Mozart Minute: No, My Piano Concertos Are Not Too Expensive

Oct 30, 2015

Think the price of stocks and bonds fluctuates wildly? Imagine the price of a genius composer's brand-new set of piano concertos. 

  Wishing not only to pay the bills but also to make a splash in his new home of Vienna, in 1782 Mozart offered for sale by subscription manuscript copies of the first three piano concertos (K. 413-415) he composed in Vienna.

In a letter of Dec. 28, 1782 to his father, Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Mozart described these concertos as "a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, natural, without being vapid." (The Letters of Mozart and His Family, trans. Emily Anderson). A few days later, on Jan. 4, Mozart wrote his father that the subscription price for the three concertos was four ducats - about US $1,500 in today's currency. 

Evidently Leopold didn't think the subscription was such a good deal. On Jan. 22, Mozart wrote his father again saying, "You need have no fear that the three concertos are too dear. I think after all that I deserve a ducat for each concerto - and besides - I should like to know who could get them copied for a ducat!"

Less than a month later, Mozart found himself in dire straits. With his wife pregnant and their financial situation not improved, Mozart was now under threat of being sued for a payment an adversary thought was overdue. In a state of desperation, Mozart wrote his friend the Baroness von Waldstätten for a loan.

"At the moment, I cannot pay - not even half the sum," Mozart wrote. "If I could have foreseen that the subscriptions for my concertos would come in so slowly, I should have raised the money on a longer time-limit. I entreat your Ladyship for Heaven's sake to help me to keep my honor and my good name!"

About three months later, in April 1783, the price on the concertos went up as Mozart offered them for publication. He wrote the Parisian publisher J.G. Sieber, "this letter is to inform you that I have three piano concertos ready ... Artaria wants to engrave them. But I give you, my friend, the first refusal. And in order to avoid delay I shall quote my lowest terms to you. If you give me thirty louis d'or for them (roughly, US $20,000 today) the matter is settled." 

A year later, in April 1784, and wanting the concertos to bring in more cash, Leopold Mozart appealed to the big spenders. He sent presumably copies of the concertos and a few of his son's other works to his friend Sebastian Winter, the valet of the Prince von Fürstenburg, offering the concertos to the prince for the price of four ducats each​, fully tripling the original subscription price. 

Later that month, Leopold wrote Winter again, responding with no small degree of alarm to a letter in which Winter must have indicated that Leopold's package with the concertos had not reached him.

That parcel may well have gone into the great beyond, but evidently Mozart's bid to the Parisian publisher J.G. Sieber went nowhere - the Viennese publisher Artaria & Co. finally published the concertos in 1785.