Friday, May 19, 2017


William Baumol, an important economist,  died the other week at 95. You can read his NY Times obituary here. The Times is evidently not going to run the letter I sent them, so here's a blog post on the subject.

He is most famous in musical circles for Baumol's cost disease, which is explained in the obit as follows:
For example, he said, it takes exactly the same number of people and the same amount of time to play a Beethoven string quartet today as it did in, say, 1817. Yet the musicians who spent years studying and practicing — and still have to eat and live somewhere while doing that — cannot be paid the same as their 19th-century counterparts. Their wages, too, will rise, even though they are no more productive than their predecessors were. As a result, their work eventually becomes increasingly expensive compared with more efficiently produced goods.
That paragraph takes an extremely unsophisticated view of what musicians do. The violinist of 1817 had far fewer technical resources than the violinist of today, because of changes in how violin is taught, changes in expectations, and changes in the music professional violinists must be able to play today. The violinist of 1817 hadn't seen anything more difficult than Beethoven and Bach. The violinist of today has seen Paganini, Bartok, Wagner, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Stravinsky, Berg, and many, many other composers who make great demands on a player's technique.

This has raised productivity in an extremely important way: the player of today can learn music much, much faster than the player of 1817. That is an increase in productivity. To provide on example, the orchestra for the first attempt at performing Tristan und Isolde had something like 50 or 60 rehearsals before everybody threw in the towel and declared the opera unperformable. Contrast that with the San Francisco Opera orchestra, which had the following rehearsals for the company's 1998 and 2006 productions of the opera:

12 hours orchestra readings (4 rehearsals)
9 hours sitzprobe (3 rehearsals)
7.5 hours staging (2 rehearsals)
Dress rehearsal (1 rehearsal)

33.5 hours rehearsal
10 rehearsals

10 hours orchestra reading (3 rehearsals)
3.5 hours sitz (1 rehearsal)
6.5 hours staging (2 rehearsals)
Dress (1 rehearsal)

25 hours of rehearsal
7 rehearsals

(Grateful thanks to Teresa Conception and SFO Orchestra Manager Tracy Davis for providing these details.)

It takes about three to four weeks to stage an opera these days, and.....can you recall the last time a work was declared unperformable after 70 rehearsals? No? That's because of increases in musician productivity - even though it still takes four players the same amount of time to perform a Beethoven quartet as it did 200 years ago.


kalimac said...

Another point is that, if the concert is recorded, they can play the Beethoven quartet for thousands of listeners over many years instead of just the few hundred who can fit in the concert hall, just once. And they can do so with little additional time expended. That, too, is a vast increase in productivity.

Robert Gordon said...

Part of the difference is that Tristan was new music then and is old music now. The SF Opera orchestra is a very experienced Wagner orchestra, whereas in 1864 there were no experienced Wagner orchestras. Productivity has increased partly because so much more old music is performed now, and performed so frequently -- the musicians usually aren't starting from scratch.

I wonder how many rehearsals were required for the first performance of Le Marteau sans Maître (not a rhetorical question -- I bet someone knows the answer).

Mike Macaulay said...

I'm worried about whether the labour productivity growth of the past couple centuries is sustainable going forward. Many orchestras appear to be reaching the theoretical limit of how little you can rehearse something. Two or even three programs a week, with one or two rehearsals per program, is nothing unusual in today's full-time orchestra. I can't imagine how we could reduce rehearsal time below this level without compromising either the quality of the music or the health of the musicians to a significant degree. Then again, the musicians who declared Tristan unplayable probably wouldn't have considered today's orchestra schedules possible either, so history may prove me similarly wrong.