Economist believes Mozart died no pauper but in the middle class

December 12, 1991|By New York Times

Poor Mozart. Everybody who saw the movie knows genius went unrewarded, that the composer of "Don Giovanni" and "The Magic Flute" lived hand to mouth and died a pauper.

In fact, say William Baumol, an economist at New York University, and Hilda Baumol, an economics consultant in New York, everybody got it wrong.

In a paper written for the Mozart Bicentennial Symposium at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, the husband-wife team calculates that Mozart's income in the last decade of his life was thoroughly middle class by 1990s standards -- a remarkable achievement for a time in which most wage earners lived at the raw edge of subsistence.

Mozart, moreover, was not alone in his good fortune. His was a golden era for composers in German-speaking Europe, the Baumols say, one in which a serendipitous convergence of factors favored the flowering of musical culture.

They believe that the fragmentation of central European states along with changes in the technology of music virtually assured that economic growth would generate financial windfalls for composers.

According to Volkmar Braunbehrens, a biographer of Mozart, the great composer's annual income during his Vienna years (1781-91) fluctuated between 800 and 3,800 Austrian florins.

But these numbers omit much of his earnings from teaching, performance and publication. The Baumols figure Mozart's total take averaged 3,000-4,000 florins a year during the period.

Translating Mozart's 1780s income in florins into 1990s dollars is a matter of educated guess work because data on 18th-century prices and consumption habits are sparse.

The Baumols plow ahead, however, with striking results. They use the long-running Phelps Brown-Hopkins index for the cost of living in Britain to compare 1786 British pounds with 1989 pounds. Then they convert pounds to florins on the 18th-century end, and pounds to dollars on the other.

It seems that the 1786 florin could buy roughly as much as $10 in 1989. Thus 3,000-4,000 florins were worth $30,000-40,000 -- less than Madonna makes from a single concert, but not a bad deal for a serious artist in his 30s.

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