It takes a nation of billions to hold us back

Today’s outlandish comparison: why John Adams is like Saint Valentine. This is Valentine’s Day, that festival of sending flowers and mash notes to one’s sweetheart—all commemorating a priest who was (perhaps) beaten and beheaded in third-century Rome. It’s doubtful he imagined he would be remembered with candy hearts, but that’s the sort of thing that happens when information is turned loose in the world.

I thought of Valentine last week, when I read (via Robert Gable) about the cancellation of Trinity Lyric Opera’s planned (and publicized) performance of Nixon in China. “Sources tell us that Boosey & Hawkes withdrew permission for the production, a highly unusual move at a time after Trinity’s public announcement and most of the casting already decided,” reported Janos Gerben. “The publisher’s action, which cited an error in issuing the license in the first place, makes one wonder if the composer might have denied permission.”

How disorganized would a publisher have to be to issue a performance license for a full opera by mistake? And even if they did, why is that the opera company’s problem? They’ve hired singers (and presumably signed contracts), secured a space, started marketing—at that point a publisher should suck it up. And if it was Adams who put the kibosh on the performance, presumably in anticipation of a future San Francisco Opera performance—there’s a better way to keep control over who does and doesn’t get to perform your music: DON’T PUBLISH IT. I rather think that in return for the one hundred and sixteen bucks per piano-vocal score, paying customers get ownership of something beyond exponentially marked-up paper and ink. Maybe Adams and B&H have made things right behind the scenes, but the whole thing is indicative of everything that drives me crazy about classical music publishing.*

In the meantime, the European Union has finally tackled the disparity between composers’ and performers’ copyrights. In the words of Charlie McCreevey, the EU’s internal markets commissioner:

“I have not seen a convincing reason why a composer of music should benefit from a term of copyright which extends to the composer’s life and 70 years beyond, while the performer should only enjoy 50 years, often not even covering his lifetime,” he said.

I agree—life plus 70 years is a ridiculously long time for a work to stay under copyright! Oh, wait: he’s actually proposing lengthening performers’ copyrights from 50 to 95 years. I’d have more respect for these people if they’d just come out and say that they’re in the pocket of large media companies, instead of trying to convince me that individual musicians would actually significantly benefit from such nonsense—I’m sure John McCormack could really use that extra cash. On the other hand, whatever bioengineered iteration of Michael Jackson that’s still around in 2075 certainly deserves his royalties from Thriller. (Digression: I’m surprised there hasn’t been a comparison of Michael Jackson and Richard Wagner—endlessly controversial figures who made absolutely fantastic music.)

Finally: like Pliable and Daniel Wolf, this blog is blocked in Beijing. I ask you: is that any way to treat the proud owner of a 1938 third printing of Red Star Over China? And yet they let through Norman Lebrecht.

*Update (2/14): Lisa Hirsch, via e-mail, plausibly speculates that perhaps Trinity was planning to use an unauthorized reduced orchestration. Certainly grounds for rescinding the license, but that sort of restriction would have been spelled out in the original contract—so the whole “internal error” thing still puzzles me.


  1. As someone who deals professionally with music publishers on a daily basis, and especially knowing Boosey and Hawkes, I’d have to say that it’s very possible indeed that they could have issued a performing license by mistake. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the only rational explanation (other than incompetence) for the way music publishers conduct their business is that they actively want, as far as possible, to prevent anyone from getting hold of their music.

  2. I was really looking forward to a scrappy suburban opera group, specializing in rare English works (Vaughan-Williams and Copland so far) putting on “Nixon in China” before the San Francisco Opera even bothered to produce it. But no, that is not to be and I’d venture that David Gockley, the head of the San Francisco Opera who originally commissioned “Nixon in China” while at the Houston Opera, probably had something to do with that decision.By the way, when do we get our NIX in CHINA fix, David? We need it now.

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