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The Gig Economy: Professional orchestral playing in London 1789 - 1861

Wills, S.D. (2021). The Gig Economy: Professional orchestral playing in London 1789 - 1861. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, Guildhall School of Music and Drama)


The nineteenth century orchestral musician has usually been portrayed as an anonymous creature scraping together a subsistence from a patchwork of sources. This view is common in such secondary material as exists on the subject, but it is not supported by documentary evidence. This project re-evaluates the orchestral profession not as a low-status musical underclass but as an independent occupational group who were entrepreneurial and often wilfully independent of their employers. It is not a study of high artistic aspiration, but rather an account of a musical working class. Though it is customary to refer to orchestral playing as a profession, the thesis argues that it is better understood as a trade and that from that perspective it can be see as well-paid artisan labour.

The 'long nineteenth century' would have been too large a period to encompass, particularly since the logical cut-off would have been not 1914 but 1928, when the addition of synchronised sound to cinema resulted in mass redundancies among orchestral players. Instead, a shorter period was chosen, one that was a time of dramatic expansion. Some estimates suggest a fivefold increase in the number of professional musicians in London. The choice of start and end dates was determined by three crises that illuminate this growth. In 1789, the King's Theatre was burned down. Documentary material generated by the ensuing crisis was a clear starting point from where it was possible to trace working practices, fees and names of the relatively small number of orchestral players working in London at that date. In 1829, the orchestra of the King's Theatre refused to sign a new, restrictive contract. The resulting dispute was extremely acrimonious and was widely reported and commented on. In 1861, a row between Covent Garden theatre and the Royal Philharmonic Society led to the latter losing its orchestra, an emergency which, though hurtful to the feelings of some, resulted in a hiatus of only a few days: players were in plentiful enough supply for another orchestra to be rapidly assembled.

London music making was mercantile in structure and the fact that, even in the most elevated circles, there was nothing that corresponded to a full-time orchestral job. The late eighteenth century orchestral player was a general practitioner who often played several instruments. His Victorian counterpart was more likely to be a specialist and was very often trained in the army. The repertoire they played was different, and as opera and orchestral concerts became media of mass entertainment it was natural for playing styles and performance practices to change.

There is little secondary material on this area. Research has been conducted by examination of diaries, newspaper reports and account books.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > M Music
Departments: Doctoral Theses
[thumbnail of Wills thesis 2021 Guildhall PDF-A.pdf] Text - Accepted Version
This document is not freely accessible until 31 May 2026 due to copyright restrictions.


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