Classical Music Composition over the Past 500 Years:
The Impact of Economics and Politics
What are the relationships between, on the one hand, countries’ political strength and national income, and on the other, their output of classical music? New research by Siobhán McAndrew looks at composition rates over the past 500 years, analysing data on 12,356 composers from The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians plus a
catalogue of 1,070 operas. The study first finds that:
; The raw quantitative data correlate well with the shift of musical gravity over the
period: from medieval Burgundy and England to early modern Italy, thence to
Germany and Austria, thence to Russia and the United States.
; While the canon appears to be fixed in the nineteenth century, the growth in
composer numbers in the twentieth century was exponential, fuelled by
economic development – the expansion of universities and conservatoires, live
performance opportunities, and broadcasting and film music.
; The sheer scale of twentieth-century American output led to its leadership of the
avant garde, minimalism, the operatic musical, and the reinvigoration of tonality
via jazz and popular influences. This is at odds with doom merchants claiming
the ‘death of classical music’.
Statistical analysis identifies further patterns:
; The hypothesis is that musical output relates negatively to political strength and
positively to income. Yet in the long run, constrained executive governments
promote higher national income, which fosters more composers.
; Achieving internal and external political stability was a process for all European
states. England and Burgundy fostered court musicians in the late medieval
period and proceeded to economic leadership. Italy, Germany and France did so
in the early modern period. Political unification and economic catch-up followed.
; By the twentieth century, Britain and the Netherlands were fostering more
composers so that levels converge.
Simple cluster analysis isolates two paths followed by a sample of 16 countries:
; The first is characterised by high composition output in 1600-1800 and by slower
; The second is characterised by richer cultural late-comers, which ultimately
support a larger proportion of composers.
Probit analysis of 16 countries from 1500-1800 further reveals that:
; A larger number of composers is associated positively with national income and
urbanisation, and negatively with constraints on executive government, a
measure of the liberal state.
Analysis of the first performances of operas for 17 countries 1880-1913 finds that:
; The factors associated with a country crossing the threshold of having any new
works – high national income, political stability, suffrage – may then operate
against it having a large number of works.
A further strong predictor is diplomatic status – high-status nations are more ;
likely to feature new operas.
; Once over this threshold, a higher number of new operas is correlated negatively
with literacy, urbanisation and national income, but positively with the public debt
to revenue ratio – so more indebted states feature more new operas.
Siobhán McAndrew concludes that:
; Differences in musical heritage are largely explained by political and economic
differences, which are highly path-dependent.
; The classical tradition is pervasive. The national income threshold for western
classical music is low – in the twentieth century, western classical composers
emerged from Haiti, Tajikistan and Nicaragua, all with a national income less
than $5,000 per head in 1995. Composers from Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea
and Taiwan have experimented with western forms.
; British musical output has historically been large, and particularly strong in the
sixteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, Britain’s operatic output and
numbers of composers are higher than predicted by the models.
; While ancien regime Europe generated innovative, paradigmatic music,
economic development has not denied continuing opportunities for composers.
; In the Carol Reed classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously riffed: ‘In Italy
for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed –
but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In
Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what
did that produce – the cuckoo clock!’ But Switzerland has the last laugh over
Harry Lime: its number of composers in the twentieth century, controlled for
population, is second only in the world to Finland.
‘State Formation and Composition Rates’ by Siobhán McAndrew was presented at the Economic History Society’s Annual Conference at the University of Leicester on Friday 8 April. Siobhán McAndrew is currently completing a DPhil in Economic History at Nuffield College, Oxford.
Contact Siobhán McAndrew via email: firstname.lastname@example.org); or Romesh Vaitilingam on 0117-983-9770 or 07768-661095 (email: