Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

IN 1779, composer Joseph Haydn felt in control of his musical and entrepreneurial destiny for perhaps the first time. The past 18 years had seen Haydn at the artistic mercy of the wealthy Esterházy family, who had taken to spending as many as 10 months out of the year at their palace in the remote Hungarian countryside.

Working at the Esterházy palace, while a fantastic opportunity for a composer, came with some serious frustrations for Haydn. Though he was given his own orchestra (and artistic license to compose and experiment as he pleased), the princes’ appetite for new music was insatiable. This meant that all the musicians — including Haydn — had to be available at a moment’s notice, living in what were essentially glorified servants’ apartments adjacent to the decadent palace that was the only structure for miles.

The ultimate humiliation for Haydn, though, was the fact that each of his laboriously crafted compositions became exclusive property of the Esterházy family the moment the ink was dry. This meant that Haydn was forbidden from attempting to publish or more widely circulate his music, denying him the exposure and recognition he (rightfully) felt he deserved.

Although Haydn’s contract had these draconian stipulations, a mere piece of paper was no match for the desires of the musically voracious. Between the comings and goings at the palace, and in large part due to turnover in the ranks of the court orchestra, manuscript copies of Haydn’s music did indeed find their way out from the isolated countryside. Likely copied by admiring musicians who respected Haydn but wished to seek easier employment, illicit copies of the composer’s music made it as far away as London, where his work was rapturously received in the “indie” music circles of the time. A London newspaper even published a short column bemoaning Haydn’s ‘golden cage’, as it were. It was a situation too good for Haydn to pass up, and too restrictive to be truly fulfilling.

Esterházy palace in Fertod, Hungary (photo by Tim Herscovitch)

While Haydn had to be frustrated at his inability to collect royalties on his music for 18 years, by the end of his time with the Esterházys, he must have at least been appreciative of just how widely his music had been disseminated. As a result of his music’s availability, he had a built-in audience and fan base ready for him the moment he finally left the Hungarian countryside after three decades. After being released from his position, Haydn immediately moved to London and made a small fortune composing and putting on concerts.

Can we draw parallels between Haydn’s story and the way modern composers and songwriters attract recognition in the year 2014? Possibly, if the open source movement has anything to say about it. Music that is available online, free of licensing or usage restrictions, has been given the label “open source” — a nod to a trend seen in software development circles, as well as online knowledge hubs like Wikipedia. Today, increasing numbers of composers are rethinking the way they grow their visibility, choosing to release their work instantly into the public domain on a site like Free Music Archive. Much like Haydn, the artist then loses the ability to collect royalties or control the way in which their music is used. This tradeoff theoretically pays dividends in the currency of public awareness and accessibility, rather than the currency of… well, currency.

“There ought to be but one large art warehouse in the world, to which the artist could carry his art-works, and from which he could carry away whatever he needed.” – Ludwig van Beethoven

The above Beethoven quote describing a utopian artists’ collective is about to take one step closer to reality. The Free Music Archive and Musopen, two notable bellwethers of this rising movement, seek to grant unfettered access to music for the masses to do with as they please. Listening, remixing, sampling, distributing — it’s all fair game when it comes to open source audio. While the Free Music Archive serves as a vault for every musical genre imaginable, Musopen focuses specifically on freeing classical music recordings, encouraging musicians to “donate” their performances of great works to its growing virtual warehouse of audio files.

Musopen addresses an issue that is unique to the genre it serves. In the United States and European Union, most compositions automatically enter the public domain 70 years after the death of the composer, meaning that most of the great works in the classical repertoire have already entered the public domain. Yet, this law has led to a particularly odd conundrum for classical music: while the majority of the compositions themselves are in the public domain, publishers’ copyrighted editions of sheet music are not. And while anyone can record a piece of classical music and release it for free if they so choose, most good-quality recordings out there are copyrighted property of the record label distributing them and the artist who performed them.

Because of this complicated legal tangle surrounding a body of music that most people assume to be simply a part of our shared collective cultural heritage, it’s not surprising that there’s now substantial traction behind an effort to assemble open source collections of classical music. In the last two years, fans of classical music have spoken with their wallets and seeded a number of successful crowdfunding campaigns to release high-quality recordings and digital sheet music — all open source and restriction-free. Remember: until now, although the written music of Bach and Chopin was technically in the public domain, most modern recordings of their music were not. This is a game changer with far-reaching implications.

The benefits of open sourcing wide swaths of the classical repertoire (with accompanying digital scores and even an iPad app!) are immediately obvious. This ensures new levels of accessibility, around the world, to some of humanity’s most remarkable art. And while many will focus solely on the recordings, the creation of modern digital score (sheet music) editions is equally exciting. Since classical music is so ripe with opportunities for analysis and useful self-study, its written music has always been particularly coveted by musicians eager to learn and perform great works. Now, musicians everywhere will be able to do just that, as long as they have access to the internet.

Fewer restrictions should theoretically mean wider dissemination, a larger potential listener base, and therefore more future opportunities. For classical music, it breaks down yet another barrier for a genre that is too often perceived to have a high barrier of entry for new listeners. For modern artists, it’s a model that suggests a musician can carefully grow their audience first, and harvest it later. While it would probably be more ideal for the artist to be collecting royalties all along, we’ve seen that such a scenario is not always possible. Whether due to file sharing and the societal devaluation of an individual song, or due to an 18th century musician scratching out an illegal score copy by candlelight, it seems to be a reliable maxim that music is a slippery thing to try and restrict.

A room in the Esterházy palace where Haydn’s chamber music was often performed (photo by Tim Herscovitch)

The effort to open source music is continuing to split into two main fronts: those that serve as a hub for modern artists to release their work without usage restrictions, and efforts such as Ba©h to Bach which seek to create a truly free repository of history’s most treasured and culturally significant music. This latter effort has leveraged the relatively new phenomenon of crowdfunding to achieve what is arguably a win-win scenario for everyone… except perhaps traditional classical music record labels.

Even then, these free Bach recordings aren’t meant to be everything to everyone, nor are they intended to be the definitive interpretations of these works (despite pianist Kimiko Ishizaka‘s brilliant artistry). Rather, they’re an attempt to make good on the true ideology that “public domain” should represent. These efforts are a step toward creating a repository of music that is old enough and culturally significant enough to now essentially belong to humanity as a whole. Think of it as a public library for great music, accessible from all over the world at any time; one that was paid for by the combined donations, big and small, of the global community.

T.S. Eliot once said “you are the music, while the music lasts.”

If open source music continues its current trajectory, we might just last forever.



About Tim Herscovitch

Tim Herscovitch is a writer, content curator, musician, and professor. He lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.