In the middle of my current Bach mini-0bsession, I’ve come across a couple interesting things.
The first, and not hard to find, was that I can see the entire documentary of the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir cantata pilgrimage of 1999-2000 on YouTube, and it’s a beautiful thing. This is one of the last major cultural documents from the pre-9/11 era, for me, and it’s poignant to see in the New York section of the program the World Trade Center standing there where it was supposed to be.
But aside from the shading that piece of history casts on the enterprise, this was a remarkable effort, and I would imagine being part of it was extraordinary and something you would never forget. I have cherished my Vol. 15 set of the cycle for some years now, and it’s good to see what part it played in the larger story.
The other thing I’ve found interesting is in the economic arena. J.S. Bach, as we read in Christoph Wolff’s solid, illuminating biography (Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician), did well for himself when he took a job in Weimar in 1708, when he would have been around the same age as a college graduate today:
And with an initial salary of 150 florins plus incidentals (18 bushels of wheat, 12 bushels of barley, four cords of firewood and 30 pails of tax-free beer) , he could indeed look forward to “a better living,” as his Muhlhausen resignation letter reads.
In addition, as a court servant (he was the organist) he was entitled to lodging in one of several buildings reserved for court employees in the middle of town.
First, there’s the money, and if we use Wolff’s table at the back, we find that 150 florins was roughly equal to somewhere under $9,500 in 2000 dollars, which is around $11,700 today, according to a couple of calculators I used on the Net. So Bach at 23 was making a little less annually than the pastor of a church, but about three times as much as a barber, if we can take wages from the 1720s and assume they were comparable a few years earlier.
Not bad, and at this time in his life he already had a reputation as one of the most brilliant young musicians in the German states. But what I find really interesting are the benefits.
Imagine if today you were to get a job in which you would get not just your salary, but guaranteed housing, as well as the equivalent of wheat, barley, beer and wood. In other words, you’re getting bread as well as fuel to heat the house and do cooking. So it would be as though you got your job at some company somewhere, and in addition to a decent salary, you’d get a place to live, as well as some of your power costs and food staples taken care of.
That’s a pretty good deal. Say you worked at Acme Widgets in its accounting department. They pay you $30,000 a year. Then in addition they pay most of your power costs — somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 a year — plus enough wheat and barley to make bread all year round, and the table suggests that the 30 bushels of wheat and barley was worth in the neighborhood of $2,000.
So you get free housing, $30K a year, plus $4,000 for food and energy costs. Well done, Sebastian! And that’s not even counting the beer!
When was the last time an American employer paid its workers anything but salary? Wouldn’t it be nice to get a Cost of Living Voucher along with the salary, plus a Beer Voucher to go along with that? Is there anything else we generally require? This also is at a time when you weren’t expected to keep horses and a carriage for yourself that you bought from Dietrich down at Hohenstaufen Motors. Transportation was on foot or it was public, unless you were an aristocrat, in which case you hired people to do that.
The real fact of the matter is that we as workers in today’s global economy are required to support a gigantic industrial complex that influences most of the laws under which we live and which burdens us to the point of bankrupcty. We have to have cars, which cost far more to buy and operate than most of us have, but we don’t have any choice if we live in a place like South Florida; we have to pay for power, which for most of human history we provided ourselves; we’re forced to subsidize the private insurance industry on pain of breaking the law; if we’re ordinary people the only access to credit we have is at absurdly usurious rates.
It’s a giant, bruising, endless ripoff, and sometimes it takes looking at the economic arrangements of people a few centuries ago to see how out of whack things have become. Sure, not having money in the old days was just as bad as it is now, but nowadays, because we are forced to support so many enormous business operations, the fall is much sharper and steeper, and far more painful. And if you’re in the United States, the social services system is almost nonexistent, pace the selfless volunteers who work tirelessly on behalf of their fellow man simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Bach had it pretty good in most places he worked, even though the folks in Leipzig made him tear off his peruke from time to time and curse in a manner most unbecoming a Lutheran church official. And I think we should recognize that and insist our employers help us meet cost of living right off the bat.
Beer vouchers for everyone!