THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
Reflections of a Music Publisher
by ERNST ROTH
4. THE MUSIC PUBLISHER: 1
Among all those who live for and off music, the music publisher plays the
most ambiguous part. He stands at the crossroads of art and commerce, where
enthusiasm for the art and business sense meet or miss each other; between
artistic obsession and commercial acumen, promoting the art and translating
it into good money. Composers expect from him both fame and fortune
The musical profession knows him as the man whose curious way of life it
is to give with one hand and take with the other; but the millions of
music-lovers hardly hear about him, although he supposedly renders them
considerable services behind the scenes. Occasionally, though less frequently
than formerly, they read his name on printed copies. There are even some
publishers of operas and ballets who insist that their names be printed on
the programmes, alongside those of the purveyors of shoes and wigs. This
may flatter their vanity, but attracts no attention.
The publisher is a trader, but his trade is as specialized as his merchandise,
which is not really his in the same way that a house or a pair of trousers
would be. He acquires it from its first owner with many liens and on many
conditions, and he acquires it in order not to sell but to exploit it.
'Exploitation' may seem an incongruous word in connection with works of the
spirit, but it describes the publisher's function quite correctly, for in
this new world the methods of distributing music and making it pay have greatly
changed. It is true that the publisher of educational and classical music,
in its proper sense, is no different from the book publisher. Both are simply
selling their publications. But the publisher of contemporary or, more generally,
protected music not only has to sell it- so far as that is still possible-but
must deal with all the new aspects of music which were unknown fifty years
ago and are of paramount moral and material importance for the composer today.
This exploitation of all the old and new opportunities gives the music-publisher
a much greater responsibility for, and greater influence over, the destinies
of the musical art generally than the book- or art-publisher exerts on his
own field. This has hardly added to the music-publisher's reputation, but
it has made his position more delicate. He I6 like Abraham Mendelssohn between
his famous father Moses and his even more famous son Felix-a parenthesis
between the author and the public.
One might assume that the profession of a music-publisher is an eminently
musical one. When music-publishing on a grand scale began, although there
were some engravers among the founding fathers, such as Breitkopf or Artaria,
the majority were in fact musicians, if of minor rank. Neither Anton Diabelli
nor Giovanni Ricordi nor Nicolaus Simrock were composers of distinction-Muzio
Clementi was probably the only notable exception-and these men were shrewd
enough to recognize that they could achieve more with the genius of others
than with their own modest talents. However, as businesses passed on to sons
and grandsons and distant relatives, or changed hands altogether, while at
the same time music became a permanent and reliable source of income with
a future of growing promise, commercial problems tended to overshadow the
purely musical aspects, and today one finds only a few musicians among publishers
of serious music.
I have interviewed many young people who wanted to go into publishing because
they were 'mad on music'. But the young man who is only mad on music sits
reading proofs in a back room for the rest of his life. The musician who
wants to be a publisher needs great powers of self-denial, and perhaps even
a dose of frivolity to teach him that not everything he likes is necessarily
good, that there is a type of music which one can publish only if one does
not know it, that he must not be guided by the professional critic but that
the public represents a supreme court against whose verdict there is no
appeal-and other similar maxims which override the publisher's own personal
leanings and convictions. His time is taken up by never-ending routine work
and by legal, commercial and technical problems, and only now and then, for
all-too-short periods, can he retire from the tumult of business to the quieter
realm of the art he serves. And if he is just a lawyer or businessman he
can well do without such respite.
On the other hand, musicians are usually in the forefront of 'popular'
publishing. Managers of publishing enterprises concerned with pop-songs are
often hard-boiled practitioners, former band-leaders or pop-singers or at
least song-writers, people who cultivate the closest contact with the public
and its fickle tastes, to which they have to conform instantly and
unconditionally. Their attitude is much appreciated by the composers of popular
music and their lyricists, eager to know what the public wants. But a similar
attitude would quickly bring the serious publisher into disrepute. His task
is to make the public like what his composers produce, to defy its preferences,
to educate or even force it into accepting what at first may seem unacceptable
even to him.
There is small comfort in the fact that the expert popular publishers too,
with all their eagerness to please, make mistake after mistake.
How, and why, does one become a serious music publisher without inheriting
a publishing business? There can be no specific gift, no sense of vocation,
which would leave no other choice. One does not become a music-publisher
out of the sense of duty that might call one to be a doctor, a mathematician
or a minister of the church. Moreover, the young man or woman who decides
to go into music-publishing seldom has a clear idea of the career it offers.
It is a rather careless decision to make.
As a warning, or encouragement, I can only tell how I became a music-publisher
My parents must have considered music an important thing in life, for I began
having piano lessons before I started school. (I can still feel some of the
fascination of that first encounter with music and in quiet moments the notes
can look at me as they did then like messengers of an impenetrable mystery.
