Four Composers Who Struggled Before Achieving Success

For young composers struggling to get ahead in their profession, it’s easy to become dispirited by the inevitable rejection or other setbacks that will be faced.  In tough moments such as these, much solidarity can be found meditating upon the challenges of those who came before us.

Here are four composers who faced considerable difficulties before eventually achieving success.  Though they may be separated by language, nationality, and epoch, their struggles are in many ways universal and the message of their stories is clear: if they could succeed in the face of hardship, maybe we can too.


Joseph Haydn

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1791.

Joseph Haydn is one of the most widely performed composers in history, but the now-revered “Father of the String Quartet” and “Father of the Symphony,” as posterity would later dub him, had more than his share of hardships in his early life.

Haydn began his musical studies in earnest while living with a relative, a schoolmaster and choirmaster named Johann Matthias Frankh, in whose care Haydn mainly remembered being hungry.  He was later taken in as a choirboy for St. Stephen’s Cathedral by the rather unscrupulous Georg von Reutter, who also shared the bad habit of underfeeding his choristers.  After pulling an ill-advised prank that involved cutting-off a fellow singer’s pigtail, Haydn was caned and summarily dismissed from St. Stephen’s—turned onto the cold November streets of Vienna with only a weathered coat and three shirts in his possession.

Fortunately, Haydn was taken in by his friend Johann Michael Spangler, where he shared a leaky garret room with Spangler’s entire family.  Haydn swiftly began pursuing a career as a freelancer and, despite continuing to struggle financially for some time, was able develop his musical skills and build up his reputation as a composer.

After many years of toil, Haydn was finally appointed to the prestigious position of Kapellmeister under the Austrian aristocrat Count Morzin.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Haydn went on to become one of the leading musical figures of his day and is now one of the most recognized and performed composers of all time.  Best of all, he never had to worry about going hungry again.

Franz Berwald

Franz Berwald, circa 1860.

Franz Berwald is perhaps the least well-known name included here, but his music has nevertheless found many an admirer in the classical music community.  Despite the great advantage of being born into musically literate family, life had its way of intervening and Berwald was prevented from following his passion for many years.

After the sudden death of his father in 1825, Berwald was forced to relinquish his musical studies and work as an orthopedic surgeon in order to sustain his family.  He found success in this profession, inventing tools that would still be used for decades after his death, but stopped composing altogether in order to provide for those he loved.

Berwald eventually achieved enough financial stability to resume composing on a part-time basis, but had to find other ways to make ends meet, which later included managing a sawmill and a glassblowing factory in Sweden.  Despite these setbacks, Berwald managed to produce a respectable catalog of music, including four symphonies and numerous concerti, operas, and chamber works.  Sadly, many of them would not be performed within is lifetime.

It was only in his final years that Berwald was able to fully support himself through his music.  He was honored with the coveted Order of the Polar Star for his work and landed a prestigious post at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm.  Though this period of musical stardom would turn out to be fleetingly brief, Berwald lived out his days having finally attained some of the recognition he so sorely deserved.

Berwald’s music is now celebrated among aficionados as some of the most audacious and original of the Romantic era.  For some, success comes later rather than sooner.

Carl Nielsen

Carl_Nielsen_c._1908_-_Restoration
Carl Nielsen, circa 1908.

Today, Carl Nielsen is widely considered Denmark’s most prominent composer, but the road to his place in history was by no means an easy one.

He was the seventh of twelve children born to a poor family on the Danish island of Funen.  His father worked as a farm laborer and painter, while his mother ran the large household.  While both of his parents were musically gifted, they lacked the resources to provide him any proper musical training.  Additionally, Nielsen had to work from a very young age to help support his family.

Fortunately, his parents recognized his talents at an early age and gifted him a three-quarter size violin on which to practice.  Later, when he was just fourteen, Nielsen successfully auditioned for the military orchestra in Odense.  The composer later recalled:

I was paid three kroner and 45 øre every five days, plus a loaf of bread (…) This is how I lived for two and a half years, after which my salary increased a little, but I had to buy my own civilian clothes in order to be able to play at barn dances.

Released after four years of military service, Nielsen was soon admitted to the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where at last he was able to receive a rounded education in music performance and theory.

He went on to composer numerous chamber and orchestral works, two operas, three concerti, and six powerful symphonies.  Apart from his status as a Danish national icon, he is now considered by many, including the music critics Kyle Gann and Alex Ross, to be one the most underrated composers of all time.

Philip Glass

glass-cbd87385300f03163adcbef662771999afa1dc76-s700-c85.jpg
Philip Glass in 1980. Photo by Jack Mitchell.

Philip Glass may be the closest thing to a classical music superstar alive.  The venerable composer of such works as Music in 12 Parts, Einstein on the Beach, and Glassworks began his career, however, under much less auspicious circumstances.

After several years studying abroad, Glass arrived to New York City in early 1967 and began pursuing a professional career in music.  To support his work, which was met with some derision from the classical music community at the time, Glass performed a variety of odd-jobs, including running a moving company with his cousin, working as a plumber, and even driving a taxi.  This part-time labor continued for many years—right up to the commissioning of his second opera Satyagraha in 1979, no less.

Glass later related a humorous incident from this period in a profile for The Guardian, recalling:

I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo.  While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. “But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?” It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. “But you are an artist,” he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.

Glass went on to become one of the most recognized names in classical music and has been described by the music critic Tom Service as “arguably the most influential composer across the whole range of the musical world.”  It’s fortunate for us that he’s not still driving taxis.

(Painting by anonymous: “Joseph Haydn playing quartets,” circa 1790)

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