Before and after they were famous

A young Wagner, sketched by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz, around the time that he arranged La Favorita for Schlesinger.

Most musicians don’t become stars immediately. There are always exceptions – Yehudi Menuhin, who in the hideous Nazi-sponsored Encyclopedia of Jews in Music (Berlin 1940), was sarcastically labelled a “wunderkind”, the sarcasm failing woefully as he truly was a child wonder; then there are the children of musical families – Mozart and his sister, Nannerl, and generations of the family Bach. For many musicians their working life may consist of a mixture of musical and non-musical jobs. Others are able at some point to focus on a particular musical path. Some may choose to keep music as a much loved sideline.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was cataloguing a new acquisition – a vocal score of Donizetti’s La favorita (MR260.a.80.755), published in French, by Maurice Schlesinger, ca. 1840. We have already got a couple of editions of this here at the UL, but this one was particularly interesting, as it is the first edition of Richard Wagner’s arrangement of the work. It was to become the most celebrated of several piano reductions made during Wagner’s time in Paris when he was living in straitened circumstances and worked for Schlesinger as an arranger. So what other jobs have famous musical names had in the past?

Of those who chose to keep music as a sideline, John Marsh, who has been mentioned on here previously, was a lawyer, while more recently Charles Ives worked in Life Insurance – he was also a star sprinter, who according to his coach, could have been even better, if he hadn’t devoted so much of his spare time to music. For most of his life, Alexander Borodin combined his musical life with a notable career as a chemist. He had previously worked as a surgeon, and played an important part in establishing medical courses for female students.

Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver while writing Einstein on the Beach, having previously worked as a plumber. He knew that he had become well-known when a passenger enthusiastically noted that her cabbie had the same name as a famous composer.

Tchaikovsky spent a few years working as a civil servant before joining the brand new St. Petersburg Conservatory, while Berlioz trained as a doctor till the sight of corpses and rats during an anatomy class made him even more determined not to continue as a medical student (for his own account of events see The memoirs of Hector Berlioz (M517.c.200.12)).

Jerome Kern had one of the nicest accidental entries into music. Determined to be a composer, his father was less keen, and persuaded him to enter the family business; an unfortunate error when Kern ordered 200 pianos instead of just 2, convinced his father that young Kern might be better off working in music, instead of bankrupting the business.

Pop and jazz musicians seem to have some of the most unusual pre-breakthrough careers – Rod Stewart worked in Highgate Cemetery, while Freddie Mercury ran a market stall; Noel Gallagher was a roadie for Inspiral Carpets, and Duke Ellington, a freelance sign-painter.

Equally fascinating are some post-music careers, William Herschel first worked as a musician, including a season as a soloist in Charles Avison‘s orchestra in Newcastle, before turning to astronomy; while his sister, Caroline, started her life in England as a singer before following her brother into astronomy – she would become the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society.

Alex James, bassist of the band, Blur, now makes cheese, while Robert Dean, former guitarist in the group, Japan, has one of the more unusual post-music careers as an illustrator of ornithology books.

All of which goes to prove what a wonderfully disparate bunch are musicians. Musical talent will out, whether you’re a nun, a newspaper delivery boy, a ticket counter at a theatre, or a trainee forester or blacksmith. Have you guessed the musicians? Answers will appear next week on our Facebook and Twitter pages, and in the comments section here.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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