It is a fleeting but delightful feeling not to have been completely overwhelmed
by so many years of involvement.) I must have made quick progress and spent
more time at the piano than my father liked. After my teacher, a pedant with
a moustache, pince-nez and smoothly parted hair, had presented me in private
circles, he arrived one day, put Mozart's piano concerto in E flat, K. 27I,
on the piano and said peremptorily that I would play the work with orchestra
in public. I then had five years of hard practising behind me, was ten years
old and sure of myself as I was never to be again.
My father, when told, said nothing; my mother was not quite certain what
to make of it. The concert took place in the small hall of the Rudolfinum
in Prague; the success was as great as expected and the papers next morning
were most flattering. But my father took me aside and spoke wisely and sternly
to me: he was very happy with my dexterity on the piano, he knew that T imagined
the life of a pianist to be wonderful and he knew that in this I was sadly
mistaken. He disclosed to me that my music teacher had once hoped to become
a great pianist himself, which impressed me very much. As an artist, he said,
one had to be among the very best, a genius, in order to be really happy.
Woe unto those who had no more than a pleasing talent! They would blame the
whole world for not having the taste to recognize them, and would lead an
embittered existence. In every other walk of life one could be satisfied
with a nice income and good friends-one would not become a doctor, a lawyer
or a merchant with the sole intention of being the best in the world. But
without such ambition one could not even begin to think of becoming a pianist
or musician, and such ambition was itself dangerous, for it held within it
the seeds of lifelong disappointment. After all, the pursuit of music should
not be a profession, it should be a sanctuary, a shelter in life. But a
livelihood? Never! I should continue with my piano lessons, but I should
also study, play tennis in summer and skate in winter. Father would leave
the choice of a profession entirely to me, provided only that I chose a regular
job because regularity was the most important thing in life. If I did not
understand it then, I would do so later on and be grateful to him.
This was an unexpected sequel to the great event. But I was not as disappointed
as one might think. My parents disliked everything ostentatious and never
encouraged us children to attract attention. Modesty, if not actual
subordination, was the guiding principle of our upbringing, and it must have
suited my own constitution. Like all middle-class children at the end of
last century I was born for a quiet life in secure circumstances. Even today
I still belong to that small and slightly comic band who never drop a piece
of paper where they should not; who with perfect sincerity declare to customs
officers at frontiers and airports everything they carry, thereby making
those officials all the more suspicious; who never tire of establishing a
cordial understanding with all those appointed to run their lives, from the
park-attendant to the tax-collector. At the root of such an upbringing and
education was certainly a belief in the higher wisdom of Governments, and
a longing for normality.
As soon as this normality was disturbed, however-and in my time it was more
violently disturbed than it had been since the collapse of the Roman Empire
and the Great Migration-that hankering after reason, tranquillity and order
dangerously reduced one's chances of survival. It must have been the
much-maligned hand of providence which has guided me without permanent harm,
and even with some inner gain, through the adversities of two world wars
and emigration. I could hardly reproach my parents and teachers for having
sent me into this world without any wholesome suspicion. A Bantu boy-at least
at that time-had still to be taught what to do in order not to be eaten by
a lion. After all, wild beasts are fanatics for order and regularity, but
who can fathom human nature?
So I believed my father when he told me that integral calculus and the history
of the War of the Spanish Succession were even more important for my future
happiness than music. I was quite content not to have my interests confined
to a single subject, and this was particularly important in the last years
before and the first few years after the First World War, when so much new
and astounding knowledge was demanding attention. I well remember those first
terms at Prague University, still housed in its old building of AD I 346,
with its dark, vaulted corridors and lecture-rooms where Philip Frank, Albert
Einstein's successor in the chair of theoretical physics, said blasphemous
things about the universe. I remember too the mixture of fear and amazement
with which we greeted the traces of broken atoms in Wilson's cloud chamber,
and how hesitatingly we allowed ourselves to be persuaded that the difference
between a car and a carrot was 'structural' and not material.
For a time music, unable to compete with all these revolutionary and revolting
things, withdrew to the very edge of my world, but I was in no real doubt
that I wanted to spend my life in her company. Having strayed through many
fields, physics and mathematics, philosophy and history, the piano master-class
at Prague's Conservatoire, I obtained my law degree and entered music publishing,
which seemed a sensible compromise between realistic necessity and idealistic
fancy. I expected nothing more than to render some useful service to the
goddess to our mutual benefit. To this end I I also spent some eighteen months
in a special school for the graphic arts, in printing offices and paper-mills,
anticipating that, even for music-publishing, a general attitude would not
be enough and that some specialized knowledge of a technical nature must
be useful, if not actually necessary. The rest has followed as if it could
never have been otherwise, and I have seen music in all its aspects: as an
I art and as a commodity; as a system of staff lines, heads and tails, dots
and slurs hammered into the zinc plate by the engraver and printed by the
offset machine with monumental indifference. But music, in spite of it all,
has remained a true friend, graciously forgiving me my pianistic shortcomings.
