Happy birthday, Ludwig. The world had great plans to celebrate your 250th birth anniversary, but a minuscule virus put paid to all that.

My reading marathon on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in his birth sestercentennial year continues to throw up the most fascinating trivia about him and his times. For example, I learned that he was beset by the same woes that bedevil the modern-day author.

Beethoven was extremely fussy about which works of his got published, in what order, and by which publisher. He was also be the first composer to be published constantly, from the beginning to the end of his mature working life.

In her article “International Dissemination of Printed Music during the second half of the Eighteenth Century”, Sarah Adams of Cornell University discusses how that period was a turning point in the history of music publishing, following improvements in music printing techniques due to the extensive use of engraving. The development of engraving on pewter and copper plates made publishing quicker and cheaper. Music was inscribed in mirror-image on the plates by exceptionally skilled but terribly-remunerated artisans, and printed on a handpress.

Music therefore began to get circulated more frequently in print rather than manuscript form, and as public interest and demand in music grew due to an expanding middle class and an ever-increasing number of amateurs and professionals hankering for new pieces to play, a large number of publishers went into business.

Some of those publishers are thriving even today. Breitkopf and Härtel is the world’s oldest music publishing house, established in 1719 in Leipzig, with close editorial collaborations with Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and Brahms. It also began an influential music review journal, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung.

Simrock publishing house was founded in 1793 in Beethoven’s hometown Bonn by his horn-playing friend Nikolaus Simrock. After undergoing several changes and mergers, it was acquired by Boosey and Hawkes in 2002. Its list of published first editions is a who’s who of composers: apart from 13 first editions for Beethoven, it includes Mozart, Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Dvořák and Suk.

Title page of the first edition of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 score, published on August 2 in 1802 in Vienna by Giovanni Cappi e Comp. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Artaria, one of the most important music publishing companies of its time (founded in Vienna in 1770, Beethoven’s birth year), was dissolved in 1932, but in its heyday, it published more than 300 of Haydn’s compositions. This greatly enhanced its prestige, with Mozart, Boccherini and Beethoven using its services.

Once Beethoven had poured his creative energy to the fullest into a composition, he regarded it as commercial property, deserving the best possible price on the most favourable terms. Of the hundreds of his letters that have survived, a major chunk deals with the mundane business of getting published: pitching a work, complaining about poor terms, bargaining, and correcting proofs. This is hardly surprising; he is perhaps the first composer whose income depended so much on being published, even more so after his crippling deafness gradually put an end to his career as a performer and to some extent as a teacher as well.

But Beethoven rose to the occasion as quite an astute businessman, regarding publishing and all it entailed as par for the course. He wished to excel in it just as much as in his creativity.


Upon completing a work, Beethoven would offer it to one or more publishers. But before that he needed a copyist, someone who could legibly decipher his scrawl across the manuscript pages so that a publisher could make sense of them. One copyist, Wenzel Schlemmer, undertook that unenviable task for some twenty years.

Once a publisher accepted a work, the real pain of proofreading of invariably faulty engravings and endless corrections would ensue. In one instance, Beethoven found eight mistakes in one published work, corrected them and sent them to another publisher under the heading ‘Edition très correcte’. But in a further comedy of errors, that heading itself was misspelt.

Royalties were unheard of then; the publisher bought a work for a flat fee and would then hope to sell as many copies as possible. It was important to sell as quickly as possible because piracy was a very real threat. As there was no copyright, any successful composer’s hit work was highly susceptible to piracy. The pirate could even be the copyist, who could clandestinely make another copy, spirit it out to another publisher, sometimes even before the legitimate one. The threat was so serious that Mozart had his copyists work only in his apartments, under his watchful eye.


Beethoven railed and ranted when he encountered pirated versions of his music. Since he didn’t have the finance for lawsuits, which could end up nowhere – piracy, plagiarism and forgery were regarded as reprehensible, but not against the law – he resorted to sending spluttering, threatening letters to errant publishers and getting public notices published in newspapers. To be pirated was almost a back-handed index of one’s popularity and success.

As payments for compositions were small (for instance, Beethoven settled for 100 florins for his First Symphony, a shockingly low price), a composer had to churn out a lot of music. This gives us a new perspective on the prodigious output of composers of that era: it was driven not just by creative juices but by the need to put food on the table. Ironically, short piano works would fetch a better price than, say, a symphony, concerto or bigger works, for purely commercial reasons.


One way (that Haydn usedprofitably) of squeezing as much money out of a work was to give it to two or more publishers in different countries, each one having limited but mutually exclusive territory, so that one could be legitimately paid for the same work more than once. Beethoven followed suit, but then found that if he wanted to prevent pirates preying on his music, he would have to get a work published simultaneously in each country, no easy task in his time of snail-mail and travel.

Another ploy Beethoven resorted to was to offer a piece to the person who commissioned it and pocketing the fee. He would then defer publication but give that patron exclusive rights to the work in manuscript for a given time (usually six months, as he did with Prince Lobkowitz for his Third Symphony). Once that period was over, he could plug and sell it afresh.

Beethoven’s decision to appoint his brother Karl as his go-between with publishers was ill-advised, as Karl was arrogant and tactless. His letters to publishers (about which many complained) have to be read to be believed – it is a testament to their regard for Beethoven that they didn’t sever their contracts. One notable example of Karl’s unprofessionalism was when he sold his brother’s three piano sonatas (Opus 31) to a Leipzig publisher, despite Beethoven having promised them to another publisher, Nägeli. The brothers apparently “came to blows” in the street over the incident. Beethoven eventually forgave him (“After all, he’s my brother”) but gradually relieved Karl of that duty.


On the “tiresome business” of publishing, Beethoven grumbled in a letter to the publisher Hofmeister: “There ought to be in the world a market for art, where the artist would only have to bring his works and take as much money as he needed. But, as it is, an artist has to be to a certain extent a businessman as well.” True then, true today.

This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa. It has been reproduced with the permission of the author.