More on musical guilds

Following up from last week, I’ve been doing some reading about guilds in general and musical guilds in particular. At this stage of the project I’m still quite remote from anything related to music theory, but this background research helps to flesh out my image of a “pre-modern” mode of conducting musical business. Some salient features of this pre-modern mode that jump to mind:

  • Small-time, bilateral relations (of employment, apprenticeship, etc.).
  • Musical trade preferentially passed down from father to son. (Limited participation of women, generally speaking).
  • Rigid organizational forms that change slowly.
  • Complex structures that are not rationally designed, and can only be adequately explained through their history.

Although I’m getting ahead of myself here, one notable thing about this pre-modern mode is that it would offer no incentive to streamline or simplify the musical knowledge we now classify as music theory. Under this pre-modern mode, notation, tonal centricity, melody, harmony, and rhythm all evolved according to the needs of the moment and the possibilities expressed by existing authorities. The result was a confusing hodgepodge of systems drawn from many sources that wasn’t, and could not be, adequately explained by any single theoretical text. If you wanted to understand how music works, you could only do so by becoming deeply embedded in its practice. And that was how people at the time liked it. How else would you learn about music than apprenticing yourself to a practising master? A complete reform of the theory of tonal centricity, to take one example, serves no purpose until the pre-modern relations are already beginning to fray around the edges.

That’s enough speculation for now. My goal this week is to report some relatively straightforward facts about guilds.

Guilds and unions

The operations of guilds can be illuminated with a comparison to a familiar modern institution—the labour union. We have a tendency to think of guilds and labour unions as analogous phenomena. This is not surprising, since some labour unions today style themselves as “guild” or “brotherhood,” echoing the notion of a fraternal organization of medieval craftsmen. But historical guilds actually had quite a different economic function from labour unions, and their structure differed in important ways.

The last time I was a member of a labour union was in 2017. Being a member of the union presented almost no financial burden, especially to full-time employees. My annual dues were 0.75% of my salary, which meant that the amount of money held back from each cheque (less than $10) was negligible relative to what I was being paid. The union was an officially recognized bargaining agent with our employer, which meant that no one could be hired for any position in the job categories covered by the union without becoming a dues-paying member. Increases in the union’s membership, whether through the creation of new positions or the expansion of the union’s jurisdiction, were strictly in the union’s best interests. More members means more dues, which enable the union to hire more staff, carry out more union-related activities, and save more for a potential strike. The costs of hiring a new employee would, obviously, be born by the employer, so the proposition was entirely beneficial to the union.

The only requirement to vote at union meetings or serve as an officer was that you were a signed member. This was a sort of two-tiered system, but the only requirement to jump to the higher tier was that you signed a union card in the presence of another signed member. In practice, all members were equal. Importantly, no distinctions were made between members on the grounds of age, sex, race, religion, and so forth. Segregated unions have existed in the past, but segregation is an objective disadvantage to labour unions, which depend upon broad support among whoever happens to make up the workforce. A segregated union sacrifices its strength as a union in the service of a goal external to trade unionism itself.

Compare that to the behaviour of guilds as reported by Sheilagh Ogilvie.1 Being a member of a guild was costly. Enrolment fees for apprentices averaged 12.3 days’ wages for an unskilled male labourer (119) and premiums paid by apprentices to their masters averaged well over 300 days’ wages (120). In addition, apprentices could be charged regular dues and might be expected to contribute alms or fund special events. Mastership fees were on average 214.6 days’ wages for a male journeyman, with the reported numbers peaking in the eighteenth century (122). (Ogilvie notes that “pre-industrial Europeans worked only 270 days a year at full employment, and labourers and journeymen were seldom fully employed,” 123.) Guilds could, and did, arbitrarily charge a particular master more than the statutory fee (123–4). The presentation of a masterpiece to qualify for mastership could be especially burdensome: “Journeymen frequently lamented that they were required to make masterpieces consisting of elaborate, exotic, or even obsolete items that demanded expensive raw materials, took months of work away from paid employment, and were virtually impossible to sell” (124). On top of all these costs were compulsory “donations,” dues, banquet costs, and gifts to masters or officers, all of which which could be expected of prospective or current guild members. All told, the economic burden of attaining the rank of master and being able to operate independently was steep. Many skilled workers were priced out of ever becoming a master (creating a class of permanent journeymen) or forced to find a different occupation. Full guild membership would only be attainable for sons of masters, who paid significantly lower fees, and for wealthy citizens who were able to pay their way past all the barriers to entry.

