Classical music that used to be popular music

composers classical vs popular music You don’t have to be a classical music lover to recognize names of important classical composers.

  • Bach
  • Beethoven
  • Brahms
  • Wagner
  • Liszt
  • Rossini

Except that the music of Rossini and others was considered popular music when it was first heard. And people who liked classical music scorned it. One French writer divided musicians into two kinds: classicists and Rossinists.

So what else that we think of as classical music used to be considered popular? And what changed?

Classical vs popular music

In The Birth of the Popular Music Industry I noted that throughout much of the 18th century, there was no distinction between popular and classical. Some people liked music they could fully grasp at first hearing. Others liked music whose beauty would reveal itself only after repeated hearing. They all attended the same concerts.

The first group soon tired of hearing the same pieces too often. They wanted to hear something new, but not radically new. The second group especially appreciated the sophisticated music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

Concert life ceased entirely in Paris and London in the 1790s and didn’t reappear for about 20 years. Composers or performers of concertos could hire theater orchestras in Vienna, but they played badly.

No other cities in Europe had enough influence to put their resident composers on the international stage.

By the time concert life revived in these capitals, Haydn and Mozart were dead. There was no logical successor to Beethoven.  After all, why would anyone learn to compose that kind of music? They couldn’t get it heard with no concert life.

Twenty years later, mass audiences no longer remembered how to listen to that music.

New piano music

Sigismund Thalberg. classical vs popular music

Sigismond Thalberg. No information available

Mozart and Beethoven were piano virtuosos. Mozart made much of his living from playing concertos with orchestra. Beethoven did, too, until he lost his hearing.

How could piano virtuosos make a living without access to an orchestra?

They taught and performed in the homes of rich people. Aristocrats and the upper middle class opened their homes to an invited public to listen to famous performers.

Once France recovered from the Revolution, Paris became the center for virtuoso pianists. Superstars like Henri Herz, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, and Johann Peter Pixis.

As much businessmen as musicians, these pianists composed a flood of new pieces. They counted on their fame as performers and teachers to sell the sheet music. William Weber has called this kind of music “high status popular music.”

The virtuoso’ playing and their compositions offered dazzling performance technique. It did not display imaginative use of form, melody, or harmony.

And of course, the sheet music was much less difficult to play than what the composers played in the salons.

They intended to appeal to mass taste rather than to connoisseurs. Mass taste demands both familiarity and novelty.

Making a profit from it demands a product with a short shelf-life. Business considerations demand new popular music be enough like last year’s to be comfortable. It also has to be enough different to make what’s more than a year or two old seem faintly old-fashioned.

Not all popular virtuosos served up empty music. Classical-leaning critics like Robert Schumann recognized Sigismund Thalberg, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt as worthy composers. Chopin’s and Liszt’s music has made it to the classical canon.


Rossini. classical vs popular music

Rossini / Le Hanneton, July 4, 1867

At about the same time, Paris became the operatic capital of the world, not only for opera in French, but opera in Italian. No Italian composer could be counted as truly successful even in Italian theaters without first having achieved recognition in Paris.

Unlike symphonies, sonatas, and other “classical forms,” no one considered opera “art” until Wagner. It was theater—musical theater. It was culturally comparable to Broadway musicals.

Except that everywhere but Italy and France it was nearly always in a foreign language.

Italians attended only to Italian opera. The French had a choice of Italian or French opera. German-speaking countries had some German opera, but it was never a popular as Italian or French opera.

And the English? English opera between Purcell and Britten hardly existed except as translations of Italian opera. In that guise, spoken dialog replaced the recitative.

Opera had been a business since the first commercial opera house opened in 1637. But it had always appealed to the aristocracy. In early 19th-century Paris, composers like Rossini and Meyerbeer quickly learned how to appeal to a mass audience.

Those who loved the older operas lamented the deficiencies of these new composers. They claimed that the popular composers plagiarized themselves. They wrote the same empty formulas over and over again. All their music sounded alike.

Classical music lovers despised Rossini in particular because he wasn’t an especially good composer. He stopped his musical education when someone told him he knew enough to compose operas.

He never learned counterpoint. His writing is full of mistakes and barbarisms that really bothered anyone who knew or cared about the craft of composition. A mass audience has never cared.

Some popular music becomes classical

Franz Liszt photo, 1858 classical vs popular music

Franz Liszt /photo by Franz Hanfstaengl, 1858

Beethoven had no immediate successors, but a younger generation of composers like Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Berlioz acquired thorough musical education.

They started to write the same kinds of music as the classical masters. They had plenty of orchestras that could play it. They had plenty of orchestras that could play it.

And so the “classical” repertoire began to expand. At the same time, the emptiness of so much “high-status popular music” began to lose popularity.

Rossini’s operas also began to disappear from opera houses. Hardly anyone performed any Rossini operas except The Barber of Seville from then until the 1950s.

But the overtures found a place in orchestral concerts. One of many ironies in Rossini’s life: he hated writing overtures and went to great lengths to avoid the chore.

Lizst moved his base of operation from the salons to the concert halls when he started giving what he called recitals. Other virtuosos like classicist Clara Schumann soon followed suite.

One of Liszt’s admirers challenged him to start performing Beethoven’s music on his recitals. So he did. His own compositions became more serious and less dazzling. But he still didn’t write in classical forms.

He no longer specialized in piano solo music, either. He started composing songs, choral music, and orchestral music. And he started some bold harmonic experiments. Liszt’s new music influenced a whole generation of classical composers.

But all those operatic paraphrases and variations on songs that remain in the repertoire? They were his high-status popular music.

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

All images are public domain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *