Brief notes on the development of music publishing

Posted on September 18, 2013


Printing music

Although printing techniques were used as early as 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (using stamps), and later in East Asia in the form of woodblock printing, musical artworks in the Western world were preserved by handwriting until the middle years of the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg started to use movable types to multiply and disseminate texts. After early attempts of improving printing techniques, it was in the sixteenth century when the Venetian Ottaviano Petrucci revolutionised music printing by introducing the triple-impression method. In this technique the staves, the words and the notes were immersed into the paper in three successive stages, creating very neat results. A less laborious way of printing was developed by John Rastell (born in London), who invented a single impression technique. These techniques were using mobile types, where the letters stood out from the surface, and they had to be rearranged to produce different pages, so the printing template could not be preserved.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the dominating printing technique involved copper-plate engraving, where the symbols were carved into the surface. As the copper plates could be stored indefinitely, this technique allowed repeated reprinting. Engraving remained the standard method until the invention of lithography in 1796 by Alois Senefelder. Lithography basically involves printing on a flat surface, where materials of different characteristics (oily hydrophobic or hydrophilic materials) that either reject or retain the ink provide the template for the print.

The development of the profession of music publisher

In the sixteenth century the processes of printing and distribution were essentially managed from single workshops by a small number of people. Later, the seventeenth century had seen the beginnings of specialisation either in printing or selling music. Sellers started to develop international distribution networks to maximise profit. As new musical symbols have been introduced in the eighteenth century, providing instructions mainly about the dynamics of the music played, and the scores became more complex and difficult to decipher from manuscripts, a third profession evolved, the editor.  The editor was often a person with some musical background able to improve the aspect and clarity of the “raw material” produced by composers. Some musicians, such as Georg Philipp Telemann and Pietro Antonio Locatelli edited and published their own music.

With the rise of amateur musicianship the demand for musical scores and the repertoire immensely increased. The development of the piano as a versatile instrument gave a massive boost to the market. Musical score printing became an important industry, which required financial capital and sophisticated management, tuning the production of musical scores to the requirements of the market. Due to the complexity of the whole process, large publishing companies started to dominate the market, due to their ability to coordinate and finance production at all of its multiple levels. Some of them became large international corporations, such as Schott starting from Mainz or Ricordi, growing out of Milan. The main centres of music publishing were initially Leipzig, Antwerp, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Florence, Rome, and other important cities. Vienna was joining the line in the second half of the eighteenth century (mainly by two major companies Artaria and Torricella).

To keep track of this quantitative boom, publishing companies developed catalogues of the works published by them. These catalogues steadily grew in size from several dozens or hundreds in the eighteenth century, to tens of thousands in the case of larger publishing houses in the nineteenth century. Some publishing companies managed to achieve a protected right to sell their products, as early as 1575, when Thomas Tallis and William Byrd achieved monopoly for printing polyphonic music, protected by the court of Queen Elisabeth I. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the first copyright law was accepted in Great Britain – The Statute of Anne (named after Queen Anne), which granted a 14 year copyright for authors and publishers for their works, and it could be renewed.

A few examples with relevance to the classical period

One of the most prestigious publishing houses has been Breitkopf & Härtel, established in Leipzig in 1719. This firm is associated with the publication of urtext editions of the music of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and later Liszt, Wagner, Chopin and Brahms. Urtext edition is a publication of a composers work, which aims to achieve maximum adherence to the manuscripts produced (or personally corrected) by the composer. They were the first firm to publish the complete works of Mozart and they were the publishers of the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung, the foremost German language musical journal between 1798 and 1848.

Another  important firm was N. Simrock based in Bonn, founded in 1793 by the horn player and philosopher Nikolaus Simrock, a friend of Beethoven’s and a reliable source of biographical information regarding the great composer. The company remained successful in the following two centuries, distributing the music of many other composers, like Haydn, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Max Bruch and Antonín Dvořák.

The most successful of the old publishing companies was (and remains) Schott Music, permanently adapting to new musical styles. They have been consistently finding and working with some of the best talents at all times. Starting with the distribution of mainstream music in the eighteenth century, such as that of composers associated with the Mannheim School (e.g. Carl Stamitz, Georg Joseph Vogler), they currently promote contemporary concert and theatre music, film music, numerous educational publications, jazz, and popular music of better standard.

Relationship between author and publisher would often be rather rocky, and this was not different in the eighteenth century. Bitter disputes about prices, copyrights and examples of exploitation and greed were not rare occurrences. Haydn for example was described rather tough in his negotiations with publishers, and, the other way around, they are sources suggesting that some composers such as Boccherini and Mozart became victims of financial exploitation in their most vulnerable moments.

Posted in: Part 4