Mahler was underpaid?



From Alex Ross of the New Yorker on conductor salaries past and present- 

“Eyebrows have been raised over recent reports that James Levine receives a salary of $1.6 from the Boston Symphony and $1.9 million from the Met, and that Lorin Maazel gets $2.6 million from the New York Philharmonic. Excessive or no, salaries on this scale are nothing new. Not long ago Cornell University Press published Gustav Mahler: Letters to His Wife, in Antony Beaumont’s meticulous translation, and I found there a detail that I hadn’t noticed in previous Mahler tomes: in March 1911, even as his health went in fatal decline, GM signed a new contract at the New York Philharmonic for ninety concerts at a fee of $90,000. I ran that through the inflation calculator and came up with the figure of $1.8 million in today’s money. Not bad for a man who thought his time had not yet come”   

The interesting comparisons would be to see what the Philharmonic salary would have been back then, and to see what other conductors at the time were making. 

Better yet- can we find out what the head of Standard Oil or one of the big railway companies was making then? 

Even better- What was the Philharmonic’s Executive Director making in 1911????? 

I’ve written before about the fact that, compared to the top people in other fields, elite classical musicians seem terribly underpaid. Has this always been the case, even when classical music was a more central part of the culture?  By the way, 90 concerts is a lot of concerts. Just at a guess, if Lorin Maazel does 15 weeks a year at the Philharmonic, and does triples every time, that’s still two years, which means Maazel would be making 5.2 million to Mahler’s $1.8 million, or $20k per concert for Mahler compared to $58k/concert for Maazel. Remember, that’s assuming that Maazel does 90 performances with the Philharmonic over 2 years. Note that those are fees per concert, not per week, and that these are only complete and total guesses, and that I still think Mr. Maazel deserves everything he makes and more. (As a matter of personal policy, I don’t believe there are any underpaid decent musicians out there)

What does Peyton Manning make per game? (Answer- about a million dollars per game in 2003) Per touchdown?($551,724 per touchdown in 2003) How about per completed pass? ($42,215 per completion in 2003). And he is one of the most prolific and durable players at his positions- consider other top players who miss 4-8 games a year for similar money… I think announcers should have to announce what a player made every time he threw a pass or fumbled or made a tackle. “Nice tackle from Junior Seau coming across the middle. Last year, Junior made $80k per tackle, so he’s feeling great about that.”

Did you know the Washington Redskins paid 7.4 million dollars per game in salary in 2004 and went only 6 wins 10 losses on the year. That’s 19.7 million dollars per win, by the way, not counting the coaches or administration.

I doubt many, if any, music directors of top 10 American orchestras would do a concert at the Philharmonic for $20k.


UPDATE- Alex Ross has followed up on my comparison, pointing out-

“Indeed, classical music is very small potatoes compared to the remainder of the American military-industrial-cultural complex. By the way, the person in charge of the Philharmonic in 1911 was Mary R. Sheldon, the wife of the treasurer of the Republican National Committee.”

I’m guessing (hoping) Ms Sheldon was a volunteer. Alex?

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c. 2006 Kenneth Woods


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Mahler was underpaid?”

  1. Erik K

    Very interesting article. As a wannabe conductor and enormous football fan I must say though that football generates infinitely more revenue than classical music, so the money there is on par with the owner’s income, or at least close to it. As for the Redskins…oh Daniel Snyder, will you ever buy a title?

    Thanks again for a look into this.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Erik

    Thanks for the comment.

    Owner’s income…..

    I like it

    Maybe orchestras will become the new football teams- status symbols of the ultra rich. Just think, Snyder can buy the National Symphony, then threaten to take them to San Antonio unless the city builds them a new hall with luxury boxes. He goes out and poaches players from all over the world and brings Bernstein out of retirement to lead the NSO to the world orchestra championship.

    Actually, in all seriousness, I’m sure orchestras would get more financial backing from national, state and local government if they were owned by billionaires than they do now, run as non profits for the good of society.


  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » UPDATE! Mahler was definitely underpaid.

  4. J.H. Thompson

    After years of listening to classical music I discovered that my favourite period is the late 19th century with composers like Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner and Vaughan Williams.


    I had no idea the kind of money these guys made, interesting to say the least. What would be some good classical music to start my 3 year old son off listening too? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    The Sports Picks Guy

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