Mozart's Genius Was Well Rewarded

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART, in the popular view, was a typical "starving musician."

Not true, say economist William Baumol and his journalist wife, Hilda. Indeed, the equivalent of Mozart's average annual income today would be about $175,000. That compares wages in 1786 Vienna to wages in the United States today.

In purchasing power, the 2,500 florins the famous composer earned annually would buy about $25,000 worth of goods and services today. But people in general were far poorer in the 18th century. The $175,000 figure puts him in the appropriate income scale of today when average US real income is about seven times greater than that of an inhabitant of Vienna two centuries ago.

Dr. Baumol normally does more mundane research for the C.V. Starr Center for Applied Economics at New York University on such topics as comparing the relative industrial might of nations. Mrs. Baumol is president of Consultants in Industry Economics Inc. When asked by a foundation to prepare a paper "On the economics of musical composition in Mozart's Vienna" for a Mozart bicentennial colloquium late last year, he and his wife jumped at the opportunity for a change.

"It was tremendous fun," says Mrs. Baumol. "It was so different."

Over six months or so, she read "everything on Mozart we could lay our hands on." From this voluminous reading she selected material relevant to the economic situation of Mozart and his day. Her husband did the calculations necessary to put Mozart's earnings and other numbers into today's perspective.

Economists these days use their skills to examine all sorts of topics one doesn't normally think of as economic, including environmental, social, and legal issues.

The Baumol paper on Mozart resembles most other economic papers. It is 45 pages long. It includes three charts in the back, one on gross domestic product per capita in four European countries from 1820 to 1950, another on bread prices in Vienna from 1780 to 1910, and a third on Mozart's "known" income from 1783 to 1791. Mozart probably had more income than the historical records show. Baumol assumes a "conservative" amount of undocumented income. The paper also has extensive footnotes, and more than two pages of references.

Mozart had five principal sources of income, the paper notes.

Performance: Mozart received a large part of his income as a virtuoso pianist. He played often in private salons where most musicmaking took place. Payment was at the discretion of the host and probably varied greatly. He composed 26 pianoforte concertos, which are considered to be among his greatest works, for performance at his own concerts. He organized subscription series of three or four concerts or more. They may have been extremely lucrative, the Baumols note. One performance might bring in 1,000 to 1,500 gulden (florins) or more, which would be two or three times the court orchestra concert master's annual salary. A subscriber paid 13.5 gulden ($900 in today's wage equivalent) for one series of six Lenten concerts.

Patronage: In Vienna, a sinecure stipend of 800 florins per year was granted by the Emperor in 1787. Though hardly a negligible amount, the stipend of the official court composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck, was far bigger.

Music lessons: Mozart insisted on a high price, getting as much as $1,800 in 1989 wage equivalent for 12 lessons. This work was limited to the winter and was a highly undependable source of income, the Baumols write. Mozart's fee was far above the norm, but not as much as Muzio Clementi received.

Publication: Mozart probably did not earn much from publication of his works. They were more often copied than printed.

Commissions: Mozart received fees for his compositions toward the high end of the customary scale. He was paid today's equivalent of $35,000 for his opera Figaro.

Mozart had professional expenses. He, for example, paid over $20,000 (in today's equivalent) for a high-quality piano. He paid the equivalent of $30,000 in annual rent on his splendid and spacious apartment. He loved costly clothing, theater, books, and musical scores. His estate included many porcelain figures and boxes, a billiard table, and fine furniture.

In other words, Mozart's musical genius did not go begging.

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