Academic journal article Notes

The Business of Composition: Measuring Economic Relationships at Breitkopf & Härtel, 1798-1838

Academic journal article Notes

The Business of Composition: Measuring Economic Relationships at Breitkopf & Härtel, 1798-1838

Article excerpt

Franz Schubert cannot have known, when he decided to engage a publisher in the summer of 1826, that he was only two years from the grave. On 12 August, the composer wrote two nearly identical letters to the rival Leipzig firms of H. A. Probst and Breitkopf & Härtel with the intention of securing the publication of some of his recent instrumental compositions. Both publishers would eventually respond to Schubert, though neither in full agreement with the terms of his proposal.

Heinrich Probst was first to reply, with a letter posted on 26 August. Following the usual pleasantries, the letter explains with no less flattery the reason why Probst was unwilling to purchase much of the composer's output: "I must frankly confess to you that our public does not yet sufficiently and generally understand the peculiar, often ingenious, but perhaps now and then somewhat curious procedures of your mind's creations."1 As Probst tells it, the public-not the composer-would be to blame if the music did not sell. The letter thereby requests that Schubert send only music of an accessible nature, at least for the time being.

A letter dated 7 September then arrived from Breitkopf & Härtel, written perhaps by an aged Gottfried Härtel (who was to expire even sooner than Schubert) but perhaps for that reason by one of his assistants.2 Whereas Probst had declined to publish much of Schubert's work on the grounds of aesthetics, Härtel focused more explicitly on pragmatic concerns. This time, the given objection was that "we are as yet wholly unacquainted with the mercantile success of your compositions and are therefore unable to meet you with the offer of a fixed pecuniary remuclinical neration (which a publisher can determine or concede only according to that success)."3 The second letter thereby advises Schubert to withhold any demand for monetary compensation until after the firm could publish several of his works in exchange for complimentary copies, so as to gauge how the music would sell.

The two publishers may well have seen eye to eye with regard to the apparent unprofitability of Schubert's instrumental music in 1826. But like the strategies with which each proposed to mitigate that risk, the objections that each chose to raise with the composer differ remarkably. The prophetic language of Probst's reply-that the composer's style was "not yet understood" by a reactionary public-has long offered a touchstone of the Schubert hagiography alongside Beethoven's assertion that "he has the divine spark!" and the more general notion of a composer ahead of his time.4 Yet it also conceals the unpleasant facts around which such an observation must have been constructed: Probst evidently believed that Schubert's more abstruse compositions would fail to achieve a profitable level of sales, and that the publisher could therefore not afford to pay Schubert a reasonable fee in exchange for his work.

Härtel's reply has drawn less attention in the literature, so much so that Robert Winter mistakenly reports in Grove that the firm "did not even answer Schubert's proposal."5 It nonetheless acknowledges the economic realities to which Probst only alludes, such as a publisher's need to estimate the potential sales of a new edition in advance, and to maintain professional relationships with proven champions as a result. The letter is valuable not for what it reveals about the work of Franz Schubert per se, but for what it reveals about the music publishing industry as a whole in the early nineteenth century: namely, that professional relationships mattered. This, as much as public opinion, is what Schubert was up against.

Qualitative sources such as the letters cited above have long offered a wealth of information about composer-publisher relationships, at least on an individual basis. Generalization is difficult.6 The quantitative study of more expansive sources, ranging from publishers' balance sheets to printed catalogs such as Friedrich Hofmeister's Musikalisch-literarischer Monatsbericht, has opened new avenues of research. …

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