Market Music

Music may be the food love, as Shakespeare put it at the opening of Twelfth Night, but he could also have observed that music feeds on money.

A few are made rich by their devotion to the art. Many more are impoverished by it.

In between these economic extremes, the cultivation of music long served as a sign of middle-class security: the piano in the drawing room was like a ship moored in the homeport of success.  It literally took money to make music, especially if the instrument of choice was a three-legged sloop of ivory and ebony and iron.

The prolific, provocative eighteenth-century music critic Johann Mattheson rightly claimed that the best—and most lasting—opera houses were built in cities with the most successful banks. One only has to look at the list of chief corporate donors to the Metropolitan Opera (Bank of America and Deutsche Bank) to verify Mattheson’s assertion, although global financial institutions long ago untethered themselves from the quaint concept of geographical location.

In the eighteenth century Mattheson’s native Hamburg was a thriving commercial center and the biggest city in German. No wonder, then, that it also built the first public opera house in northern Europe, an institution that drew to it many of the great talents of the age, among them George Frideric Handel and his friend Georg Philipp Telemann.

Like many other composers, both men consorted with the rich and powerful in order to advance their careers and pursue their musical programs. They lived during an age of vigorous globalization and the speculation that fueled it.  There music was molded by money.

Both Telemann and Handel died wealthy. Both were not just witnesses to stock bubbles, but participants in them.

Handel’s exact contemporary, Domenico Scarlatti, was a gambler, though it is not known whether he dabbled in stocks either in his adopted country of Spain with its vast overseas empire.  Even J. S. Bach, the third of the keyboard titans born in 1685, wanted in on the action.  Though he acquired some of the trimmings of bourgeois respectability, he was never able to pull himself out of the ranks of the working class. He owned many musical instruments, but could afford only a single share of a Saxon silver mine. His wife and unwed daughters died in poverty.  Some of his many sons climbed up the socio-economic ladder, though one of them, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, was also a gambler. He died at the age of twenty-four, his grieving father obliged to pay his debts.

Handel had no kids to worry about. Unencumbered by family, he could pursue his cosmopolitan ambitions with the help of monarchs and aristocrats. His Utrecht Te Deum  of 1713 commemorated the treaty with which Britain exited the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession. (It was a separate peace that, among its many consequences, condemned Barcelona to a devastating siege and subsequent subjugation it has never escaped from, at least if you believe Albert Sánchez Piñol’s richly imagined and timely novel, Victus.  In order to service the nation’s huge war debt, the Lord Treasurer, Robert Harley, pushed to set up the South Sea Company, a colonialist project built on the slave trade. Handel’s triumphant Te Deum was thus the overture to the speculative boom and eventual bust. Handel himself was a shareholder in the company for a time. He made a decent profit before cashing out in advance of the inevitable crash that came in the summer of 1720.

A kindred scheme for dealing with state debt generated by that same war was dreamt up by John Law, a Scot whose visionary economic theories were put into practice when he crossed the English Channel and became Controller General of France during regency of Louis XV. Law was himself a sometime South Sea speculator, and over in France, which had, as always, been Britain’s enemy in the recent war, set himself up in a grand house and joined in high-stakes gambling parties with Parisian elites.  In this electric atmosphere of risk and reward, his radical economic theories enthralled his gaming partners, among them the regent himself, the Duke of Orleans. Beginning in 1716, Law set up France’s first national bank, had it issue paper money, and combined the various colonial ventures doing business in India, China and the Louisiana in Territory into one state conglomerate known as the Mississippi Company. Law was rolling the dice with the French economy. The Mississippi Company issued large amounts of stock that was sold in lucrative insider deals to the same aristocrats with whom Law played cards. Shares were also flogged off at much higher prices to a rabid, chance-loving populace. When the bottom fell out in the 1720 just as the South Sea Bubble was about to burst, an angry mob descended on Paris and occupied Law’s palace. He had already fled the country.

Daniel Defoe pilloried what he-called Law’s “stockjobbing” while he was still at the helm of the French economy, and then journalistically hounded him across Europe, from London to Venice and finally to Amsterdam, where this pioneering architect of global capitalism died penniless in 1729.

The repercussions of Law’s financial machinations were felt across the continent, including in Frankfurt, then as now, home to one of the most important continental stock exchanges.

During the madness of 1720 Telemann, still a year away from taking up the post of music director of Hamburg, was the chief musician in Frankfurt. There he was embedded in a group of the city’s wealthiest families known as the Frauenstein Society. These patricians funded the composer’s collegium musicum and its “Grand Concerts” given each week in the group’s mansion, which housed both Telemann and his family and the stock exchange.

Among the traits prized by Telemann’s wealthy patrons was his mastery of musical humor: he understood the monetary value of entertainment, and accordingly exploited his comic talents in spirited depictions of Don Quixote’s misadventures and Gulliver’s Travels, among other tales.