How does the publisher find a composer, or the composer a publisher? This
is a vital question for both.
A publisher rarely has the good fortune of a Cimabue who, on his travels,
met the boy Giotto scratching a masterpiece on a rock. Every post heaps mountains
of unsolicited manuscripts on his desk, and these-contrary to widespread
suspicion-are examined, because there is always a possibility of an undiscovered
talent. The music-publisher is better placed in this respect than the book
publisher, who has to deal with typed offerings of no immediately recognizable
individuality. Music, conveniently, must be written by hand, and to do this
well requires years of practice. Nothing gives away the immature dilettante
more mercilessly than an inexperienced hand, and so a quick glance is often
enough for a manuscript to be returned with the stereotyped friendly phrase
in which the unhappy recipient reads only the word 'no'. In more than forty
years I remember only one case when I found a good piece in this way and
published it. It was quite successful, but the composer never wrote another.
Once, too, I heard a piece on the radio which attracted my attention. The
name of the composer was not announced. My inquiries led to a reprimand for
the conductor, who had smuggled the work into his programme without first
submitting it to the controlling panel; but the composer was found and has
made quite a respectable career.
However, these are exceptions. Normally a relationship begins more prosaically.
In this well-organized world nobody can hope to be discovered in anonymous
seclusion: the young composer must go to school, his teachers must observe
the first signs of talent and recommend their pupil. It then remains the
publisher's task to separate winged genius from crawling mediocrity. Here,
perhaps, is the one gift the publisher needs; the flair which is unaffected
It cannot have been easy at any time, because the great mass of published
music has always been mediocre. Even in the nineteenth century, when every
work seemed to be stamped with unmistakable signs either of excellence or
of imperfection, only the average could really have been beyond doubt, conforming
as it did to all the accepted precepts. True greatness, like true incompetence,
is no respecter of rules. In times of greater artistic security composers
could be divided into two types: the traditionalist and the original genius.
Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Brahms fall easily into the first group; Beethoven,
Chopin, Wagner and Debussy into the second. The original genius writes music
such as nobody before him has written; the traditional genius writes essentially
the same music as his contemporaries but does it better. It is a question
of temperament rather than of artistic merit.
The publisher may not always recognize the traditional genius as a genius,
but he will always find his work remarkable. If, however, he is confronted
with an original genius, with music thoroughly new and unproven, he cannot
be blamed if he is beset by doubts. Imagine seeing for the first time the
first of Chopin's Preludes, Op. 28, in manuscript, a graphic image such as
had never been put on paper before, and having to decide whether publication
would be a sound investment. (One should not take umbrage at that word. It
is the publisher's profession to invest money in art so that the art, the
artist and the publisher himself may all three benefit. Only then does the
publisher completely fulfil his mission. The possible sales potential remains
a necessary, though not always acknowledged, consideration because it produces
both fame and fortune.) So Chopin's first publisher-a little swindler, by
the way-had his qualms, but times were secure, and the passion of the public
for new music still burned fiercely.
Even so, the young Wagner could not find a publisher. Today it sounds rather
comical that Franz Schott, when offered Rienzi six months after its successful
premiere, could reply that he was too busy with Herr Lindpaintner's new opera
The Sicilian Vespers to find time for Wagner. Rienzi may not be particularly
alive today, but it is certainly not as dead as Lindpaintner's whole oeuvre.
But at that point, in 1843, Lindpaintner was arrivé and Wagner a beginner.
Wagner did not find Schott's refusal improper, although, a few months later,
he did take exception when Breitkopf and Hartel declined The Flying Dutchman
and published Halevy's Charles VI instead. Wagner had no choice but to finance
the publication of his first operas-Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman and
Tannhauser-himself, and it took him thirty years to settle the resulting
The young Richard Strauss fared little better. Had he started by writing
such voluminous and costly operas as Wagner, he too would have had to publish
them at his own expense. As it was he found a small publisher who bought-for
a pittance-his early songs and his best symphonic poems. Gustav Mahler, with
his gigantic symphonies, was not so lucky and had to pay all the costs of
having them published under the imprint of a Viennese printing firm. Among
the avant-garde at the turn of the century only Debussy seems to have had
no difficulty in finding a proper publisher.
