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September 29, 2002

The Economics of Mozart


Everyone knows the story of Mozart, the composer who was so childishly self-indulgent and self-destructive that, despite his immense gifts, he descended into poverty, illness and an early grave. After all, how could such a talent have failed to make a brilliant career in Vienna, the "Holy City" of music, except by self-sabotage? Actually, Mozart’s fate seems to have been more the result of the failings of late 18th century Viennese economy than any flaws of his personality.

Vienna’s economy was quite simply based on being the capital of the Hapsburg Empire. Cash to sustain its opulence migrated to Vienna via imperial taxes and feudal rents from productive centers as far apart as Belgium, Italy, Poland and the Balkans. As Peter Hall puts it in “Cities in Civilization”:

…Vienna thus remained essentially a capital of conspicuous consumption, not a center of production…The aristocracy enjoyed fabulous wealth…The professions and the services—medicine, law, education, entertainment and information—ministered to them, at adequate if not lavish terms. …Industry was small-scale, inefficient and badly paid…This was an extraordinarily backward city technologically and organizationally… Overall, in Vienna few lived well and the poor, who were the great majority, lived miserably.

Imperial Vienna: Capital of Conspicuous Consumption

In the early 18th Century, Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI recognized the Austrian empire’s economic backwardness as a strategic liability. When his daughter Maria Theresa came to the throne, she began administrative and economic reforms. These “reforms” did not entail any liberalization of the economy; rather, quite the contrary, they focused on creating a centralized bureaucracy directly responsible to the monarch. Maria Theresa’s political and economic model, in short, was not England but the France of Louis XIV. Maria Theresa’s reforms were continued after her death by her son Joseph during the 1780s—the decade of Mozart’s career in Vienna.

While not very interested in private enterprise, the Hapsburgs were very supportive of music and had been for over a century. The houses of the great nobles imitated them in this. As a result, music throve in Vienna, and musicians could too--but only if they attracted patronage. Gluck, Haydn and Salieri spent most of their lives on either imperial or aristocratic salaries. Predictably, as far as the “business” of music went, Vienna remained rather backward. Peter Hall points out:

Vienna was not the innovator [in the professionalization of classical music]: formal concerts…first developed in London in the 1720s and grew greatly in number between 1750 and 1790 …In Vienna concerts developed later, becoming frequent only in the 1780s…[Moreover, in Vienna] most concerts were developed by middle-class amateurs, ‘resembling the events of most provincial cities.’

Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781, fleeing the stifling “security” of a poorly paying patronage job in Salzbourg, and looking to make good in the big city. The choice that greeted him was whether to chase the possibility of someday obtaining a secure paycheck as a patronage employee, or to pursue the immediate if limited opportunities in the local commercial music business. As Maynard Solomon points out in his biography, “Mozart,” the young musician, who was far from being the unworldly child-genius of myth, chose to vigorously plunge into any money-making opportunities he could find while hoping for patronage to descend.

Mozart: The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

While supporting himself by teaching and composing, Mozart focused his serious ambitions on writing an opera, thus hoping to break into the musical big time. With Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail he achieved an international success--productions in 15 German-speaking cities--but neither riches nor patronage. The Emperor, not known for his cutting-edge taste, criticized the music: "Too many notes, my good Mozart!" Financially, Mozart received only the standard theatrical fee for his work. Mozart himself wrote regarding this experience:

I am willing to write an opera, but not to look on with a hundred ducats in my pocket and see the theater making four times as much in a fortnight. I intend to produce my opera at my own expense, I shall clear at least 1,200 florins by three performances and then the management may have it for fifty ducats…

Unfortunately, opera production was securely in the hands of the imperial theater management, so Mozart turned his entrepreneurial energies to concert promotion. He had noticed that the public was wildly enthusiastic when he performed his own music. Since the large court theaters were rarely available for commercial purposes, he decided to offer a subscription series of concerts in smaller, unconventional venues. He ended up giving an unprecedented 18 subscription concerts between 1784 and 1786. During these years he also sold sheet music from his compositions, held “balls” in his own apartment (performing from six at night to seven the following morning) and continued to teach, all while writing over 150 different works, from operas to sonatas to dance music. Not surprisingly, this superhuman productivity provided Mozart with a comfortable income for a few years.

However, at the end of 1786 his public concert series came to an end, apparently because he was suffering from a painful inflammation of his hands. Mozart turned to writing operas for a fee again, which helped but didn’t replace the lost entrepreneurial income from the concerts. He was appointed court composer on the death of Gluck, but at half the pay, which led to his comment that he was paid "too well for what I do, not well enough for what I could do." Frankly, as a result of his childhood under an extremely controlling father, Mozart simply wasn't cut out to play the patron-artist game. And yet other sources of income in Vienna's top-down, pre-modern economy were wanting.

As this dreary period dragged on into 1788, he ran into another problem for an artist dependent on an aristocractic audience: war. An unpopular war with Turkey that began in 1788 limped on through 1791. Opera production virtually halted and concert activity plummeted as the aristocracy, fearing conscription into the army, headed for the provinces en masse. For Mozart, the consequence of these economic reverses was, as Maynard Solomon notes, something close to a total breakdown, leaving him deeply depressed and impairing his productivity.

Largely by strength of will Mozart rebounded in 1791. In the eleven months remaining to him he wrote two operas, most of a requiem mass and many other works—essentially, anything remunerative that came his way, high art or low— before his fatal illness took him. Maybe four years of financial problems—caused not by his own fecklessness but rather by the real difficulty of surviving in Vienna for an artist unsuited to the patronage game—didn’t kill him outright, but one doubts that they contributed to his health or artistic productivity.

Echoes of the Hapsburgs?

I also note in passing that the Viennese model of patronage is almost exactly what most left-wing supporters of the arts would desire in today’s America: public funding handed out by an elite disdainful of crass commercial considerations. They should be careful what they wish for: it might come true.



posted by Friedrich at September 29, 2002


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