- Quarter Notes and Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Historians have only begun to study the rise and evolution of the music business. Most of what is known about the subject comes from journalists and popular writers, whose work on the business is generally narrow and incomplete. Historical literature on music and commerce has focused primarily on industrial developments in the [End Page 701] United States since 1877, when Thomas Edison made the first phonographic recording. This new book by F. M. Scherer explores aspects of the music business in Western Europe during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and asks the question of how classical composers there made the transition from feudal to capitalist society. The book emphasizes that the period's broad economic and political changes not only weakened the power of noble courts and religious establishments, but also strengthened the demand for classical compositions and propelled composers into an age of freelance activity.
Scholars have long recognized that the most talented composers of feudal Europe worked for noble courts and churches. Some have suggested that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ushered in the era of freelance work in the late eighteenth century when he sold admission tickets to his concerts on a subscription basis. Scherer argues that the transition from feudal to capitalist society was more gradual and interesting than previous scholarship implies. He explains that composers embraced market-oriented activity well before Mozart's time and held on to feudal structures and practices long afterwards.
As a retired economist from Harvard University's Kennedy School, Scherer brings a much-needed sense of maturity and respectability to the study of music and commerce. With multiple regression analysis and other professional economists' tools, he offers a systematic study of quantitative and qualitative data. His work draws from a sample of more than 600 composers born in Europe between 1650 and 1850. It includes more than thirty figures and tables on the economics of music composition as well as appendices that track currency exchange rates and examine the spending habits of composers. It also has an impressive list of references that summarizes the literature on music composition.
Though the work focuses primarily on composers' occupational choices and business strategies, it sheds light on many related topics and themes. It identifies, for example, regions of Europe that were most conducive to freelance activity. Contrary to popular belief, Austria provided as many employment opportunities as Germany in these years, which had a plethora of noble courts. New job opportunities in teaching, performing, and selling music compositions were found mostly in "free" cities of Europe, where nobles and church dignitaries had little control over economic affairs. The "magnet" cities of Europe included Vienna as well as London and Paris, each of which attracted talented composers from around the world. Scherer shows that traveling to these cities was especially difficult and unpleasant in the eighteenth century. It was also costly and slow. Transportation developments of the nineteenth century made traveling easier and more practical, and thus promoted market-oriented activity. [End Page 702]
Scherer's work on the economics of music publishing is especially informative. Innovations in the printing of music encouraged the rise of music publishing firms in the early nineteenth century, which increasingly reached out to composers for new material. The most successful of these firms generated a new source of income for composers, but only by tapping the growing demand of middle class audiences for music. The rising demand for music paralleled the development of national copyright laws. The English Parliament passed the first modern copyright law in 1709, granting exclusive publication rights to writers and composers for fourteen to twenty-one years, depending on the age and type of material printed. Other nations of Europe, however, did not follow suit until the nineteenth century. The impact of these laws on the financial status of composers remains unclear, but Scherer challenges the notion...