Like Lawrence Welk long after, Telemann also had a go at bubbles. Sometime around 1720 he composed a twenty-minute orchestral suite of dances, whose final movement is entitled L’Espérance de Mississippi (Hope for the Mississippi) and seems to refer to the Law-led financial disaster that in its wake rocked the Frankfurt stock market conducting its business directly below Telemann’s composing desk.

In modern recordings this suite is often given the sobriquet “La Bourse” (the stock exchange), but this title does not stem from Telemann himself.

Steven Zohn, author of the definitive, richly detailed and constantly illuminating study of Telemann’s instrumental music, rightly stresses that the suite is untitled in the surviving autograph score. Zohn goes on to argue that there is “nothing parodistic about the final movement,” in spite of the reference to Mississippi.  Zohn thinks it unlikely that the savvy Telemann would poke fun at his Frankfurt benefactors and their failed investments, and is even skeptical that the piece was written after the Mississippi crash. He is also doubtful that the allusive titles of the individual dances depict actual events.

A cautious speculator on musical matters, Zohn is probably right not to be taken in by the interpretative riches held out by Telemann’s stock-market suite.

Not so the Musical Patriot!

The work  begins with an ouverture whose stately opening and busy second section adopt the universal plan for this genre, one that also kicked-off operas of the period. Yet Telemann’s overture can also be heard to capture the delusions of grandeur and quick-money lust harbored by investors. The musical shapes can’t help but conjure the scurrying and scheming that characterize the floor of the exchange, the ascending and descending figures graphing the steep rise and sharper fall of Mississippi share prices. In the midst of the euphoric headlong-charge of the full band, the oboes worry and plot and hedge their bets like doubt-racked investors.

The second of the five movements is called “Le repos interrompu” (rest interrupted).  Someone with his bedroom in the stock exchange building would certainly have known as well as anyone that when markets are turbulent investors don’t sleep tight. In constantly trying to dampen the satirical charge of the suite as a whole, Zohn points out that Telemann originally called this movement “Air avec douceur,” omitting to inform us, however, that “douceur” does not just mean “softness” but also referred to a financial inducement or a plain old bribe. In this movement a calm—and very French—trio of two oboes and bassoon are gently rocked, lullaby-like, by soft strings. But then manic, high-voltage outbursts trouble the speculator as he tosses and turns in bed, even bolting upright. Sleep eventually returns but it will be short, fitful, and in no way restorative.

These nocturnal fits are followed by “La guerre en la paix” (War in peace time). Telemann originally had the order of the words reversed: “peace in war time,” but crossed out that formulation.  Zohn thinks the phrase might refer to the grim truth that even when the European powers had contracted an end to their hostilities there was some other war going on—in this case, Sweden fighting Russia through 1720.

But Telemann also knew that trading stock is also a form of combat involving strategy, outmaneuvering, and dirty tricks.  For someone to win, someone else has to lose.  Accordingly, the movement is all manic action, rising harmonic progressions conveying the buoyancy of the market, the shaking strings its instability, the oboe soloists scurrying here and there in search of some advantage or another—the scrap of insider information, the flanking maneuver that will give them the upper hand. The goal is to crush the opponent not with cannon’s roar but the backroom whisper; winning or cutting the losses not by charging and retreating at the right time, but by buying low and selling high.

These skirmishes are followed by the larger philosophical point made by “Les vainquers vaincus” (Victors vanquished): even if you are on top at the close of trade one day, all can be lost the next. Telemann presents the fickleness of finance as an elegant dance in triple time, its refinement perhaps itself a form of gloating, but also a recognition of the fragility of success. As in the interchangeability of the voices of his instrumental ensemble, the top can become the bottom.

When you lose, you lose alone, even if amongst the investing throng. This is what Telemann tells us in the ensuing “La solitude assoscié” (solitude in company). There is a melancholy in the movement’s poise, the plaint of the oboes mourning the loss of real communal feeling, as opposed to the illusory bonds built on a shared investing strategy. Even if shoulder-to-shoulder in the trading pit in the thrall of massed craze for a certain stock, from Mississippi to the South Seas, one is always on one’s own.

The suite closes with “L’Espérance de Mississippi” (Hope in Mississippi). All the dreams of riches are loaded into this final movement, and so it charges blindly ahead towards that mythic pot of gold somewhere in the New World that might magically fill the bank accounts in Old Europe. The music rips ahead towards those riches, but midway through comes a unison crash by the whole band down to a low and ominous F-sharp. After a fraught pause, the music blithely returns to the opening of the movement and the cheery renewal of hope.  In less than two-minutes Telemann has captured the bipolar mentality of the investor and the cycle of boom-and-bust it mirrors.

Zohn doubts that Telemann would have risked making fun of his wealthy patrons. But what better way to heal the soul of the bankrupt than a lively musical commentary on the folly of wealth?

The current lurchings and staggerings of global markets cry out for a soundtrack, be it comic, pathetic, diverting, or devastating—or a balanced portfolio of all of these things. My tip to the musical market: I’m long on Telemann’s hijinks and the way they mock and comfort, distract and delight, and provide durable proof that investment in art pays dividends long after fortunes have been made and squandered.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at