Unions and guilds both have exclusivity over their respective jurisdictions, often with an official legal recognition and regulation of some kind. But union jurisdictions usually pertain to a single employer (or even, as was the case with my union, certain categories of jobs at a large institutional employer). For example, if you were foolish enough to found a new professional orchestra, it would not be illegal for you to hire non-union musicians. However, guild exclusivity usually covered a certain geographical area—usually the town walls, sometimes also a certain region around the town. If your city had a recognized musicians’ guild, it would be illegal for you to hire non-guild musicians.

Perhaps the starkest difference between guilds and unions is that guilds often limited their membership, both through discriminatory policies and caps on the allowable number of active masters. Most European guilds admitted men only.2 The vast majority of them excluded Jews.3 In Spain, Muslims and Moors were explicitly banned as well, and Ogilvie reports one case from Valencia of a guild banning “mulattoes of the color of quince marmalade, because of the protests and disturbance which would result from the sight of such persons mingling with honorable and well-dressed people” (101–102). Other barriers included religious confession (103–106; for example, Protestants being excluded in majority Catholic areas and vice versa) and ethnicity (101–103; for example, non-Germans being excluded from guilds in areas under German control).

Applicants for apprenticeship in many places had to be citizens of the town, a bar that could be costly and difficult to leap (96–100). Guild members had to be legitimately born, with definitions of legitimacy being flexible and up to interpretation (108–110). They often had to be freeborn, with no trace of serfdom or slavery in their recent family history (100–101), free from physical ailments or disabilities, and of “good reputation” (128–132). In practice, these prohibitions gave guilds the ability to exclude almost anyone for some reason or other, and Ogilvie argues they had a strong incentive to limit their membership (84–85, 93–96). Guild exclusivity was a mechanism to limit the number of legal producers operating within an industry in a given place. Past a certain point, admitting new members to the guild would simply add competitors, which is disadvantageous to all the existing members. While the various restrictions helped to keep membership artificially low without revealing the guilds’ monopolistic tendencies, some guilds would even go so far as to explicitly cap their membership to prevent the emergence of a genuinely competitive market (93–96).

In practice, the purpose of guilds was to rig the market in favour of a small number of privileged producers, entrench small-time local authorities and insure them against the need to change, keep the (legal) bribes flowing toward various middlemen, and prevent the vast majority of skilled labourers from working legally without going through them. This explains why Marx famously identifies the struggle between “guild master and journeyman” as one example of the broader struggle between “oppressor and oppressed” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, section 1). European guilds, especially by the time of their decline and abolition, were like cartels and mafias—a sort of union of employers against their employees, ensuring that the rich and few stayed rich and few. In some ways, the advent of industrial capitalism and the decline of the guilds alleviated this situation, since capitalism in its competitive phase increases the efficiency of the market, sweeps away most small-time arbitrary privileges, and enables greater social mobility.

A few musical guilds

Ogilvie’s database records a few observations of guilds related to music, but on the whole her study does not provide us much specific insight into the operations of musical guilds. For that we have to turn to the musicological literature. So far, these are the studies of musical guilds I’ve been able to examine:

