Vienna, 1800: the divergence of classical and popular music

Revised February 27, 2017

Vienna Kohlmarkt. classical and popular music in Vienna

Vienna ca. 1800. The Kohlmarkt. Artaria, Beethoven’s publisher, is on the right.

What kind of music do you think of when you think of Vienna?

Classical music, of course.

Extra credit if you thought of Johann Strauss and realize that his waltzes aren’t classical music. But did you know classical music was hard to find in Vienna in 1800?

Mozart had been dead for nine years. Haydn was an old man close to retirement from composing.

The young Beethoven had made a strong start in establishing his reputation. Schubert was only three years old.

And most of the public idolized musicians you’ve probably never heard of.

In fact, the concept of classical vs popular music is only about 200 years old. It is foreshadowed by the 18th-century phrase “Kenner und Liebhaber,” or “connoisseurs and music lovers.”

Up until about 1790, many European cities enjoyed an active and varied concert life. Popular music and art music mingled on every concert, but no one yet thought in those terms. Music lovers without much knowledge or training could enjoy the art music, because its style was familiar. Connoisseurs found something to like in the less sophisticated music.

Between 1790 and the middle of the 1810s, concert life ceased entirely in London and Paris, two of the three major musical capitals. By the time it started again, the people with no special knowledge of music no longer knew how to listen to what by that time was recognized as “classical” music.

Consider the foremost musical magazine of the early 19th century, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, or “General Music Newspaper.” It first appeared in 1798 when it was still conceivable for one magazine to appeal to all musical tastes.

An article by its Vienna correspondent in 1800 shows the beginning of a divergence of taste there.

Vienna theaters

St. Michael's Square. classical and popular music in Vienna

St. Michael’s Square, Vienna, ca. 1800. Burg theater (the German theater) is far right

Vienna, the third major musical capital, did not suffer complete loss of its concert life, but the number and quality of concerts diminished. Opera suffered, too.

Vienna had an Italian opera theater and a German opera theater. As far as their orchestras were concerned, the Italians had some excellent players.

But its members frequently sent substitutes to whenever they had a chance to make more money somewhere else.

The director was “obviously unequal to his task.” As a result, the Italian orchestra did not play well.

The correspondent disapproved of the selection of operas: “The recognized older ones are neglected in favor of the newer ones which, taken as a whole, can please no connoisseur.”

The recognized older operas probably included the works of Mozart and Gluck. I haven’t identified the newer ones he complained about. They must have contained spectacular vocal effects without much sophistication of form, harmony, or melody.

In the next decade, Rossini’s operas took all of Europe by storm. Connoisseurs hated them. The arias all sounded alike, they said, and the orchestra drowned out the singers.

As the greatest of German musical centers, Vienna should have had an excellent German theater. The correspondent wrote that it fell short. It didn’t pay its musicians enough. As a consequence, it had fewer good musicians. It had a much more competent leader, though, so it often gave better performances. It still performed Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas.

Concerts in Vienna

Beethoven. classical and popular music in Vienna

Beethoven in 1804, the year he composed his Fifth Symphony / Detail of a portrait by W. J. Mähler

Except for four annual concerts sponsored by the Fund for Musicians’ Widows, Vienna had no regular concert life in 1800. It also had no place devoted to orchestral concerts.

Instead, composers and performers had to rent the theaters at a high cost. For that reason, traveling artists rarely presented concerts in Vienna.

The correspondent panned two concerts and singled out two with excellent music. The horn virtuoso Punto introduced Beethoven’s horn sonata.

Beethoven himself presented a piano concerto, his first symphony, and his Septet at the Italian theater. The utter incompetence of the orchestra kept the music from making its best effect.

Amateur musicians played an outsized role in musical performances, not only in Vienna, but in other major capitals as well. The correspondent pointed out that in Vienna, everyone took music lessons and performed. Therefore, the city boasted many proficient amateur musicians, although fewer than earlier.

If there were so few public concerts, the number of private concerts made up for it. Nearly every aristocratic or upper-middle-class family opened their homes to invited musical guests all winter long. Unfortunately, Baron van Swieten, author of the words to Haydn’s oratorios, offered nothing that year.

Amateurs and private concerts

Daniel Steibelt. classical and popular music in Vienna

Daniel Seibelt by unidentified artist

Amateurs of all levels of proficiency took turns entertaining. They usually chose uncomplicated, unsophisticated music such as favorite arias from the latest Italian operas or whatever piano pieces were making the rounds.

The correspondent drew a careful distinction between the entertainment value of these concerts (high) and their artistic value (negligible).

Traveling virtuosos, shut out of the public theaters by their high costs, made the circuit of the private concerts.

Of necessity, they appeared everywhere they could and praised the talent of all the amateurs they heard. Those who were good at flattery and public relations made a big hit in Vienna.

Eventually the amateur community divided into parties of those who preferred this or that virtuoso above others. The correspondent noted that the ardor of their partisanship often made up for a lack of true artistic discernment.

When Beethoven bested Daniel Steibelt in their infamous contest in 1800, the substance of a classical master trounced the gimmicks of a man who had been a popular favorite everywhere else.

With so much trivial and frivolous music dominating Vienna, where were the connoisseurs? The correspondent noted,

Yet, truly, the genuine connoisseurs and friends of music––music as art, that is––are more numerous here than strangers seem to think. The reason why they are so little bruited abroad may well be that they themselves make so little noise, preferring to worship and enjoy their idol unobtrusively.

It appears, in other words, that they gathered in each other’s homes to practice chamber music. Or symphonies if enough of them could scrape together an orchestra. They made no attempt to attract an audience.

Vienna and elsewhere

Henri Herz, classical and popular music, Vienna

Austrian pianist and composer Henri Herz (1803–1888), by Achille Devéria (1800–1857)

Vienna had some concert life and a great composer living and working there. London and Paris didn’t. So connoisseurs in those capitals likewise had to band together to entertain themselves. As in Vienna, they represented a small slice of the musical public.

Even with the return of permanent orchestras and public concerts, much of the public didn’t return to the concert halls.

By the time Robert Schumann decided to become a music critic, traveling virtuosos like Henri Herz captured the lion’s share of the audience for music.

They specialized in flashy dance pieces, sets of variations, and all manner of gimmicks.

William Weber has identified Herz and other virtuosos on the salon circuit as representative of “high-status popular music.”

Like all other popular music, it was more business than art. It relied on a combination of easy familiarity and novelty to keep up a steady stream of new sales. These were the Philistines that Schumann devoted his critical career to attacking.

Meanwhile, Beethoven had no immediate followers among composers. He died in 1828. The generation of Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz started to make their mark internationally in the 1830s. Until then, those who preferred music as an art to music as entertainment had little to listen to by living composers.

A journalistic war of words began between lovers of the artistic ideals of dead composers and the novelty offered by popular living composers. A French critic in the 1830 proclaimed that there were only two kinds of musicians: classicists and Rossinists.

The argument continues along the same lines today.

Related posts

The birth of the popular music industry
Classical and pop music: 200 years of rivalry
Classical music that used to be popular music
Making sense of sonata form

“A sketch of the principal features of contemporary musical life in Vienna” / Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 3 (1800): cols. 41-50, 65-68. Excerpt translated by Piero Weiss in Music in the Western World, selected and annotated by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984).

William Weber. Music and the middle class: the social structure of concert life in London, Paris and Vienna. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1975.

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