Popular song in America, part 3: minstrel shows and plantation songs

As was the case with many things popular in America, black characters played by whites on stage originated in England. As early as 1768, black characters offered comic relief in English operas. Some of these same operas were equally popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Poets attempted to develop a dialect that could sound suitably like how a black person might speak, although they didn’t use it consistently even within a single song.

Composers had no idea what kinds of melodies blacks may have sung. Some made no attempt, writing the same kinds of melodies they would have used for any other text. Some attempted to portray their supposed backwardness by simplifying the melody and harmony. Some attempted to portray their supposed uncouth primitiveness with Scottish rhythms and pentatonic melodies.

In 1822, a successful English actor, Charles Matthews visited New York, where he expected to make more money than he could in London. Matthews had a great ear for dialect, and his most successful acts had been one-person entertainments made up of monologues, jokes, and songs impersonating various characters. America offered not only financial rewards, but a chance to learn new accents and dialects. Fascinated with the speech of blacks, Matthews was the first to pay careful enough attention to reproduce them accurately.

At about the same time, American entertainers darkened their faces with burnt cork. Several achieved great success as blackface entertainers in the 1820s and 30s. Thomas Dartmouth Rice developed the character “Jim Crow,” who not only sang but danced. According to one story, which might actually be true, Rice first performed his act wearing the clothes of a negro beggar in Pittsburgh, who interrupted the act to get his clothes back to catch a steamboat, much to the amusement of the audience.

The music of Rice and others bore no resemblance to authentic slave songs. Blacks had much more musical talent than anyone of the time gave them credit for. Many, such as band leader Francis Johnson, became proficient in performing the music popular among the white population. If Rice heard lower-class blacks singing in the Northern towns he visited, he may have thought his tunes were as authentic as he thought his dialect and dances were.

Up until the end of the 1830s, concerts and evenings at the theater often offered a variety of entertainments. Blackface routines, among other things, often appeared between the acts of a play or opera.

By the 1840s, so-called minstrel shows were widely regarded as a characteristically American form of entertainment. Different from the earlier variety shows, minstrel shows consisted of a group of white musicians in blackface performing for an entire evening. An “ethiopian band” called the Virginia Minstrels presented perhaps the first of these in 1843.

A year later, nearly every city had its own minstrel groups. Many others toured around the country, visiting smaller towns. Christy’s Minstrels dominated the field for decades. Banjoist Dan Emmett, a founding member of the short-lived Virginia Minstrels, also maintained his eminence.

Musically, the earliest minstrel songs typically greatly resembled other American popular songs in the English/Irish/Scottish vein, with occasional elements of Italian opera. In the late 1840s and 50s, their harmonies and structure took on greater sophistication and irregularity. Gone was any attempt to use childishly simple tunes to portray backwardness. Since composers intended these new “plantation songs” for performance on stage, many of them required a soloist on the verses,  joined by a chorus on the refrain.

The emotional content of the words likewise underwent an evolution from demeaning stereotypes played for cheap laughs to plantation songs, still in dialect, but expressing the same emotional range from tenderness to love to grief  as any other song of the time. In fact, in humanizing the experiences of slaves, some of these songs may have given some emotional support to the abolitionist movement. Others maintained a strongly pro-slavery viewpoint. As the country became more divided over the issue, the song texts became more strident.

This post describes minstrel songs only about up to the American Civil War. They did not peak in popularity until the 1880s. Blackface entertainers lasted into the twentieth century. Even before the Civil War, the innovations (both musical and textual) that led to the plantation song began to effect other popular songs that had nothing to do with dialect or plantation life.

By the 1840s American song had evolved from styles indistinguishable from what was popular in England to something distinctive. One more element, German song, deserves attention before this series turns to surveying individual American composers and their songs.

Popular song in America, part 2: the influence of Italian opera

At first glance, the performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) in New York on November 29, 1825, seems to have little to do with popular music. It marks the first American production of any opera in Italian, or indeed any other foreign language. (New Orleans had a long tradition of presenting opera in French, but then it was originally a French city and remained largely French in culture long after the United States acquired it. Opera in French there hardly counted as a foreign language.) Actually, it affected American popular music almost as much as Irish music had some time earlier.

