My local public radio station KUSC ran a feature not too long ago naming the 10 composers who banked the most money over the course of their careers. Adjusted for inflation then, here are the 10 biggest money makers:
1. George Gershwin 2. Johann Strauss II 3. Giuseppe Verdi 4. Gioachino Rossini 5. George Frideric Handel 6. Joseph Haydn 7. Sergei Rachmaninoff 8. Giacomo Puccini 9. Niccola Paganini 10. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
I was surprised that Philip Glass didn't make the list, considering the many, many films that have been underscored with his music. Also, I believe he holds the record for receiving the largest commission of all time from the Metropolitan Opera for his Christopher Columbus opera ($325,000).
It's also interesting that Gershwin is considered a "classical composer" but someone like John Williams isn't (otherwise for sure he'd be on the list). Both Gershwin and Williams were/are composers, conductors and pianists. Both wrote numerous concerti and symphonies. Both wrote musicals (do you know Williams' Thomas and the King?) and, of course, both wrote for the movies. For whatever reason, and this clearly has me in a quandary, Williams has never been taken seriously by the classical establishment. He's always and only been a "pops" composer.
I'm not saying Williams is more talented than Gershwin, but if film is our generation's opera, isn't Williams our generation's Verdi? True, Spielberg is the star, not Williams, the way Verdi was the star, not a librettist like Francesco Maria Piave, but I think you see my point. Many of the composers on the list made their money in opera because it really was as popular in its heyday as our movies are today. And royalty payments add up when you've got your show running in numerous cities every night.