All this figures in the publisher's register of sins of omission. It must
not be forgotten, however, that the old and powerful publishing houses followed
the changes in music with greater anxiety than Press and public. If music
strayed from the well trodden path to success to throw itself into doubtful
experiments they had much to lose. Publishers north of the Alps in particular
must have been irritated by events in Italy, where composers continued with
irrepressible vigour to write their operas to the old recipes and carry home
the laurels from an enraptured musical and unmusical world. Little had altered
since the days of Rossini. While the ageing Verdi produced his amazing Otello
and still more amazing Falstaff, the young Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo,
and lesser figures such as Ponchielli, Giordano and Cilea, were waiting on
the doorstep of the hall of fame. The massive chain of mountains seemed to
be having on music the effect it has always had on the weather: the stormy,
unsettled conditions which beset composers and publishers in the north were
unknown in the south.
Historians often call the nineteenth century the 'century of German music'.
It is certainly true that German symphonic, chamber and instrumental music
far outshone the comparable achievements of other nations. But in the domain
of opera, which occupied a very large section of musical life, if not the
largest, Italian was still the common language. Mozart's operas took a long
time to become internationally accepted. Even such standard German works
as Beethoven's Fidelio or Weber's Freischutz still remain comparatively
provincial successes, within the German Kulturkreis. Wagner, in the second
half of the century, heralded a general change of national emphasis in music;
but in the crisis of the 1890s Italian opera stood firm, and the publishers
on the banks of the Po did not share the worries and consequent frequent
mistakes of their northern colleagues.
The latter's fears soon proved to be well founded. The years before the First
World War, disturbed not only by Debussy and Richard Strauss but also by
Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were only the beginning-though these composers
made Wagner sound traditional. After the war atonality seemed to outpace
Debussy and Strauss. By the time I entered music-publishing in 1922 it had
become almost impossible to discover unmistakable signs of merit or futility
in music. The publisher could only choose between resisting the aggressive
beliefs of 'new' composers and their friends and being carried away by their
arguments. Defying all conventional ideas about music, this new generation
demanded not only the professional services of the publisher but also his
artistic conviction. Wagner had previously started what seemed to be a new
relationship between composer and publisher when he wrote that he could deal
only with a publisher who had faith in his mature works. No word has been
handed down from Beethoven to suggest that he expected more from his publisher
than a fee. Now that music had embarked upon the rejection of its past
achievements and the quest for a new promised land it became an article of
faith; the publisher became a crusader.
Persistent success often creates treacherous ideals. Music publishing owed
its standing and prosperity to the music of the nineteenth century. The new
atonality, and the dodecaphony which followed it, were so much at loggerheads
with everything that had made music great, successful and remunerative that
they could scarcely fail to appear as sinful iconoclasm. Publishers could
muster neither the faith nor the money to embark on adventures whose success
was, to say the least, very doubtful. This new music was not for them.
So it was perhaps to be expected that, instead of one of the great and
long-established publishers, it should be an outsider who threw in his lot
with the New Music. Universal Edition, of Vienna, and its director Emil Hertzka
owed nothing to the past but a 'classical edition', thought to be impervious
to changes, the early works of Richard Strauss and some minor works of Max
Hertzka rose from obscurity to become the figurehead of everything new in
music. The last shot of the Great War had hardly been fired when he clashed
head-on with public opinion by assembling all new music of no fixed abode
under the roof of his publishing business-first and foremost the 'star' trio
of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, but also many others who
did not belong to that 'school', such as Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly, Alfredo
Casella, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Gianfrancesco Malipiero, Darius Milhaud
and a host of lesser names who are now forgotten.
Emil Hertzka was no doctrinaire; nor was he fastidious. He also published
operas by Franz Schreker and Eugen d'Albert without blushing, and in the
midst of all the noise created by 'new music' the successes of Krenek's Jonny
spielt auf, Jaromir Weinberger's Schwanda and, particularly, Weill-Brecht's
Dreigroschenoper were as welcome to him as the riots and fisticuffs which
surrounded Pierrot lunaire and Wozzeck. There was no clear intention, no
consistent, exclusive conviction in his policy. Anyone who had a grudge against
'old' music-or against its representatives-was welcome at Universal Edition.
Hertzka almost seemed to specialize in works rejected by other publishers.
But he may have had the feeling that a new art was about to arise, and that
he could seize an opportunity which older and wealthier publishers were sure
to misjudge and therefore miss. This hectic activity brought not only a few
operatic successes but also some bestsellers, such as Bartok's 'Allegro barbaro'
and Casella's 'Pieces enfantines'. But the bulk of his publications mouldered
on the shelves, awaiting their day. This was unusual, for a publisher habitually
has an eye on the paying (and buying) opera- and concert-going public.