Italian opera had been in and out of style in England for about a hundred years by that time. George Frideric Handel made his initial reputation there composing operas in Italian, but saw the audience for them disappear and began writing oratorios in English instead.

A second wave of interest began in the late 1760s, but waned again before the end of the century. Then, in 1806, English audiences heard their first Mozart opera and clamored for more. Performances in England of Rossini’s works began in 1818. Although many professional critics loved Mozart and bitterly disdained Rossini, the operas of both had great audience appeal.

Performances of opera in a foreign language met with opposition as well, though. When Henry Rowley Bishop became musical director at Covent Garden, he decided to adapt these foreign operas to English words, get rid of recitatives, and turn the arias to song-forms more familiar to English taste.

Bishop presented his version of The Barber of Seville in 1818. The Park Theatre in New York first performed it in 1819 and then each of the next five years. Therefore, the 1825 performances in Italian meant only that New York audiences could hear familiar music in an unfamiliar language. Every attempt to establish a permanent Italian opera theater failed sooner or later until well after the Civil War. Meanwhile, “English opera,” Italian operas adapted by Bishop and like-minded composers, enjoyed unbroken success.

American publication of arias from operas by Mozart and others with English words began as early as 1815. In the first installment of this series, I mentioned how Irish songs appealed to the American imagination because their origin as folk melodies gave them an exotic flavor and their words introduced texts in first person and a certain attractive sense of nostalgia.

Italian arias were exotic in a different way. Having been composed for virtuoso singers, they had very florid tunes, which the adapters pretty much left alone. Their original orchestral accompaniments transferred to the piano much better as arpeggiated figures than the traditional block chords.

In part because of the influence of Irish and Italian songs, Americans began to lose interest in the English pleasure garden songs that had dominated public performances and sheet music sales since colonial times.

Popular song in America, part 1: from colonial times to ca. 1825

It never ceases to amaze me how many books on American popular song begin their coverage somewhere in the twentieth century, as if nothing of interest came before. Popular music is essentially a business that requires constantly updated products. It is an older business than perhaps many people imagine.

The first ballad operas heard in Britain’s American colonies were performed as early as the 1730s. American cities began to establish pleasure gardens, likely as not named for one of the major gardens in London, as early as the 1760. For most of the rest of the eighteenth century, the colonies basically imported all of their popular songs from England, although several American publishers brought out their own editions. Significantly, Americans especially admired the more serious song texts to the humorous, even somewhat bawdy songs that outnumbered them in England. Needless to say, when American composers first began to write songs, they did not differ significantly from the English songs most popular in this country.

Since popular song by definition requires a constant stream of new songs that are similar enough to already well known songs to be familiar and comfortable yet at the same time present some novelty, a quick survey can only point out some of the important new novelties that occasionally captured the popular imagination. I suggest Yesterdays: Popular Song in America by Charles Hamm to anyone interested in a more detailed study.

The first songwriters active in America were British by birth and training. Their American songs differed in subject matter and expression from those they wrote in England, which shows that their sensitivity to a different audience, but not in style.

Although the Irish had a poor reputation both in England and America, Irish tunes occasionally appeared in anthologies. Between 1808 and 1834, publishers James and William Power of Dublin and London issued ten volumes of  Irish Melodies, compiled by Thomas Moore, who supplied new words.

Many of these songs, including “‘Tis the Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,” remain among the most popular and recognizable English-language songs of the  entire nineteenth century. American publishers issued their own editions, which exerted a powerful influence on American songwriting.

Since these melodies ultimately came from an oral folk tradition and not from the carefully structured works of professional composers, they seemed somehow wild and untamed in their irregularity and pentatonic simplicity. Because publishers had issued some Irish tunes for decades, they were familiar enough to be comfortable, but very novel compared to the well-established style dating back to London’s pleasure gardens and songs by Thomas Arne and Joseph Hook. It also opened audiences to the beauties of the folk music of common people in contrast to the aristocratic origins of more learned music.

Moore’s poetry likewise differed from traditional English song texts. Much of it was in first person and deal with personal emotions and experiences rather than third-person narratives of observed events. It also overlooks the present low estate of the Irish to focus on their glorious past. This element of nostalgia became dominant in nineteenth-century literature, and it was Moore’s anthologies above all else that transmitted it to America.

