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Mozart a Yuppie? It Doesn’t Figure

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A good scholarly dispute can be fun, but I was alarmed when my own name appeared in print as the source for a graph depicting Mozart’s income fluctuating from $53,000-$230,000. The chart accompanied a story (“Mozart No Pauper, N.Y. Economists Say,” Calendar, July 7) about two New York economists-researchers who, as the Calendar headline put it, conclude Mozart’s income put him in Vienna’s upper-middle class.

These and other recent startling revelations that portray Mozart as an affluent yuppie are not supported by solid historical documentation, and using my figures to illustrate that story suggests I concur with these “findings,” when in fact the reverse is true.

This new trend to remake Mozart in our own image emerged in 1980s Mozart research just when the richest Americans were getting rapidly richer while the American poor grew poorer. Sweeping away 190 years of bad “myths,” musicologists claimed to substitute good new “facts” about Mozart’s income, an income that rose at sensational rates of “scholarly inflation” from one book to the next.

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The two New York economists interviewed for Calendar, Hilda and William J. Baumol, supplied the highest figure yet: $175,000 average income during the last nine years of Mozart’s life.

No economist specializing in 18th-Century Austrian history converts the gulden of Mozart’s lifetime to modern dollars, and I have repeatedly admonished musicologists to avoid the temptation of such bad economics.

Used for its intended purpose, the Baumols’ long-range wage and price data is fine, but it is too crude for personal finance. We would not use long-range geological data on recurring Ice Age cycles to predict whether it will snow in Santa Monica tomorrow, nor, in the absence of old records, to assert whether it may have snowed in Santa Monica on any particular day during the 18th Century.

Mozart’s free-lance Viennese career (1781-91) was financially lucrative for a few years (1781-86), when he clearly earned many unrecorded fees beyond the income we can actually tally, whereas during the last five years of his life (1787-91) it’s quite possible that he had little income we don’t know about.

His unusual estate inventory included a nice middle-class wardrobe and household furnishings together with very high debts. Presumably he acquired these possessions during his earlier period of high earnings, while we know his debts accumulated during the five years preceding his death.

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The Baumols’ dollar conversions crash and burn as soon as Mozart’s income and estate are considered with those of fellow court musicians, whose average annual base salaries of $40,740 inexplicably left estates worth only $220. Thirty of these 43 musicians died owning nothing besides some clothing.

In December, 1787, Mozart was appointed Imperial Chamber Composer at 800-gulden annual salary, precisely because he was having trouble “earning his bread” in Vienna, and his desperate concert tours abroad embarrassed the court. Contrary to usual 18th-Century custom, this salary contained no provision for free meals, lodging, uniform or allowances of firewood, candles, wine, etc. In contrast, all other court musicians got free uniforms, many got free lodging and a few got free meals.

All court musicians supplemented their base salaries with free-lance gigs. But according to the Baumols, the $56,000 value of Mozart’s 800-gulden salary should have provided financial security whether or not his additional earnings were ample. The Vienna guidebook author Johann Pezzl noted that a budget 2 1/2 times Mozart’s salary would provide “the essential necessities,” while with five times Mozart’s salary, one could begin to buy “the necessary inessentials.”

Mozart died with enormous debts because his high earnings in earlier years had established his credit. For five years, both Mozart and his creditors erroneously believed his fortunes would soon turn, and he would be able to repay all the money he had been borrowing.

In a monumental case of unfortunate timing, Mozart’s income apparently took a nosedive in 1787, when he also lost the use of an elegant apartment, apparently provided rent-free by the Countess von Starhemberg for the previous three years. And worst of all, in 1787, the Emperor Joseph I suddenly lifted government controls of interest rates, permitting them to soar to 20%.

The court stepped in with the 800-gulden salary, but compound interest probably accumulated too rapidly on a single initial loan for Mozart to keep up from that meager salary, setting in motion his five-year cycle of taking out new loans to cover old ones. One month before his death, he lost a lawsuit over failure to repay a debt of 1,435 gulden to his patron Prince von Lichnowsky. Half his salary was attached and he was threatened with sequestration of his household goods.

Not only the Baumols’ conversion rates but any quick-fix formulas produce absurdities, because two entirely different economies separated by 200 years and an Industrial Revolution cannot be so easily bridged. The relative costs of life’s essentials have changed too much (clothing versus rent, for example), and even what constitutes essentials is now quite different. In Mozart’s Vienna, cash was scarce and most families lived self-sufficient existences, making everything from furniture to beer at home, and raising vegetables and livestock in the courtyards of city apartment buildings.

Since Mozart died in 1791 leaving high debts, scholars have recognized his financial troubles but haven’t ever called him a pauper. Revisionist historians have been providing new high figures for Mozart’s income that served to reshape him in our own image. Thus the 1980s musical public was presented with Mozart, the 1780s yuppie.

Respect for history means letting go of a too-close identification with the man Mozart and his time. If his music still speaks strongly to us today, it is in spite of the great distance that separates his world from ours.


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