Emil Hertzka was a strange man, a mixture of commercial astuteness and rash
idealism. True enough, Europe was suffering from a degree of inflation which
pre-war economists would have thought impossible, and money lost both its
value and its appeal. But Hertzka could have spent his worthless money on
something more pleasurable than the printing and publishing of music which
nobody else printed and nobody wanted to perform or to hear.
His appearance seemed to contradict his actions: he looked as old-fashioned
as any fin-de-siecle artist, with his long hair, long beard, brown velvet
jacket and large black tie-a majestic figure, half Wotan and half Brahms,
who contrasted strangely with revolutionary music and its vociferous composers
and propagandists. Although I worked for quite a few years next door to him
I never discovered whether he could even read music, nor did I ever hear
him talk about it with enthusiasm or even sympathy. He was more feared than
loved; his thin, sharp voice seemed not to belong to his imposing figure.
He was not a kindly or genial man but displayed a biting and often cynical
sarcasm (which, incidentally, was apparently his most effective weapon in
dealing with Arnold Schoenberg). It was said that Hertzka, for all his costly
and unremunerative patronage of new ideals, never lost sight of his own personal
interests, and we, his assistants, used to sing an uncomplimentary little
song about it to a tune from Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique'. And still he did
what no other music-publisher at that time dared to do, and considerable
sums of money were spent not only on engraving, printing, paper, binding
and publicity but also on supporting financially the struggling prophets
of the new art. All this was done without charm, grace or warm-heartedness,
without any evident generosity-and yet it was still a unique undertaking.
Finally, in the great economic crisis of the late twenties and early thirties,
trouble came to Emil Hertzka and his publishing house and a timely death
spared him much humiliation. The orator at his funeral declared that no one
would ever be able to speak of the new music without mentioning Hertzka's
Now, since the end of the Second World War, more has been said and written
about new music than ever before, but Emil Hertzka is forgotten. It is futile
to speculate on what might have happened to mankind without Julius Caesar
and Napoleon-and to music without Emil Hertzka. I do not believe that one
man can change the course of events, for this is pre-destined by forces more
powerful and incalculable than the whims of any individual. But one man of
genius can accelerate or slow down the otherwise inevitable development.
This alone is his glory or his damnation. And Emil Hertzka should be remembered.
However-and it is perhaps characteristic of the general attitude -although
some kind of halo surrounds the names of less adventurous but better rewarded
music-publishers of the nineteenth century, no publisher of our own pioneering
age has attained any comparable fame. With great reverence the story is told
of that patriarch of all publishers Aldo Manucci, who risked his fortune
by printing the first Greek books. He died a wealthy man and nobody seems
to begrudge it. But today it would be said that the music-publisher's patronage
of the arts is marred by his expectation of future profits, while his business
sense is put in question by his speculating with an unsuitable product. Hertzka
did not die in the poor house either-and posterity seems to owe him nothing.
The revolution of the 1920s was only a rumble of distant thunder; the storm
broke in earnest after the Second World War. Schoenberg, Berg and Webern
have almost become classics, and the publisher, while still insisting on
being the promoter and protector of art and artist, is faced by a young
generation of composers to whom experience is repulsive, tradition a burden,
concession an abomination. In more secure times, both artistically and generally,
even the original genius wanted to be heard and performed-to be successful
in the normal, uncomplicated sense. If Schoenberg once wrote that he had
as little consideration for the listener as the listener had for him he probably
meant no more than Beethoven when he refused to consider Schuppanzigh's violin.
But today we are solemnly told that, in a world of mass civilization, true
art must be reserved for a select few, for an elite whose understanding is
more important than the applause of the multitude. It is proclaimed, with
a kind of hollow pride, that artistic value and public rejection are synonymous.
This was not so in happier times: when Titian's 'Assunta' was unveiled in
the Frari in Venice on 20 March 1518 there was a public holiday!
And yet even those composers who profess to care little for public recognition
still seek a publisher. What can the publisher do? It is not for him to share
the solitude of those who scorn the world. On the contrary, he has to promote
music, he has to make it known and, if at all possible, liked. He is not
in the happy position of the art-dealer who has achieved everything expected
of him if he finds a single member of a wealthy elite to buy an abstruse
painting or sculpture. It is a sad fact that the elite of music-lovers, the
young men and women at the beginning of their careers, are mostly impecunious
and can contribute little more than the encouragement of their applause to
the well-being of composer and publisher. The publisher needs that general
public which, as Richard Strauss once put it in his blunt Bavarian way, fills
the concert-halls and pays the full price for its tickets.
But this paying public is indifferent to 'new music', and we shall have to
deal specifically with this attitude, which is novel and quite unprecedented.
'New' music occupies an extremely small place in both the performers' repertoire
and the publishers' catalogues. It is idle to speculate which comes first.