To a lesser extent, the music of Scotland and the poetry of Robert Burns had a similar influence. Burns’ texts varied more in themes and content and so emphasized nostalgia less, but he, like Moore, wrote them to folk tunes that seemed very novel and very democratic compared to the works of English composers.

The coming decades saw numerous other foreign influences on American popular song, but the Irish and Scots influence remained strong throughout the nineteenth century.

Beloved Christmas carols: The Christmas Song

In a web environment, someone can write an article or record a song and put it online immediately. Conventional publishers must work months in advance of publication. Whatever new magazine articles on Christmas, Christmas record albums, etc. appear this month were probably written some time last summer. Once upon a time, selling sheet music made at least as much money as recordings. Publishers often had song-writing teams under contract to provide new music.

On a hot July day in 1946, lyricist Bob Wells was not thinking of songs for Christmas or otherwise. He only cared about cooling off. Swimming didn’t help. Neither did taking a cold shower or anything else he could think of. So he decided to think about a wintry scene and conjure up something cold in his imagination to see if that would help.

After he had written a few lines, beginning “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” his partner Mel Tormé dropped by and asked about them. Hearing the explanation, he suggested they write a song. Over the forty-five minutes it took them to complete the words and the music, a winter song had become “The Christmas Song.”

The publishers turned it down. To their way of thinking, the way the song introduced Santa Claus meant that the song could only make sense on Christmas Eve. No one would buy a one-day-a-year song.

Rather than reworking the words, Wells and Tormé sang the song for Nat King Cole, who loved it and asked for exclusive rights to record and perform it. The publishers reluctantly decided that if Cole wanted to record the song, they might as well take a chance. The rest, as they say, is history.

Did Sax invent the saxhorn?

(Saxhorns are the top row of instruments in this 1872 advertisement)

In1845, French military music reached the bottom of a long decline. The war ministry, desiring to reorganize it completely, arranged for a contest among bands with various instrumentation. The band led by Adolphe Sax won.

The Belgian-born Sax had only moved to Paris and set up shop three years earlier. His quick success (largely due to the superior craftsmanship of his instruments but also to notable supporters such as Hector Berlioz) annoyed established French makers.

That this upstart should win the right to reorganized French military music added insult to injury. That his instrumentation was built around a family of instruments he had named for himself and patented enraged several of them so much that they banded together and brought suit to nullify Sax’s patents. That suit eventually ruined both Sax and his rivals  financially.

The instruments in question, saxhorns, are valved bugles, that is, brass instruments with a conical bore. Sax was hardly the first instrument maker to add valves to bugles. He copied his valves from the German maker Johann Gottfried Moritz. Two things set saxhorns apart from anyone else’s valved bugles.

First, Sax found a superior proportion for designing the exact taper of the conical sections of his instruments. (They were necessarily cylindrical through the valves.) Second, he built a complete family of instruments from soprano to bass, alternating in pitch between B-flat and E-flat instruments.

A collection of valved bugles by other makers, which lacked similarity of proportion and compatibility of basic pitch cannot sound as good, when played together, as an ensemble of saxhorns. But did these two innovations constitute an entirely new instruments for the purpose of obtaining a patent?

Sax and his adversaries did not have enough money among them to produce a clear legal answer. Even today, differences of opinion exist.  If legal courts have no definitive opinion, the court of history does. Instruments of that kind are musically less important now than in the nineteenth century,  but where they are used at all, they are invariably saxhorns, not instruments of the same design of any of his professional and legal rivals.

Franz Liszt at an artistic crossroads

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

Franz Liszt / painting by Henri Lehmann, 1839

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, a social division arose between two kinds of music.

Some loved what they called classical music. They quarreled with people who preferred what William Weber has called high-status popular music.

Classical music specifically meant the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and a few others.

High-status popular music included popular operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, and others. It also included traveling virtuosos who performed largely in salons.

That is, they performed before invited guests in the homes of aristocratic or upper-middle-class hosts.

Robert Schumann began his career as a critic specifically to protest against the emptiness of most of the piano virtuosos. They specialized in dazzling arrangements of operatic tunes or variations on popular melodies.

These pieces had little musical substance. They did not reward repeated hearing. But the audience for them preferred novelty. They had no interest in hearing the same pieces over and over.

