.” Despite working on Prince Igor on and off for 18 years, Borodin left the opera unfinished when he died suddenly in 1887. After his death, fellow Russian composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov set about trying to complete the unfinished work.

  • Camille Saint-Saëns, astronomer – Music was Camille Saint-Saëns’ job, but many people who knew him wondered if he only worked in music in order to fund his primary obsession: astronomy. Unlike 18th-century composer William Herschel—who wrote symphonies in his spare time and observed the stars and even discovered the planet Uranus as a profession—Saint-Saëns only viewed astronomy as a hobby. But it became a lifelong devotion. At age 23, he wrote a set of piano and harmonium duets, which were popular at the time, and sold them to a publisher just so he could have the money to buy a telescope. He later joined the Astronomical Society of France, and his status as a great composer helped draw attention to the fledgling organization. Nearly 70 years after he died, astronomers even named one of the asteroids in the asteroid belt after him: minor planet 5210 – Saint-Saëns.

  • Charles Ives, insurance agent – While many composers had a side hustle outside of music, for Charles Ives, his side hustle was music! Ives attended Yale University, where he studied composition under Horatio Parker, but he also showed an interest in other pursuits. After college, he went into the insurance business, becoming a very successful professional insurance agent and a mostly unknown amateur composer. Around 1930, at the age of 55, he retired from both pursuits. It was also around this time that his side hustle was finally beginning to be recognized by his musical contemporaries. Composer Henry Cowell was an especially enthusiastic supporter of Ives, and he convinced conductor Nicolas Slonimsky to conduct the premiere of Three Places In New England. Slonimsky premiered the work in 1930, over 15 years after Ives wrote it. Yet Ives had to fund the concert himself—which was only possible because of the money he earned as an insurance agent!

  • Philip Glass, cab driver – Philip Glass transformed the opera world in 1976 with Einstein On The Beach, a four and a half hour work that explores stasis and space instead of traditional notions of narrative and structure. It also helped make Glass a household name. Yet, despite the success, it didn’t stop Glass from keeping his side hustle. While writing Einstein On The Beach, and even for several years after he wrote the opera, Glass worked as a cab driver in New York City—hey, living in New York City is expensive and he had to pay the bills somehow! Glass recalled in his memoir Words Without Music that cab driving in the 1970s could be dangerous, but he enjoyed the flexibility and exploring the streets of New York. Prior to this, Glass worked other odd jobs while trying to jump start his career, including moonlighting as a plumber and working for a moving company.

  • Carl Maria von Weber, private secretary to a Duke – Weber's late operas would usher in a golden age of German Romantic opera. Conversely, his early career was fraught with frustration. An idealist at heart, his first attempts to reform German opera were met with hostility. Fed up with the resistance, he left behind the public theater to become a private secretary to Duke Ludwig, brother to the king of Wurttemberg. While a brilliant musician, Weber was a poor administrator. He fell deeply into debt and transferred money from the ducal funds to pay off his own credit. He was arrested for embezzlement, but the criminal charges against him were mysteriously dropped. This prompted speculation that Weber was privy to suspected corruption at the Wurttemberg court, and that Duke Ludwig valued his silence. Weber returned to music, composing several operas that would cement his success as a professional composer.

  • John Cage, fungus collector – John Cage considered the playfully experimental art of Marcel Duchamp to be an important influence on his music, and paid tribute to the older artist in several pieces. This solo work for prepared piano, an instrument whose insides have been altered with objects like nuts and screws to produce an array of percussive timbres, was composed by Cage for a film that featured design work by Duchamp. Coincidentally, both Duchamp and Cage were also famous for their hobbies and side hustles. Duchamp was a competitive chess player and participated regularly in French national tournaments. Later in life, he retired from art entirely to become a chess tournament journalist. Cage did printmaking and lithography alongside his music. He was also an avid amateur mycologist (that’s the study of funghi), and founded the New York Mycological Society so that he and his friends could expand their mushroom collections.

  • Ignace Jan Paderewski, Prime Minister of Poland – Polish composer Ignacy Paderewski is one of Poland’s favorite sons. He is of course best known in music circles as a virtuoso pianist and legendary interpreter of the music of his countryman, Frederic Chopin. But he also achieved mixed success as a composer, writing some respected piano showpieces. In the 1910s, he more or less retired from composing to devote himself to philanthropy and diplomacy. He was an especially vital force in the formation of an independent Polish state during the waning years of World War I. In fact, he became such a beloved statesman, that he acquired the most prestigious of day jobs, serving as the Prime Minister of Poland for about a year in 1919. He also served as the Polish delegate to the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War, signed the Treaty of Versailles, and became a founding Polish delegate in the newly formed League of Nations.

  • Patti Labelle, bakerPatti LaBelle is a legend of the music industry, but more recently, she’s become just as famous for her culinary skills. Labelle got her start in the 1960s as the soprano lead singer of “Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.” In the 1970s, after a lineup change, the Bluebelles just became “Labelle,” and scored a number one hit with the disco song “Lady Marmalade.” After a successful solo career, Patti LaBelle focused on a different kind of “marmalade” when she started releasing cookbooks featuring her sweet culinary treats. Eventually, this side hustle in baked goods turned into a deal with Wal-Mart, who started carrying Patti LaBelle’s Sweet Potato Pie. In 2015, thanks to some internet buzz, Patti’s Sweet Potato Pies began flying off Wal-Mart’s shelves. And now, business is booming at Wal-Marts all around the country, with Patti LaBelle selling far more pies, puddings, cakes, and cobblers than CDs.

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