Faulte d’argent

By Miranda Wilson

There’s a piece by Josquin Desprez, Faulte d’argent, that laments the musician’s perennial problem. “Faulte d’argent, c’est douleur nompareille!” begins the text, plaintively: “Lack of money, it’s unparalleled sadness!” The voices work their way through a canon as the text gets darker and darker: “Femme qui dort pour l’argent on l’eveille,” “A sleeping woman will wake up for money.” While this may be a distasteful piece of fifteenth-century misogyny, the point is clear; we are all singing for our supper. (Josquin made this point in another work, the famous El grillo. The cricket, Josquin pointedly writes, will sing all day for love alone.The underlying message, of course, is “but I won’t.”)

Every day I’m amazed at how love–which is a huge part of this profession, even when you’re getting paid–compels talented people to make ends meet on tiny incomes. Most classical musicians have the kind of education, entrepreneurial temperament and work ethic that would equip them for success in any profession. They also find a way to live on air.

Back in the days when I belonged to a freelance string quartet, my income was ludicrously low, and yet I always had enough money because I exercised the same kind of financial prudence that I see everywhere in the music profession. My touring expenses were considerable–domestic and international plane tickets (two on each trip, since the cello had to have its own seat), hotel rooms, restaurant meals–but I was never in debt and I put 10% of all income into a savings account every month. I can see now that I was able to stay solvent because my day-to-day expenses weren’t high. I rented rooms in shared apartments, I had no dependents, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have cable television, I didn’t have a home phone, I only bought clothes from second-hand shops or budget stores like Target, I didn’t buy fancy gadgets, I was very good at working out deductions in my annual tax returns. By contrast, now that I have a monthly salary, I feel much poorer in many ways than I did back then. I earn far more than I’d ever dreamed possible (I do not wish to imply that I am wealthy!), but houses and children, though wonderful, simply eat money.

I wonder if audience members at classical concerts realize, when they watch the well-dressed players on the stage, how little money those people make. It’s hard to imagine that a person in a $400 gown playing a $100,000 instrument might be struggling to pay rent, and yet, this is almost universally the case. The gown probably has to last four or five years of constant wear, and the instrument is on loan from a foundation or a sponsor, who can snatch it back at a moment’s notice. The player’s shiny concert shoes probably come from Walmart or Payless, and their undergarments will be the sort that come in a pack of 10.

Even knowing this, I was still shocked recently while discussing this subject with a friend who had “made it” in every conceivable way. First prizes in competitions, major career grants, appearances in famous concert venues and important concert series, commercially released recordings, interviews in all the top music magazines. I wasn’t going to ask what he made, but he volunteered the information. At first I thought the figure he named was his earnings minus touring expenses, but no, he told me, it was his gross income. “I couldn’t have worked any more than I did,” he told me, with some bitterness; “I had several concerts every week of the year.” He made, by the way, about $3,000 more than what I used to make  as a quartet player. While we were, I think, a good young quartet, I’ll be the first to admit that we weren’t the top of the top. Was this paltry figure, I wondered, the best we could possibly have hoped for, ever?

This conversation made me realize that although I do miss many aspects of life on the road–the exciting foreign countries and cultures, the charming music-lovers you meet, and, especially, the chance to play Beethoven and Haydn quartets with three other people who care as deeply and strive as hard as I do for perfection–I really, really don’t miss the low income. I may still feel poor these days, but at least a teaching job, or any form of stable base income, affords a musician the chance to have a family. And I wouldn’t have my life any other way.


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