La veuve Boivin: A Woman at the Beginning of the Music Publishing Industry

By Bob Kosovsky, Librarian
April 12, 2013
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Consider this a late contribution to this year's Womens' History Month.

When most people think of the involvement of women in music they probably think of performers or composers. To be sure, women performers have been at the forefront of music for centuries, and in recent years awareness of women composers has grown enormously, particularly with those from the twentieth century. But there is at least one other music-related field in which women have made a significant mark: publishing.

Between the seventeen-century to the middle of the nineteenth-century, publishing was primarily in the hands of individuals. The "companies" that existed usually consisted of family members. Some publishing houses could even be considered dynasties in the way ownership passed from one generation to the next. But even a hasty look at music publishers during this period reveals an interesting phenomenon: when a publisher died, it was not uncommon for his widow to carry on the business. Sometimes these widows would sell off the remaining stock and sell the firm to another publisher in order to receive funds on which to live. For those getting a start in music publishing, it was advantageous to begin with a sizable stock of printed music. For the widows, funds from the sale were the equivalent of a pension.

Nevertheless a number of publisher-widows kept their businesses running after their husbands' deaths—possibly the result of their intimate involvement in production and business affairs while their husbands were alive.

One of the most successful of these widow music publishers was the one known by her imprint, La veuve Boivin [= the widow Boivin] or later as Madame Boivin, who ran a successful music publishing business in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century. (She is not to be confused with another "veuve Boivin," 1773-1841, who was involved with medicine.)

What do we know of the widow Boivin? Not very much. Unless an individual was a member of nobility, biographical information about ordinary people in France during the 18th century is rare to find. What we know is based primarily on business transactions as well as marriage and death certificates that have been found in the National Archives of France. (I could not include an image of her face because there is none.)

The widow Boivin's story starts with her family, the Ballards, who ran a publishing firm. Established in 1551, the Ballard family received the title "sole music printers to the king" in 1553, thereafter making them the most prestigious music publishing firm in France for nearly 200 years. Holding a royal privilege to print music, they prospered not only through this exclusive right, but from their association with other publishing houses.

Acis et Galatée by Lully, published by Jean-Baptiste Christophe Ballard

Close-up of the imprint

Despite the royal privilege, the Ballard family had competition. Documents from the turn of the century indicate various legal actions by and against the Ballards (all of whom lived in one house). Despite such occasional turmoils, Christophe Ballard (died 1690) and his son Jean-Baptiste Christophe Ballard (ca. 1663-May 5, 1750) had a keen understanding of business. One of their smartest moves was to invest in a stationary store "La regle d'or" or "The Golden Rule." Within a few years its success led them to change its status from stationary to "music store." By Ballard's death in 1750 it was the leading music store in France.

By the end of the seventheenth century, with several lawsuits in their past, evidence suggests that, rather than compete with rivals, the Ballards arranged marriages so as to mollify potential rivals. Elisabeth Catherine Ballard was born to in approximately in 1708. (The primary source for this information is the age indicated on her death certificate.). We do not know much about her early life. The first document of significance in which she is mentioned is a certificate attesting to her marriage on July 2, 1724 to François Boivin. Boivin, nephew of the composer Michael Pignolet de Montéclair, had been a competing publisher.

Concerts by Michael Pignolet de Montéclair, published by François Boivin (1710s?)

Close-up of the imprint

By marrying into the Ballard dynasty, Boivin was no longer seen as a competitor but as collaborator. We can surmise that Elisabeth, already familiar with her family's printing business, assisted her husband in his work. Ballard's investment in "The Golden Rule" paid off. By selling works published by both Ballard and Boivin firms, the store became one of the most successful of the time.

On November 25, 1733, after just 11 years of marriage, François Boivin died. By this time it is fairly certain that Catherine had been working most of her entire life in the music publishing business. At a time when widows could go penniless after the loss of a spouse, the incentive to continue the business must have been strong. Catherine must have realized there was no reason to stop production of what she had probably done her entire life. Taking on the name "La veuve Boivin" she continued to publish with the help of her brother-in-law Claude Boivin and her father.

Musicologists note that Elisabeth was able to function for so long because of the partnerships she was able to create. In effect, she was less directly involved with publishing than with commissioning other publishers for works she obtained. For most of her publications, she is listed with at least one other publisher.

Michele Mascitti's Sonatas, op. 9 (1738) published by La veuve Boivin and Charles-Nicolas Le Clerc

Close-up of the imprint

Towards the end of her publishing career (which was longer than that of her husband's), Elisabeth dropped the "widow" appelation:

'Le Trophée” by Rebel and Francoeur, published in 1745 by Boivin and Le Clerc

Close-up of the imprint

Far from naïve, the intelligence of Elisabeth's management is seen in her firm's value: In 1724 (at the time of her marriage to Boivin), the value of "The Golden Rule" was fixed at 29,586 livres. In 1753 when she sold the store to one of the workers, the estimated value of the store was listed at 36,400 livres, a sum that undoubtedly provided her with the equivalent of a pension. Interestingly, when her father died in 1750, Catherine forsook her portion of his inheritance and gave it to her elder sister (who presumably was not in as secure financial position). We don't know She died in Chartres on February 13, 1776.

To me it seems strange that in reference works, it is still François Boivin who is listed as the primary force, with Elisabeth receiving a a smaller space. Fortunately there have been articles that have tried to highlight her activity. Perhaps with further excavation of documents from the National Archives of France, some day there will be are more detailed picture of Elisabeth Ballard Boivin, as well as the role of women in the music publishing industry.