Guilds and the political economy of music theory

Over the next few weeks I plan to do a large volume of reading focusing on music history and political economy. I’ve never been much of a note-taker, but I don’t want to rely solely on my memory for retaining this information. I also want some kind of schedule to keep myself honest as the quarantine weeks drag on. So I hereby commit to writing something here at least once a week summarizing my readings and what I’ve gleaned from them.

Through my time studying at McGill, I’ve realized that the most interesting developments in music theory are taking place in the history of theory. My thesis work, which I began with the intention of writing a standard essay in analysis and performance, morphed over time into a study in the history of metric theory and performance with translated passages from and commentary on theoretical treatises of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The analysis kept getting sidelined by the theoretical issues, which struck me as much more compelling. But I also sense serious problems in the way the history of music theory has been written about, at least until very recently.

The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, published in 2002, is the most comprehensive survey of the history of music theory ever undertaken in English. And it has done a real service to the field by consolidating knowledge that was spread across hundreds of books and articles in several languages, concerning music theory across more than two millenia. Anyone who reads the Cambridge History cover to cover will have taken in a solid survey of what had been accomplished in the field by the turn of the century. The problem is that the field keeps moving, and with every new book or article that is published the theoretical shortcomings of the Cambridge History are made more apparent.

As I understand it, the major problem with the Cambridge History and the style of historiography it embodies is that it is essentially a summary of and commentary on various musical texts. The number and variety of texts it covers is impressive, and the work involved in compiling such a summary and commentary is nothing to sneeze at. But music theory is a living body of knowledge. Texts are only a part of this knowledge, and not necessarily the most important part. Texts provide a place where dead ideas can rest, awaiting rediscovery and revival when they become relevant again. Actual theory is embedded in pedagogical practices of various kinds. Texts may be used as a tool in musical practice (as Fux’s Gradus has been for nearly 300 years), and they can provide various kinds of evidence about practice, but they are not themselves practice. And without being continually reproduced by practice, theory lacks any force.

An example might help explain what I mean. John Holden’s An Essay Towards a Rational System of Music (1770) is now recognized as one of the most sophisticated theoretical texts of the eighteenth century. Holden’s psychological orientation toward musical perception was so far ahead of its time that, as Carmel Raz has shown, his work was plagiarized in a doctoral dissertation nearly 100 years after it was published (and this plagiarism was, apparently, not detected until recently).1 But Holden was a minor figure who seems to have had little contact with the major musical figures of his day and who was not widely read, certainly not on the continent. It was only in retrospect, in its nineteenth-century plagiarism and its twenty-first-century revival, that the importance of Holden’s text has been recognized. We can say with relative confidence that musicians of Holden’s time did not think in Holden’s terms. The same is not true of other eighteenth-century theorists such as Kirnberger or Fux, who were widely read by musicians, theorists, and even the general public in their own time, and whose ideas consequently entered musical practice immediately after their publication.

Such issues are where the historiography of the Cambridge History falls most short.2 It is interested in what the texts say, but not in the more basic issue of whether anyone believed or even read them. A few exceptions stick out—for example, Henry Klumpenhouwer observes that the differing institutional contexts of German dualist and Viennese thoroughbass theory account for much of the difference between their respective conceptions of harmony3—but by and large, my generalization holds. This is a common prejudice among music theorists, especially those concerned with stabilizing a distinction between the institutional territory of music theory as opposed to that of musicology: music theory (and its history) is concerned with music or musical technique, while musicology is concerned with “context.” The notion that “context” might influence, or even substantially determine, musical technique is looked on with suspicion by many theorists.

This prejudice is becoming less widespread as time passes, especially in light of one of the most exciting new developments in the history of theory: the discovery of the full scope and importance of partimento training.4 Partimento is the most booming area of tonal theory these days, and it is arguably closely bound up with the history of theory. But the theory itself—as we have it written—is nothing new. The exciting thing about partimento is the institutional context in which the theory was used. Partimento is not a discursive theory of harmony, but an implicit theory of how to teach harmony. As such, it cannot be studied in isolation from the places where it was used—the Neapolitan conservatories from the mid-sixteenth century onward.

Conservatories and Guilds

Robert Gjerdingen observes a likeness between the Neapolitan conservatories and the European craft guilds, comparing, on the one hand, the test to become a mastriciello (a senior student employed as a junior teacher, like a teaching assistant in a modern university) in the conservatories and, on the other hand, the ritual of presenting a masterpiece to be certified as a full member of a guild.5 In certain respects, the comparison works. Gjerdingen’s main interest is in the difference between pedagogy based on assimilating schemata by learning elaborations on representative models (what German musicologists, borrowing a term from German literature, call a musical Regelpoetik or poetics of rules) and the more modern and systematic way of teaching and learning harmony. He is able to marshal evidence, based on documentation from a guild of draughtsmen, that at least some guild masters would have used such methods to teach their apprentices around the time of the conservatories at their height.