Schumann recognized greater musical substance in some of them, including Franz Liszt. In his early career, then, Liszt represented high-status popular music. But without the musical emptiness and technical gimmicks that Schumann so despised.

Weber points out that the old aristocracy and upper middle class essentially merged around mid-century and that classical music and high-status popular music likewise grew together.

Previously popular operas, including most of Rossini’s, eventually disappeared from the repertoire, but their overtures became acceptable fare on symphonic concerts.

The virtuosos who did not make some move towards classical music likewise lost public favor.

The new  Liszt

buy classical music

Franz Liszt conducting / unknown artist, ca. 1918

In 1846 one of Liszt’s admirers, who also loved classical music, challenged him to play Beethoven’s music on his programs. So he did.

As a composer, he had always concentrated on solo piano music, occasionally with orchestral accompaniment. Like other virtuosos, he wrote a lot of variations on popular tunes. He did not compose sonatas or other classical forms.

Beginning about the time he started playing classical music in concert, he began to compose differently. He produced purely orchestral music, choral music (both sacred and secular), and songs. His piano music became more serious.

He still didn’t use classical forms. He based his music on literary programs. As a result, he devised his own formal procedures.

Liszt also experimented with new harmonic structures.At least one of his late piano pieces is almost atonal.

They had a profound influence on composers all over Europe who wanted to come out from under the domination of German musical culture.

Liszt made the transition from high-status popular music to the newly defined classical music world so easily and naturally that only in retrospect can scholars discern a transition at all.

Not all remained unified in classical music, however. Some composers (Brahms, for example) continued to write in classical forms, using harmonies, techniques of orchestration, and so on, that built on Beethoven’s legacy gradually and incrementally.

The group represented by Brahms and the group represented by Liszt argued as intensely as formerly groups that preferred “classical” music or “popular” music had argued.

By this time the idea of classical music becomes problematic. Once it meant music with standard forms high artistic ideals. It was mostly old music, or modeled on old music. It required repeated hearings to understand it.

Liszt and allies wrote new music not based on standard forms. It was less listener-friendly and demanded even more of the audience. They still aspired to high artistic ideals. But the world of classical music could no longer agree on what that meant.

Revised September 7, 2016

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

Photo credits:
Public domain.

Guillaume de Machaut: the gaps in his biography

Our knowledge of history is limited by the accident of what kind of documentation exists. Even for recent people and events, historians cannot always find information about what they most want to learn. Given roughly equivalent fame and importance, the earlier a person lived, the sparser the documentation. The great medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) provides a good illustration.

No other fourteenth-century composer left behind as much music as Machaut, and possibly none other provided so much detail about his life and times. While many prolific composers over the course of history have produced vast quantities of music of mediocre quality or worse, Machaut’s reputation, both in his lifetime and in the estimation of scholars, places him in the top rank not only of composers of his time, but also poets. He also had a very sophisticated understanding of mathematics.

Machaut the poet wrote about current events and about himself. From him we know that he was short, blind in one eye, had gout, and, as an old man, became involved in a platonic relationship with a teenaged poetry lover. He preserved her letters to him, too.

History records a great deal of information about his patrons. He came to the attention of King John of Luxembourg as a young priest in the 1320s and remained as his secretary until the King was killed in the Battle of Crécy in 1346. After that, he worked for the Duke of Normandy (later King John II of France), King Charles V of France, and the Dukes of Berry, Savoy, and Navarre. He devoted  his later years to preparing a catalog of his works and presentation manuscripts of them for his patrons.

Of his early life, almost nothing is known. We know he was born somewhere in the province of Champagne, possibly in Rheims. An older man with a similar name may have been his father, but no records survive. We know nothing of his family, his education, when he was ordained, how he came to the attention of his first patron, when he started to compose and write poetry, or how he developed his reputation. But we do know that he sold a horse in 1340.

Francesca Caccini, the first woman operatic composer

Today we find nothing unusual about women becoming professional musicians. Women play every imaginable instrument. They conduct orchestras, choruses, and opera companies. They are well represented on anyone’s list of leading living composers. It can be hard to remember that until recently women were discouraged from playing certain instruments, and certainly from ever thinking about becoming composers. Francesca Caccini’s career is, then, something of an anomaly. She composed songs and operas for court entertainments in the early seventeenth century.