  • Bauman, Thomas. “Musicians in the Marketplace: The Venetian Guild of Instrumentalists in the Later 18th Century.” Early Music 19, no. 3 (Aug. 1991): 345–355.
  • Collins, Timothy A. “‘Of the Difference Between Trumpeters and City Tower Musicians’: The Relationship of Stadtpfeifer and Kammeradschaft Trumpeters.” Galpin Society Journal 53 (Apr. 2000): 51–59.
  • Green, Helen. “Defining the City ‘Trumpeter’: German Civic Identity and the Employment of Brass Instrumentalists, c. 1500.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 136, no. 1 (May 2011): 1–31.
  • Selfridge-Field, Eleanor. “Annotated Membership Lists of the Venetian Instrumentalists’ Guild, 1672–1727.” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle no. 9 (1971): 1–52.
  • ———. “The Venetian Instrumentalists’ Guild: Additional Annotations.” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle no. 12 (1974): 152–155.
  • Slocum, Kay Brainerd. “Confrérie, Bruderschaft, and Guild: The Formation of Musicians’ Fraternal Organisations in Thirteenth- and Fourteenth-Century Europe.” Early Music History 14 (1995), 257–274.
  • Smithers, Don L. “The Hapsburg Imperial Trompeter and Heerpaucker Privileges of 1653.” Galpin Society Journal 24 (Jul. 1971): 84–95.

Slocum’s study, which considers the formation of guilds at a very early point in their existence, reminds us that they were once an important and necessary invention. For musicians in the Middle Ages—a group looked on with suspicion by respectable people—guilds were a path to a more stable life: “By forming corporations and thus voluntarily placing themselves under the power of rulers or civic authorities, the musicians could achieve a modicum of social acceptance and legal protection” (258). Guilds helped to limit competition, mediate disputes between members, and set professional standards.4 They also provided financial support for ailing members, paid for masses in honour of the dead, and established charitable institutions such as hospitals.

Page from the necrology of the Confrérie des Jongleurs et des Bourgeois d’Arras, an important medieval guild that included Adam de la Halle and Jehan Erart as members. See Slocum, 259–260. Source.

Bauman and Selfridge-Field both deal with the same organization, Venice’s Arte de’ Sonadori or Guild of Instrumentalists, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.5 Dating back to the fourteenth century and continuing until the abolition of Venetian guilds in 1806, its existence covers almost the entire period that guilds were a major factor in the European economy. Selfridge-Field is able to tell us who was a member during the period covered by her study, which gives an indication of the organization’s prestige: the membership lists include Giovanni Battista Vivaldi and his son Antonio, Marc’Antonio Ziani, and Giuseppe and Antonio Caldara. It also gives us some indication of its size during the period under consideration: 101 members in 1673, growing to 191 members by 1727.

Bauman provides some more general information on the guild’s operations. The guild venerated St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Its acts were subject to approval by the Magistrati alla Giustizia Vecchia, which served as the regulatory body for Venetian guilds. Ogilvie observes that one of the reasons guilds were convenient to government authorities is that they streamlined tax collection and related government functions (56–58). We see that here: the Guild of Instrumentalists was subject to a head tax and a tax on revenues, and it was required at times to submit membership reports to the naval authorities for conscription (the surviving specimens of these reports form the basis for Selfridge-Field’s study). The guild established a burial fund and a fund to assist needy members. Its membership was not stratified into apprentices and journeymen: for most of its existence, only masters were allowed into the guild on the basis of an audition.6 Bauman reports the guild’s entrance fees for the year 1781, which were 2 ducats for members’ sons, 16 for Venetian citizens, 36 for citizens of the republic, and 100 for foreigners. These fees especially favoured members’ sons, and were virtually prohibitive on the higher end.7

Venetian guilds were divided into three categories: guilds producing goods for sale, guilds producing food items, and guilds “of industry,” or service providers. The instrumentalists were in the third category for most of their existence, but in 1789 they successfully petitioned the government to reclassify them as a liberal art. Bauman points out that the guild of painters had done a similar thing over a century earlier, separating out the artists from the utility painters. According to Bauman, this reclassification had two effects: the guild gained the right to use fancier designations (it could style itself as a “college,” and its chief officer as a “prior”), and its membership was officially separated into two classes. The upper class had to pass a more difficult examination, while the lower class had an easier examination but had less of a say over the affairs of the college.

