Commissioning New Music
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Back in the good old days, composers were craftsmen who created their products on demand. If you worked for a church, you knew you had to come up with music, preferably new music, for services each week. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, was a very busy man. If you worked for a wealthy nobleman, you provided whatever music he needed—for dances, dinner background, private concerts, or the chapel. Josef Haydn had a job like that for several decades with the Esterhazy family. Salamone Rossi’s day job was (as one of a stable of composers) providing such music for the Gonzaga family.
Beethoven was one of the first composers to eschew the status of a composer-servant. He composed symphonies and then acted as his own producer to have them performed. While he did enjoy the support of several wealthy patrons, he refused to sacrifice his independence. He also was a shrewd, if sometimes unscrupulous, negotiator with music publishers.
Over time, it became more common to see independent composers being commissioned to write a specific piece for a specific performance marking a specific occasion. Thanks to the popularity of the stage play and film, Amadeus, we’re all aware of the mysterious messenger who commissioned Mozart to write a requiem. Contrary to what was depicted in the script, the commission actually came from Count Walsegg for a requiem mass that would be performed on the first anniversary of his wife’s death.
These days, commissions rarely come from kings or dukes or counts. Most composers hold down day jobs, often as teachers, and often compose when the music strikes them, without potential for performance or profit. If a composer is fortunate, she or he may receive a commission from a performer or an ensemble, or from a government entity or a religious institution.
The Jewish sacred choral repertoire is relatively small, compared to what is available for most choruses. A good deal of choral music has been written for many churches for nearly a millennium. Synagogues, far fewer in number, have been featuring choral music for only the last two centuries. Secular music for voices has been around for the general public since at least the 16th century—at first only small groups singing for the wealthy, and later for large democratic choral societies. But the first secular Jewish choral tradition (in terms of music with specifically Jewish content) is only slightly more than a century old.
But the repertoire has been growing. Directors of choral societies that are dedicated to Jewish-themed music have commissioned new works, which they have eagerly shared with their colleagues. Of course, when you commission new music, you’re taking a chance. Usually you approach a composer with whose works you’re already familiar. But still all kinds of things can happen. The music might not arrive on time or it might be too difficult or otherwise inappropriate for your ensemble or for your audience. Or the opposite can occur; a new composition may be the composer’s best work yet, destined to become a national or even international favorite.
Since its beginning, the Zamir Chorale of Boston has commissioned 31 new compositions from composers such as Daniel Pinkham and Yehezkel Braun. Many of them have become cherished parts of our repertoire. The first was the jazzy “Shir Ahavah” by Jef Labes in 1970. And most recently, for our 50th anniversary, we commissioned 6 accomplished composers to create new works to premiere at our gala concert June 4 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. Jeremiah Klarman, Ken Lampl, Jonathan Leshnoff, Charles Osborne, Nick Page and Benjie Ellen Schiller have given us these compositions, and I am pleased to report that they all arrived in time, and every one of them is quite beautiful. We look forward to sharing these brand new pieces with our audiences and then with our colleagues, so they can be enjoyed by many choruses and ultimately heard by many audiences around the globe.