Her father, Giulio Caccini, was a highly regarded singer, composer, and music teacher in Florence. Francesca, his foremost pupil first sang in public at the age of 13 at the wedding of French King Henry IV and Maria de’ Medici (a member of Florence’s ruling family) in 1600.

Four years later, the king declared her the best singer in France and asked permission to hire her for his own household. The Tuscan court refused and the family returned to Florence. Francesca officially entered service there in 1607 at a reasonable salary. Seven years later, her salary had doubled, making her one of the highest paid musicians at the court.

So far, her career had followed a fairly ordinary path for a talented woman serving a ruling family, but soon she began to compose court entertainments. Performances in Rome, Milan, Lucca, Parma, Genoa, and Savona spread her reputation far beyond Florence.

In 1621, Grand Duke Cosimo II died, leaving a child, Ferdinando, as his heir. Until Ferdinando came of age, his mother and grandmother ruled as regents. They had a great interest  in asserting the right of women to rule and used, among other things, symbolism in major court entertainments, as Medici rulers had for more than a century. And who better to supply the music for them than the highly respected Francesca Caccini?

Her best known opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, was commissioned in 1625 to celebrate the visit of future King Wladislaw IV of Poland. Most such occasional pieces were published in handsome commemorative copies for invited guests, and then quickly forgotten after after the ceremony was over. La liberazione di Ruggiero must have made a strong  impression. It was performed again in Warsaw in 1681, making it the first Italian opera presented outside of Italy.

Live vs recorded music

Discussion of the relative merits of live and recorded music probably started as soon as recordings became widely available. As the fidelity of recorded sound improved, the discussion evolved somewhat, but it still continues.

One of my professors in college disapproved of recorded music, but frequently attended concerts. He did not even own a record player. I have never met anyone else who prefers live music to the absolute exclusion of listening to recordings, but I know lots of people who agree that there is an immediacy in live performances that recordings cannot duplicate. What’s more, recordings must be almost totally free of mistakes. Otherwise, listeners must hear the same mistakes over and over. That, in turn, has raised unrealistic expectations for live performances.

Today I offer another observation. You can hear more of the music in a live performance than on a recording. My high school orchestra performed the finale of Brahms’ First Symphony, and I played bass trombone. One passage gave me fits, and when I got a recording of the piece, I could not hear the sound of the trombone there at all.

Years later, a friend invited me to a concert where he was playing a concerto with a community orchestra. One of the other pieces was Brahms’ First Symphony. I have never heard a worse orchestra. Every oboe solo, in particular, met with disaster. And yet I found the performance fascinating. I thought I knew that symphony very well, having listened to it frequently on my own stereo and over the radio for years. And yet I heard not only that difficult trombone part, but many details of orchestration and counterpoint in the inner voices I had never known about.

At about the same time, the orchestra I was in played Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Now, I have always thought the back row of an orchestra is the worst place to listen to music. The trombones sit much closer to the other wind instruments, which often have accompanimental parts, than to the violins, which usually have the melody. Community orchestras, it seems, never have quite enough strings anyway.

But I couldn’t help noticing that on my recording, not only did I not hear the inner parts played by the upper woodwinds, but the violas, cellos, and basses barely came through. That recording, at least, focuses so much on the violins that the entire bass line almost disappears, and whenever one of the woodwinds has the main melody, it is covered by whatever filigree the violins play.

I recently participated in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Having heard the waltz many times, I was surprised at the first rehearsal. When unison trombones play the main theme, it sounds on every recording that I have ever heard like there are persistent rests on the downbeat. Actually, there is a note there. In every measure.

It makes breathing tricky to play such a  long phrase at such a loud dynamic. Had Tchaikovsky written it the way it sounds on recordings, it would have been a lot easier to play. I don’t believe that all the trombones and tubas in all those professional orchestras that issue recordings omit the low notes on all those downbeats, but having listened to several since I learned how Tchaikovsky wrote the part, I can testify that I still cannot hear them at all.

So if you have a chance to hear a familiar orchestral piece live, go. You’ll hear things you can’t hear on your own stereo or radio, not counting any mistakes.

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.