The Guild of Instrumentalists had a right to exclusivity over all paid instrumental performance in Venice. But this right was constantly under threat from Venetian impresarios wishing to employ non-guilded musicians, often from out of town. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, theatre orchestras would flagrantly violate the guild’s exclusivity. In 1788, the guild sued the two theatres for serious opera (San Benedetto and La Fenice) for hiring non-guild musicians, but the lawsuit was decided in favour of the theatres, effectively shattering the guild’s exclusivity at a time when guilds across Europe were increasingly coming under scrutiny. The Venetian guild system was abolished outright not long thereafter, in 1806.

Collins and Smithers discuss an interesting example of inter-guild conflict. From the seventeenth through eighteenth centuries, the playing of trumpets and kettledrums in the Holy Roman Empire was the exclusive privilege of guilded musicians who mainly performed for the emperor and various princes. Their guild charter of 1653 (translated in Smithers’s study) was endorsed by the emperor Ferdinand III.8 It grants them exclusivity and regulates such issues as apprenticeship terms, the behaviour of guild members, attendance at meetings, and the discipline of errant members. The charter mentions trumpeters and drummers experiencing “various difficulties, errors, and abuses, which were contrary not only to their gallant art, but also to the imperial privileges (Privilegia) previously granted to them,” which led to disputes over the proper treatment of guild members (Smithers, 87). The nature of these disputes is not specified, but it seems they were connected with the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War. Trumpeters and drummers played a functional role within military units, and some form of military service was clearly a rite of passage for guild members—the charter grants more limited privileges to members who have passed their apprenticeship but have not served on the battlefield. Most likely, then, the “difficulties, errors, and abuses” resulted from the niceties of guild privileges being ignored by military officers during wartime.

From a very early date, German towns employed their own musicians for a variety of functional and entertainment purposes. Green’s article gives an overview of the different categories of civic musicians, along with their instruments and responsibilities in the period around 1500. One such group of civic musicians were tower watchmen, who used trumpets and drums to signal the passing of the hour, fire and other emergencies, and the approach of visitors, hostile armies, or ships. Collins cites a 1700 article from a journal of jurisprudence which discusses the issue of trumpeters’ guild privileges and their relation to the rights of civic musicians. According to the journal, the effect of the law is such that “no tower musician shall sound the trumpet from any other place but the tower” on pain of confiscation the trumpet and a fine (54). This restriction extended to practising and teaching the trumpet. These activities were to be done only within the tower, although “a person of high social standing or other qualified person” would be allowed to play the trumpet as an amateur, so long as he had permission from the guild (55). A guild trumpeter had the right to “refuse to let any tower musician anywhere, no matter whose subjects they are, play and practice the trumpet outside of the confines of the tower” (55).

Illustration of the Nürnberg tower watchman Wilhelm Mair, who died in 1509. The tools relate to Mair’s trade as a goldsmith, apparently a common secondary occupation for civic brass musicians. Source. This image excerpted in Green, “German Civic Identity,” 10, with transcription and translation of the text.

Members of the trumpeters’ guild guarded their privileges jealously and belligerently against the tower musicians. Conflicts between these groups were common and erupted in violence on many occasions. According to a contemporary account of one such altercation:

In the absence of the prince who was staying in Italy, court trumpeters once went into a tower musician’s house where they had heard a trumpet being sounded, and smashed his trumpet, in the course of which they roughed him up very badly and broke his teeth; however, the trumpeters were seized and were held in jail for a long time, whereby however. . . the house authority came into great consideration. After the return of the prince, intercessions for the trumpeters were made to the prince, and in the end the matter was settled with a fine to compensate the tower musician for his troubles—about 200 Thalers, which were not even paid by the trumpeters but raised elsewhere (53).

According to Collins, “royal intercession invariably assured that most disputes were settled in favour of the ‘privileged’ players or at least with little or no consequence to them” (53).9 The guild trumpeters were prideful and objected not only to unauthorized trumpet-playing, but even the playing of trombones in the manner of a trumpet.10 The many jurisdictional conflicts over trumpet-playing forced some town councils to negotiate with local lords to get special exemptions allowing civic musicians to sound trumpets in church services and similar events.

