Copyright and Composers; or, did Intellectual Property kill the English Baroque?

4 February 2009

Last weekend, my fiancée and I went to see Fretwork at the Wigmore Hall. The programme was a mixture of 17th-century English music and more modern pieces, and in the interval we got to talking about what went wrong with English — indeed, British — “art” music, and why it all-but disappeared for almost 150 years, from 1750 to the 20th century. It’s an interesting story, and not entirely unrelated to this blog’s normal software industry-related posts.

Let’s start with quick synopsis of the history of European music around the time in question: in the early 1600s, there was a burst of creativity, starting in Italy with the likes of Monteverdi but sweeping across all of Europe. This time is called the Baroque period, and it’s generally regarded as as having ended in 1750.

Italy dominated Baroque music with famous composers like Vivaldi and Corelli, but there was a strong French Baroque style, set by the likes of (Italian-born) Lully, Delalande and Couperin, and there was an English Baroque whose star was undoubtedly Purcell, but who was followed by (German-born) Handel. (As far as I can tell, there’s no movement known as the “Germanic Baroque” per se — but then, with the all-eclipsing J.S. Bach as their composer of the period, perhaps the German and Austrian states didn’t need a style.)

Anyway — what you can see here is that during the Baroque period a number of nations all had active composers, recognised Europe-wide. But then things changed. To take England as an example: Handel is the last well-known “English” composer of the eighteenth century. Music experts will, no doubt, be able to mention several interesting lesser-known names — but to the generally-interested amateur, English music stops with Handel and then kicks off again in late Victorian times, with Elgar.

What’s even more interesting is that — with a few exceptions — the theme of classical (strictly speaking, Classical then Romantic) music from 1750 to 1900 seems to be that composers from the various states that were later to become Germany and Austria dominate. Name a famous 19th-century composer — chances are you’ll come up with Beethoven, or Brahms, or Schumann, or Wagner.

What happened? Tempting though it might be to say that the German culture is inherently better at music — Bach again — that’s hard to believe, especially when you consider the words “German rock” ;-)

So with all that on my mind, I was fascinated to read the following today on the Ludwig van Mises Institute’s blog:

Thus does chapter eight of Against Intellectual Monopoly discuss all the existing literature that makes the case–on purpose or inadvertently–against patents. It is packed with empirical detail, but in particular I’m intrigued at their review of the history of musical composition in England Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

They find that the countries with no copyright legislation (German territories in particular) had more composer per capita than countries like England. And in England in particular, the 1750 law had the effect of bringing the entire composition industry to a grinding halt. And later, when copyright was imposed on Italy and France, it led to a diminution of composer effort.

This demonstration is intriguing beyond most music historians can possibly imagine. It solves a long-running mystery as how it came to be that the most musically educated population in the world, one with a massive history of compositional genius, would suddenly fail to participate in the progress that defined the age of Mozart and Beethoven.

If true, this is fascinating. In 1750, England introduced copyright over music. And the composers disappeared. Over time, France and Italy introduced copyright — and did themselves in too. Only the Germans, who were too busy being invaded by Napoleon, and then forging their own nation, were able to avoid this. Perhaps by 1900 things were stable enough for them to cripple themselves with copyright laws and give other countries a chance to catch up…

It’s a great story. I’ve no idea if it’s true. What do you think?

[Update] Hello to visitors from Techdirt; if you’re interested in music as well as technology, you might like to take a look at my music blog, The Baroque Project.

6 thoughts on “Copyright and Composers; or, did Intellectual Property kill the English Baroque?

  1. njr

    Fascinating. And thought provoking. Must buy the book.

    My views on all this IP stuff are gradually changing. At the moment, my views can probably be summarized as

    Software & algorithm patents: evil

    DNA/gene patents: concentrated evil

    Conventional patents: I used to support these, but am losing belief by the day.

    Copyright: useful and reasonable but copyright terms have grown too long

    DRM: Stupid, evil, counterproductive, bringing the whole system into disrepute

    Free / Open Source: Very enlightened, often supremely good, intriguing business model; but can’t commit 100% yet. The tools I use most are Emacs, Python, Firefox, Apache, (La)TeX, BSD (albeit in the form of OS X), free one and all. I also use Adobe software (good in parts; buggy; nagging; possessing the worst installers in the world); Microsoft Office (Excel, quite good in truth; Word, possibly the worst piece of software in the world; PowerPoint, barely fit for purpose) on grounds of not-being-completely-cut-off-from-the-world; iLife and iWork (typical Apple; superb in parts, but never going beyond what they think you ought to want to do).

    But it feels as if every time I look more closely another piece of the IP edifice appears rickety and hard to justify. Science seems to have a better model.

  2. njr

    On a more specifically musical note…

    It’s not widely known outside guitar circles, but there are many different tunings used by (a minority of) guitarists. So-called “standard” tuning runs EADGBE, low to high, i.e. not-quite-but-nearly chromatic, mostly in fourths. But some guitarists, particularly blues guitarists, tended to tune guitars to recognizable chords, most commonly major (open D, DADF#AD, open G, DGDGBD, open A EAC#EAE etc.), minor (open Dm, DADFAD, open Gm DGDGBbD etc.) and occasionally others.

    Davy Graham, who died in December last year, invented a new tuning DADGAD, which forms an open D-suspended-4th chord, and led to family of so-called modal tunings. Over time, these in general, and DADGAD in particular, have grown immensely in popularity, particularly among folk musicians, to the point where some players (perhaps most famously Pierre Bensusan (, and at the other end of fame scale, I :-) play exclusively or almost exclusively in DADGAD.

    The relevance of this (for there is some) is that legend has it that Davy was so pleased with his invention that he talked about trying to patent it. (I can find this reference, but I think I have heard all of John Renbourn, Duck Baker, Pierre Bensusan and Martin Carthy tell versions of the story).

    Needless to say, music is richer (though Davy may have been poorer) for the fact that he couldn’t/didn’t.

  3. giles Post author

    nrj — I’m pretty much in the same boat as you with respect to intellectual property. I agree 100% on software patents (with a caveat that, like nuclear weapons, one can hate them but still see a case for possessing them as a deterrent), 100% on DNA patents — especially those on pre-existing organisms — and would give a solid +1 to what you say about conventional patents and F/OSS.

    Obviously I still think that there’s still value in the traditional copyright model — I say “obviously” because Resolver One is a desktop application, and our business model is a very traditional “charge people for software” one.

    That, of course, isn’t to say that there isn’t some alternative business model that we could have gone for, one that used the infinite goods (the software) to sell some kind of finite good — as the guys at Techdirt always say — though examples of people who’ve pulled that off in software seem to be a bit thin on the ground, the ones I’ve seen mostly being cases where a business has leveraged an existing Open Source project rather than building their own from the ground up.

    (An aside — in the dark hours before dawn I sometimes fear that if free software takes over from paid-for copyright software, developers will try to profit from their code by keeping it entirely on servers as web applications, and we’ll actually wind up in a less free and open world than we are now. I guess this is similar to the worries Richard Stallman was expressing about cloud computing a while back.)

    Re: tuning — interesting! In classical music that would be called scordatura, though usually they do it to make it easier to play complicated pieces. Very popular in Baroque times, and I don’t think anyone ever tried to claim IP rights over it…

  4. njr

    We agree even more than you think. I too come from a background of and selling software . . . and like you, still grapple with the issues.

  5. Pingback: Copyright And Classical Music: The Exact Opposite Of The Intended Purpose

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