This is an interesting question I posed to a music history class last semester: How much would F.J. Haydn’s salary be in today’s dollars? There are probably a number of ways to determine the answer, and this is just one possibility.
First, according to Haydn’s 1761 contract with the Esterhazy family (as reproduced in Classical Music: The Era of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, by Philip G. Downs, NY: W.W. Norton, 1992) he was to be payed “a yearly salary of four hundred florins to be received in quarterly payments.” (p. 214)
Ok, so 400 florins a year – what in the world is a florin??? Well, it turns out that in this case the term florin refers to the Gulden, the unit of currency in use in southern Germany and Austria in Haydn’s day. So, now that we know the unit of currency, we need to convert that currency into a form that is still in use today – in this case the British pound should suffice.
Now, using The Marteau Early 18th-Century Currency Converter, we can get a rough estimate of what 400 Florins (Gulden) was worth in British pounds at approximately the same time. Using the converter, convert from “Vienna-Reichs-Gulden” to “Great Britain,” and you should get 60 pounds. So, 400 florins a year in 1762 would have been worth approximately 60 British pounds. Although it is the early 18th-century currency converter, I think the converter should be fairly accurate for florins in the mid-18th century.
Right, so what would 60 British pounds from 1761 be worth today? Well, it just so happens that there is a website for that conversion as well, the Currency Converter of the National Archives. Using the “Convert Old Money Into New” function, convert 60 pounds in 1760 into today’s value, and you get approximately 4,487.40 British pounds. So, 60 pounds in 1760 is worth about 4,487.40 pounds today.
Now, for the final part, zip on over to the Universal Currency Converter and convert 4,487.40 British pounds into American dollars; you should get approximately $6,988.99. Doesn’t sound like much for an annual salary, does it? Well, this figure can be misleading as this quote from the The Marteau Currency Converter:FAQ explains.
Can’t you produce tools for conversions into modern currencies?
Technically this would be simple. Practically it would be a misleading step. Take a book: In London you got a decent novel for a shilling six pence and an expensive one for three shillings and six pence. If you bought your lunch at a street vendor – meat in paper, spiced with mustard, bread and wine with that – nothing special, you would pay as much as you paid for your little novel. Books were cheap then, as cheap as they are today – and yet they were expensive for a day labourer who made 14 pence a day. If you happen to live in an industrialized country today you can be a cleaning woman and earn your book in less than an hour.
Because Haydn’s food and lodgings were provided for in his contract, he may actually have been able to earn a decent living with these wages.
Here’s one other interesting follow-up to this story. According to his early biographer Griesinger, during Haydn’s trips to London “He earned in a three-year stay in England something like twenty-four thousand gulden, of which about nine thousand went for the journey, his support, and other expenses.” (quoted in Downs, p. 434)
Well, that sounds a bit better, doesn’t it. Using those figures, we can approximate Haydn’s annual salary in the 1790s at about 5000 florins, taking into account the 9000 florins (3000 per year) in expenses. Using the above procedure, that converts into 750 British pounds in 1790, and 42,022.50 British pounds today. 42,022.50 British pounds equals $65,441.22
If you know of other ways to approximate these values I’d love to hear. I think the above method makes sense, however I realize there may be some errors and/or omissions – please comment if you notice any faulty logic or anything else like that. I like this exercise primarily because it requires quite a bit of critical thinking. You could also use the resources I listed to convert other salaries, like those of J.S. Bach, or a historical horn player like Punto. I believe the currency used in J.S. Bach’s contracts is the thaler.