But steeped as I am in Marxist jargon, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring problem with Gjerdingen’s comparison. The central importance of the Neapolitan conservatories is that they were enduring institutions with a relatively consistent curriculum, a staff of teachers, established recruitment methods, and a long time horizon. At least as far as I am aware, as a rank amateur in music history, this situation was not common in institutions of musical training before the eighteenth century. Scholars of music (usually minor theorists) were trained in universities now and then, but actual musicians usually had no dedicated training institution akin to the modern conservatory. As a musically talented boy in most parts of Europe, one’s best bet was to be recruited into a church choir and instructed in singing and perhaps some musical fundamentals (as Joseph Haydn was). In early adulthood, these young men would depend on bilateral master-apprentice relationships (Haydn, for example, learned composition in Vienna in the 1750s as an apprentice to Porpora, who had been a conservatory maestro in Naples ten years earlier). In such a situation, a master’s decision to accept or not accept an apprentice could depend on all sorts of factors—the potential apprentice’s skill, but also his financial means, reputation, religion, and so on. These relationships varied widely in their quality, and the potential for exploitation was obviously very great.6

This complex pedagogical pipeline, dependent as it is on personal relationships between individual students and individual masters with no overall coordination, is typical of eras and places dominated by guilds. Marxist doctrine describes guilds as inefficient obstacles to economic progress. They were a regressive mechanism designed to entrench arbitrary privileges, facilitate open graft and bribery, and provide a political counterweight to the nobility. Their checks on free enterprise prevented social mobility (by limiting who could start new enterprises) and economic development (by hampering the concentration of capital and division of labour). Modern industry could not develop until the guilds were destroyed or at least overwhelmed in power. The guild is thus an anachronistic holdover from the feudal social order.

On the other hand, the Neapolitan conservatories were an early specimen of a wholly modern type of institution. They provided a relatively stable and impersonal institutional framework for music education. Executive officers of the conservatories were responsible to a board of governors. Rules—for admission, hiring, discipline, and governance—were agreed upon collectively and mostly followed. The institutions tried—though they often failed—to keep accurate books and run their operations with financial rigor.7 They had an institutional structure akin to a modern non-profit corporation, a form that is more typical of an emergent capitalist social order. The conservatory in the more highly developed form it would reach by the end of the eighteenth century is a characteristic institution of modern capitalism—one of the earliest and most lasting contributions of the French revolutionary government was to establish the famous Conservatoire de Paris, which provided a model for conservatories throughout Europe and the Americas.

I’ve established that the institutional form of the guild and the conservatory are significantly different. Now, what’s the musical substance of my disagreement with Gjerdingen? Well, it should be clear by now that I hold to a version of the thesis that knowledge is determined in important ways by the institutional forms in which it is embodied. I believe that the sort of teaching that goes on in a master-apprentice relationship is different from the sort of teaching that goes on in an educational institution, and that this difference becomes more pronounced as the institutional form becomes more widespread and highly developed. I believe this difference can be detected in the way musicians are trained and, to some extent, the way they compose. Since I understand music theory to be the technical basis of musical production (whether production of musicians, of performances, or of pieces of music), I believe that this difference can be expressed as a difference in music theory. In other words, I believe that the pivotal history of harmony in the eighteenth century is in some ways bound up with the developments in politics and the economy of the same era analyzed by Marx.

To substantiate this thesis, I’m beginning by learning more about guilds. My starting point is a recent book by Sheilagh Ogilvie, European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (Princeton University Press, 2019). The book is an impressively dense study of European guilds and their economic effects. Ogilvie has compiled two massive spreadsheets of quantitative and qualitative data on various parameters of interest. Her study is broad enough in scope to provide a clear picture of guild activities across Europe and over several centuries. Without getting too much into the weeds at this point, I’ll say that it largely confirms the Marxian image of guilds as obstructionist sources of arbitrary privilege, political patronage, and rank discrimination. I will have more to say on this issue in my subsequent post, in which I hope to be able to provide some examples from studies of musical guilds.

Feature image credit: Frontispiece from Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, public domain.


  1. See Carmel Raz, “An Eighteenth-Century Theory of Musical Cognition? John Holden’s Essay Towards a Rational System of Music,” Journal of Music Theory 62, no. 2 (Oct. 2018), 205–248.
  2. Here I should clarify that my primary interest is in music theory in the modern era—i.e., after the Reformation. Music theory before 1600 or so is a totally different world which I am neither interested in nor qualified to comment on.
  3. Klumpenhouwer, “Dualist Tonal Space and Transformation in Nineteenth-Century Musical Thought,” in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, ed. Thomas Christensen (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 456.
  4. The best point of entry into partimento is Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2012). The existence of the partimento tradition is not news to historians, but the full extent of its importance has not been recognized until recently. Thus Joel Lester’s Compositional Theory in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), still the best overall survey of eighteenth-century theory, dismisses partimento out of hand as “simply offer[ing] patterns for rote memorization” (176).
  5. Gjerdingen, “The Perfection of Craft Training in the Neapolitan Conservatories,” Rivista di analisi e teoria musicale 15, no. 1 (2009), 29–52.
  6. In an entertaining article, David Yearsley reports that one early-eighteenth-century teacher “forced his students to pay twelve Thalers—six up front—to see a treatise on double counterpoint. . . allowing [them] to copy only a few lines of the book at a time.” “Alchemy and Counterpoint in an Age of Reason,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 51, no. 2 (Summer 1998), 214n57.
  7. The most detailed study in English of the operations of one of the Neapolitan conservatories is Michael F. Robinson, “The Governors’ Minutes of the Conservatory S. Maria di Loreto, Naples,” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 10 (1972), 1–97. A modern, comprehensive history of the four conservatories remains to be written.