Tchaikovsky on the Paradox of Patronage and the Challenge of Retaining Creative Freedom in Commissioned Work
“I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.”
By Maria Popova
The origin of altruism has long intrigued scientists and philosophers alike, and one of its most enduring manifestations is the practice of patronage, from the Medici to Kickstarter. From The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain) — the same 1905 tome that gave us the great composer on work ethic vs. inspiration and depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul — comes his meditation on the paradoxes of patronage and the timeless tension between creative purpose and commissioned work.
On May 1st, 1877, he sent his lifelong benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, the following letter, bespeaking so many of the modern-day maladies of work-for-hire, the flawed on-demand paradigm of inspiration, and the enormous psychological barriers many of us erect against accepting financial help:
HONOURED NADEJDA FILARETOVNA,
In spite of obstinate denials on the part of a friend who is well known to both of us, I have good reason to suppose that your letter, which I received early this morning, is due to a well-intentioned ruse on his part. Even your earlier commissions awoke in me a suspicion that you had more than one reason for suggesting them: on the one hand, you really wished to possess arrangements of some of my works; on the other knowing my material difficulties you desired to help me through them. The very high fees you sent me for my easy tasks forced me to this conclusion. This time I am convinced that the second reason is almost wholly answerable for your latest commission. Between the lines of your letter I read your delicacy of feeling and your kindness, and was touched by your way of approaching me. At the same time, in the depths of my heart, I felt such an intense unwillingness to comply with your request that I cannot answer you in the affirmative. I could not bear any insincerity or falsehood to creep into our mutual relations. This would undoubtedly have been the case had I disregarded my inward promptings, manufactured a composition for you without pleasure or inspiration, and received from you an unsuitable fee in return. Would not the thought have passed through your mind that I was ready to undertake any kind of musical work provided the fee was high enough? Would you not have had some grounds for supposing that, had you been poor, I should not have complied with your requests?
Finally, our intercourse is marred by one painful circumstance in almost all our letters the question of money crops up. Of course it is not a degradation for an artist to accept money for his trouble; but, besides labour, a work such as you now wish me to undertake demands a certain degree of what is called inspiration, and at the present moment this is not at my disposal. I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.
But Von Meek’s response, exuding the poetic faux-solipsism of altruism, reveals that the paradox of patronage is no paradox at all — what’s at stake is not a transaction but, as Henry Miller has eloquently argued, an exchange of mutual gratification:
I am looking after you for my own sake. My most precious beliefs and sympathies are in your keeping; your very existence gives me so much enjoyment, for life is the better for your letters and your music; finally, I want to keep you for the service of the art I adore, so that it may have no better or worthier acolyte than yourself. So, you see, my thought for your welfare is purely egotistical and, so long as I can satisfy this wish, I am happy and grateful to you for accepting my help.
Tchaikovsky, indeed, was greatly gratified by working for patrons — or “clients,” by modern standards of commissioned work — himself recognizing how unusual that was, and seemingly enjoying it all the more for its unorthodoxy in creative culture:
The majority of my fellow-workers, for instance, do not like working to order; I, on the other hand, never feel more inspired than when I am requested to compose something, when a term is fixed and I know that my work is being impatiently awaited.
Published August 24, 2012