The problems are too deep seated to be solved by the new means of mass
communication, let alone by the old means of publishing, printing and promoting
by letters and words of mouth. The question of how composer and publisher
get together is therefore more momentous now than ever; for each is equally
incapable of managing without the other.
Once composer and publisher have found each other they conclude an agreement
in writing: such is now the rule. This agreement is the foundation on which
rest the spiritual and material well-being of the composer.
Book- and art-publishers have, in general, a better reputation than
music-publishers who are frequently represented as hardboiled businessmen
living off their unworldly victims. Who has not been touched and angered
by the stories of Pergolesi, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann and has
not, secretly or openly, held their publishers responsible for their early
deaths? The past hangs over the publishers like a dark stormcloud.
Among the money-making arts music is certainly the youngest. Whereas for
thousands of years it seemed that music and money had nothing in common,
literature was an object of commerce long before printing was invented. Famous
works were copied and sold by professional scribes or by professional
dealers-more than three hundred fourteenth- and fifteenth-century hand-written
copies of Dante's Commedia Divina are still known. Yet there is no trace
of a similar trade in music. Only a few copies of renowned pieces were made,
not enough to create a commercial market. Even when, two generations after
the first books were printed, music too could be duplicated mechanically,
the trade remained small and could not provide a living for the composer.
But then music itself was a minor art. Even after the beginning of its great
upsurge it lacked the standing of the visual arts or poetry, being regarded
as a craft rather than an art, and the composer-musician as an artisan rather
than an artist.
How easily, by comparison, did the visual arts come to terms with money!
One can read this in Vasari's Vite, where, with frankness and pride, he tells
how Domenico Ghirlandaio received 1,200 gold ducats for the Capella Tornabuoni;
Filippino Lippi 2,000 ducats for the Capella Caraffa; Jacopo della Quercia
2,200 gold pieces for the Fonte Gaia; and so on. 'Much money and great honour'
(in that order) is his usual expression, although he does not disclose his
own fees. Later, when the fine arts had had their golden age, one no longer
finds such frankness. Carlo Ridolfi, almost a century after Vasari, writes
of Carpaccio only, Acquisto Vittore non poco grido' ('Vittore acquired no
small reputation'). But even today the papers busily report the fantastic
prices paid at auctions- half a million pounds for a medium-sized Cezanne,
a sum which must have made Cezanne shake his head wherever he is now. Not
to mention Picasso and the fortune he can legitimately amass.
This has never happened to music. It was, no doubt, much appreciated, but
it never enjoyed that respect which finds expression in large sums of money.
Composers, however prominent, were employed in 'tied' jobs which they owed
to their craftsmanship, to their aptitude for providing the right type of
music for the right occasion. They may have expected no more. When copies
of their works circulated, it enhanced their reputations but not their incomes.
Palestrina was certainly held in great esteem, but the 'Maestro di cappella'
had not the standing of the architect of St Peter's. Musicians in fixed
employment led a modest but secure life. Even J. S. Bach, with his extravagantly
large family, was never really hard up, although, like Palestrina and other
outstanding musicians before him, he had to quarrel with his employers about
every increase in his salary and sometimes lost his patience with them. But
he lived at the meeting-point of two ages and wavered time and again between
the respectability of an appointment in the church and the much less respectable
station of musical 'valet' who had then begun to replace the Cantor. In the
next generation the musician was indeed a valet, condemned to seek his material
security in his livery, a man without dignity who must have felt that he
was born for the highest purpose and reduced to the lowest. This was the
critical time, when music became aware of its own greatness, and it could
not pass without social and moral difficulties.
The date 8 June 1781 is something of a red-letter day in the social history
of music. On that day a forgotten nobleman, Count Arco, dispatched Mozart
from the security of the retained musician into the uncertain existence of
the freelance composer. His contemporaries could not appreciate the importance
of this event. Leopold Mozart, who had the highest opinion of his son's genius
and hated his own servile position intensely, could not believe that anyone
could live by composing alone. It was, indeed, not easy, even if it was not
quite as bad as Mozart's heartbreaking letters and subsequent historians
make out. Anyone who takes the trouble to find out what Mozart earned, even
in the dark years of I789-9I, will discover that, while it was no princely
income, it was by no means desperately little. If he and Constanze had not
had the fatal habit of always spending more than they had there should have
been no misery. Joseph Haydn died a wealthy man; Gluck had money to spare
for speculating in stocks and is said to have left a fortune of 600,000 florins,
thereby rivalling. any composer or publisher who ever made money with music.
But that era had not yet arrived.
