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Mozart’s Copyrights

By Christopher Moore | January 27, 2006

Today is Wolfgang Mozart’s 250th birthday. His German biographer Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote that Mozart “was not the first poor musical artist, but he was the first free one, and he was poor because he was free.”

In Mozart’s day, musicians worked in the retinues of wealthy patrons. They composed what their patrons requested of them and they were treated as household servants. But in the cities, audiences for music were growing and musicians were finding new ways to reach them. Mozart tried to make a living serving an audience rather than a master.

It was not easy. He got a fee to compose “Cosi fan tutte” in 1789. But in 1790, when “Cosi fan tutte” was taking the concert halls of Europe by storm, he was begging a Vienna theatre manager to lend him a little money so he could afford work on something new. He was successful; he just could not get paid for the value of what he was providing.

To be an artist without a patron, Mozart needed a copyright regime. The concept of copyright did exist; Mozart did earn some copyright income. But in the midst of cultural and technological change, the dissemination of music was running ahead of the systems by which creators were rewarded.

Mozart ran with the changes. He promoted his own concerts, and he appreciated the recently invented piano (pianoforte, he called it) not least because it was cost-effective: it allowed a solo artist to play virtuoso music loudly enough for the large new concert halls. But despite his successes, a secure income always eluded him, and he faced the usual criticisms artists receive. He should compose for love, not whine about money. He could get a teaching job. He could get grants. If he couldn’t make it in the market place, it must be his own fault. Even his first biographer, the scholarly Otto Jain, thought Mozart should have accepted his station and lived within his means.

We live in a moment when cultural and technological change are once again challenging us as to how to encourage access to creative work and to sustain creators at the same time. I think Hildesheimer’s take on the situation is still closer than Professor Jain’s.

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