To modern readers, these anecdotes are faintly ridiculous. But they give a sense of the difficulties of employing musicians under a regime of multiple and overlapping guild jurisdictions.11 However annoying such arbitrary complications might be, they were simply an inarguable part of musical life. It took external pressures—the growing accumulation of capital, and with it a movement of political economists calling for freer markets—to bring them down and force changes.


  1. My source for information about guilds is Sheilagh Ogilvie’s monumental study, The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (Princeton University Press, 2019). Page numbers in the following paragraphs indicate citations to Ogilvie.
  2. Women-only guilds did exist, but they were rare. In some cases, a master’s widow was allowed to carry on his trade after his death. Otherwise, women were mostly excluded from the guild system. Ogilvie devotes an entire chapter of her book to the issue of guilds and women: 232–306.
  3. In some places, Jews were able to form Jewish-only guilds or practise guilded trades as long as they only did business with other Jews. Ogilvie’s qualitative guild database reports two Jewish musicians’ guilds in Poland, in Leszno in 1662 and in Kępno in 1700. Ogilvie argues persuasively that restrictions on Jews joining guilds would not have been necessary if ordinary Christians were fundamentally unwilling to do business with them: “Anti-Semitic attitudes were widespread in European cultures. But if these attitudes had been held universally and strongly, and if their implementation had been independent of institutional mechanisms, then surely individual Christians should not have been happy to purchase goods and services from Jews, to settle alongside them, and to offer and take employment from them, which is what they did wherever guilds did not prevent them from doing so” (164). Thus the guilds probably served to delay some of the levelling effects of early capitalism and deepen the segregation of European Jews. An interesting theme throughout Ogilvie’s book is the extent to which economic institutions such as guilds artificially reproduced such cultural prejudices that might otherwise have dissolved in the face of economic pressure.
  4. The extent and effectiveness of these professional standards should not be exaggerated. Ogilvie considers the issue of quality regulation by guilds in 307–353. She shows that guild statutes regulating quality were rarer than one might think, and that in practice guild approval was not a reliable indicator of the quality of a product.
  5. An additional source on this guild that looks especially valuable is Gastone Vio, “L’Arte dei sonadori e l’insegnamento della musica a Venezia,” Recercare 18 (2006), 69–111. Unfortunately, I do not read Italian, but the RILM abstract provides some idea of what the study covers.
  6. Bauman describes this audition in “Musicians in the Marketplace,” 348: in 1751, “those who wished to perform both for audiences and for dancing were to play an Allegro and an Adagio from a sonata, as well as minuets and contradances. Those who wished to play only for dancing were asked to perform minuets, contradances, and balli inglesi.” In 1789, after the introduction of a two-tiered membership to the college of instrumentalists, “for the prova di cognizione the candidate must play a sonata of his own choosing. . . thereafter he will be given ‘a sonata in the modern taste’ . . . selected from those kept in custody by the college for this purpose. The prova a orrechio consisted of simply playing a sonata by ear. In neither case are dances mentioned.”
  7. For comparison, the annual salary of a violinist at San Marco was 15 ducats for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Selfridge-Field, “Annotated Membership Lists,” 3.
  8. Guilds usually needed approval from some legal authority in order to establish a charter granting them exclusivity (the sine qua non of a functioning guild). In many cases, they would seek the endorsement of a particularly high authority such as a king or pope, often in return for a financial consideration. For various examples see Ogilvie, European Guilds, 36–82. The endorsement of the Holy Roman Emperor attests to the high social status of the imperial trumpeters’ guild.
  9. Both quotations from Collins, “Of the Differences,” 53. The anecdote about the violent altercation was quoted in 1700, but the altercation itself took place “in Hannover during the time of Duke Christian Ludwig” (i.e., in the mid-seventeenth century).
  10. Collins, “Of the Differences,” 58. What this means exactly is not clear.
  11. These complexities could arise even within the same organization. The imperial court chapel under Johann Joseph Fux did not have its own kettledrummer—the kettledrummer was a member of the emperor’s trumpet corps, under the supervision of a totally different department from the court chapel. Trumpeters were split up between three different departments. The chapel would have to make special arrangements to use these musicians when they were needed. See David Wyn Jones, Music in Vienna: 1700, 1800, 1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 13–14.