When it did, things changed rapidly and radically. A sentence from a letter
written by Beethoven to his school friend Wegeler on 20 June 1800 shows the
new situation: '. . . my compositions are earning much and I can say that
I have more commissions than I can carry out; also I can choose for each
work from six or seven publishers, or more if I tried; no one bargains with
me, I demand and they pay....' Music had come of age at last; for it must
be the measure of the maturity of any art that it is not only appreciated
but paid for, just as the artists of the Italian Renaissance were rewarded
not only with honours but with money. In Beethoven's later life commissions
disappeared and the publishers' fees replaced the generosity of patrons.
They provided him with all the amenities he wanted-and, at the end of his
life, with the absurd idea that he was poor. Even literature had not achieved
so much. In Beethoven's day writers could hardly live on the revenue from
their works, however successful. They had to earn their livings as professors,
librarians or preceptors, and could write only in their spare time.
But a fair system of monetary reward for the composer could not be easily
or quickly found. One would like to think that no amount of money could pay
for the pleasure The Magic Flute has given to succeeding generations of
music-lovers. But we have seen, when discussing the period of subsistence
of copyright, that it is only the spirit, not the money, which is eternal
When music became a regular livelihood for composers and publishers there
seemed to be only one reasonable method of paying the composer: the publisher
bought a work outright for a flat sum. It was almost impossible to calculate
that sum; it was a guess, based on the chances of the work's success as the
publisher saw them. If he sold more copies than expected he had a good bargain
and the composer lost; but the reverse was more frequently the case, because
failures are always more numerous than successes, although history does not
register them. There was no need to sign formal documents; an exchange of
correspondence was sufficient. If, like Beethoven, the composer had the public
behind him the publisher could not bargain. He probably did not even try
because he had to outbid the five or six other competitors. If the composer
was less well established the publisher secured for himself a premium for
the risk he took.
How the overall price of music had risen appears from the fact that for each
of his late string quartets Beethoven received exactly as much as Mozart
thirty years earlier had received for a complete opera. Carl Maria von Weber's
cousin Aloysia Lange recounted that Weber had earned more with his Oberon
alone than Mozart with all his operas together. This custom of the flat rate,
a fonds perdu, as it was called with a hint of sarcasm, continued well into
this century, which may be taken as a sign that both composers and publishers
were satisfied. Beethoven had many successors, other composers with whom
the publisher could not bargain, who demanded and obtained what seemed equitable
to them. Richard Strauss still sold his publishing rights for lump sums,
reserving for himself performing and mechanical rights.
As a rule this system both protected the composer against total loss and
barred him from total success. In retrospect nothing seems to have done more
harm to the reputation of music-publishers. Generations of publishers are
said to have bought the best works for a pittance and made great fortunes
without ever concerning themselves with the misguided composer. The few known
cases are stains which no detergent can remove, where art and money are in
head-on collision. If an ordinary tradesman knows how to buy cheaply and
sell at a profit, and so legitimately accumulates a large fortune, people
take off their hats and praise his efficiency. He may even be knighted. But
a similarly shrewd music-publisher is suspect to everybody, contemptible
to many. His wealth has an air of illegitimacy and it will be whispered that
the degree of his comfort varies according to the degree of discomfort of
Those who take this line always adduce one of the same handful of cases to
'prove' their point. For example, in 1859, the year of the first performance
of his Faust, Gounod sold his 'Ave Maria, meditation religieuse sur le premier
prelude de J. S. Bach' for five hundred francs, then a very modest sum. After
a performance by Pasdeloup the piece was badly received by the Press and
the publisher probably thought little of it. But composer, publisher and
expert critics were all mistaken, and the absurd assumption that the
absent-minded Bach had omitted the melody which his 'accompaniment' required
resulted in a work which became-and probably still is-a worldwide success.
Millions of copies of dozens of different arrangements must have been sold.
Gounod himself-described by his biographers as a dreamy, unworldly man?????aw
this happening but made no complaint. His successors, however, took exception
to his short-sightedness. They engaged the best lawyers they could find,
and almost a century after the unhappy deal the matter came before the courts,
which did not hesitate to take the side of the composer and make the publisher
pay a huge sum so that justice was seen to be done.
Such things happened in the nineteenth century. It is often forgotten that,
in those days of defenceless composers and rapacious publishers, the most
cordial relationships nevertheless existed between the best of both sides.
Giulio Ricordi was a true friend of Verdi and Puccini; Fritz August Simrock
a close friend of Brahms; Marie-Auguste Durand an intimate of Debussy. Generally,
composers and publishers trusted each other, so much so that the 'agreements'
which were concluded were often curiously informal documents. When I once
tried to establish exactly what rights Boosey & Hawkes held in Offenbach's
Vie parisienne a long search produced a handwritten letter, dated 1868, from
Offenbach himself which simply said: 'Monsieur, bien recu la somme de 1,000frs.
pour 'la Vie parisienne' agreez . . .' This was the document covering the
rights for Great Britain and the British Empire-half the world at that time.
All this has changed. Thanks not to charity but to their art the beggars
of other days have become a community of high standing and repute, and every
rise in the social scale has invariably been followed by a widening of worldly
experience. The successful but naive composer no longer exists. Today he
is no long-haired dreamer but dresses like other mortals and receives sound
advice from many quarters about the debt mankind and publishers owe him for
his gifts. So an agreement is made which bears as little resemblance to the
contracts of the last century as the jet plane does to the mail coach.
In some countries, such as France and Germany, the law has declared the substance
of copyright inalienable and ruled that only the 'right of exploitation'
can be assigned by the composer to a third party. This is not much more than
a polite compliment to the mystery of the creative mind which is foreign
to the more prosaic Anglo-Saxon outlook. In Britain and the United States
the composer regularly assigns the copyright itself, this assignment usually
being made for the whole period of copyright and all possible future extensions,
a stipulation not recognized in every country. With serious music it is normally
made for all countries of the world, though French publishers, following
scientific developments with greater attention than others, are now demanding
the rights for the entire universe.
According to his importance-and thence his bargaining-power -the composer
receives a varying share in the proceeds of his music: a sheet royalty of
10-15% of the selling-price of all copies sold; 25-50% of hire fees or rentals
for orchestral materials; 66-75% of performing fees of dramatic works, operas,
musicals, ballets, which also covers the librettist's cut; So-66% of all
royalties resulting from mechanical reproductions; 50% of all fees paid for
the inclusion and synchronization of single excerpts in films, but 66% of
such fees if the composer's work supplies all or the major part of the music
for the film; and finally 50% of all fees and royalties payable by a
sub-publisher, if any. This makes an impressive catalogue of financial
But this is not all. In one critical respect the new face of music has affected
the relationship of composer and publisher: the composer not only receives
money from the publisher but also has to pay something in return. When becoming
a member of a society he must undertake to assign to it the performing rights
in all his present and future works. At the time of signing his agreement
with the publisher, therefore, he does not dispose of these rights. The agreement
with the publisher provides for the share in them which the composer allows
the publisher, and the statutes of the societies establish the maximum the
publisher can claim: normally 33%, exceptionally-in the United States and
Great Britain-50%. The societies would not recognize and would not pay a
larger share to the publisher, but he may have to be content with less than
the statutory maximum. As performing fees are a substantial part of the potential
earnings of a musical work, this payment by the composer is as important
to the publisher as his revenue from all other sources.
All this is well established, and the publisher's scope for shrewdness in
his dealings with the composer is strictly limited. However, the object of
the agreement is a curious one. No composer would be happy if the publisher
were to behave as one behaves in normal commerce, correctly and punctiliously
fulfilling the letter of a legal document. In spite of all the commercialization
there is an invisible wall between art and commerce which prevents music
from becoming merely merchandise and the publisher's business from degenerating
into mere commerce.
Indeed, the publisher is expected to do many things for the composer which
either defy legal definition altogether or at best can only be hinted at
in a written document. The most important of these is obviously publicity.
Almost every agreement contains a clause to the effect that the publisher
will 'use his best efforts', which can mean everything or very little, in
this direction. Composers who have already achieved fame require little
publicity. A new work by Stravinsky need only be advertised; any attempt
at recommendation would be ludicrous. But the young composer, the new music,
require an effort beyond any contractual obligation. It rarely happens that
the composer is satisfied with his publisher's efforts he, and many others,
are inclined to overrate the power and influence publicity can exercise.
There is a widespread notion among composers that every success is due to
them and every failure due to the publisher, implying that the publisher
could compel success and prevent failure.
Indeed, there are many who believe that music might have been spared the
tribulations of the twelve-note doctrine if Emil Hertzka had not drummed
it into so many heads with his ruthless and aggressive propaganda, spearheaded
by a periodical called Anbruch (Daybreak, or Dawn of a New Era), which was
as uncompromising as day and night themselves. When this publicity was unleashed,
however, although it was sustained for quite a few years, it was largely
ineffective. The general public, which never read the famous Anbruch or saw
any of the countless leaflets, remained unaffected and could not be persuaded
to like the new music. The small circle of converts which supplied the
contributors and readers of Anbruch were certainly fortified in their belief,
but the overwhelming majority of musicians-composers, conductors, singers
and instrumentalists alike-were indifferent and impervious to all the frantic
recommendation and abuse. During the economic and political troubles of the
1930s this propaganda became much more subdued and finally ceased. When
twelve-note music rose from the ashes of the Second World War, there was
no publicity at all. Its surviving supporters were themselves surprised.