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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 2 The Music Trance
Richard Taruskin
Salon Culture

ex. 2-4b John Field, Nocturne no. 4 in A major, mm. 41-45

Like most of Field's nocturnes, the one in A major was composed, published, and for a long time chiefly performed in Russia, where Field had settled in 1803. He had come with his mentor Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), an Italian pianist who had become a major piano manufacturer, with headquarters in London. Clementi left Field behind as a kind of trade representative, who by his playing and teaching and commercial propaganda would stimulate the sale of Clementi pianos to a new clientele. Neither master nor pupil foresaw that Field would spend the rest of his life in St. Petersburg and (from 1821) in Moscow.

Field's presence in the Russian capitals, where he had numerous pupils and disciples, was among the catalysts in the process whereby, somewhat belatedly, Russia joined the nations of western Europe as a major producer of music in the tradition of which this book is a history. Perhaps the most notable musician in the Russian “Field tradition” was Maria Agata Szymanowska (1789–1831), a Polish noblewoman who, after a stellar international career as a pianist, settled in St. Petersburg in 1821, maintained a brilliant salon, and began publishing nocturnes in 1825. Mikhail Glinka (1804–57), the composer of the first internationally important Russian operas, was also (very briefly) a pupil of Field.

But the reason for dwelling a bit on Field's Russian career has less to do with burgeoning Russian nationalism (to which he, an immigrant Irishman writing in a cosmopolitan style, had little to contribute) than it has to do with the social situation in which Field, and his music, were nurtured there—a social milieu that in a sense encapsulated the special nature of Field's music (and that of many other composers), poised on a kind of cusp between the private and the public spheres.

That domain was the salon, a word already broached in connection with Szymanowska (and, in the previous chapter, with Rossini). The word is French (the language of high society everywhere in Europe), and literally means “a big room,” the kind found in the large town houses of aristocrats or nouveaux riches (“the newly rich,” that is, those who had earned their money in trade), where large gatherings of invited guests assembled. In English it was called the drawing room, short for “withdrawing room,” the room to which the company withdrew after dinner for conversation and entertainment. By extension, the word salon became synonymous with the assembled company itself, especially when that company was a “big” company, consisting of social lions, leaders of public fashion, politicians, or artists, including performing artists. The latter would be there by invitation if they were big enough figures to enjoy social prestige in their own right (or if, like Rossini or Szymanowska, they were the hosts). Just as often they were hired entertainers.

To maintain a salon was to have an open house on a designated day (jour fixe) each week or fortnight, and to have a regular roster of important guests. There has been nothing like it as a performance venue since the mid- to late nineteenth century, but it was the chief catalyst of the “domestic-romantic” music we are now surveying. Only in such an environment does the idea of a “public display of privacy” lose its paradoxical, even faintly ridiculous mien. Salons, as exclusive gatherings, partook of both domains, and encouraged a form of music making that had high prestige but addressed relatively small elite audiences—addressing them, moreover, and in true romantic fashion, as individuals (as the historian Peter Gay wittily implied when he defined romanticism as “a vast exercise in shared solitude”).

The music a pianist like Field composed for salon performance (whether by himself or by one of his fashionable lady pupils) served the same social purpose, for both composer and audience, as the concerto had served for Mozart. A statistical survey of Field's output bears this out: he started his career as a public musician in London, with a concerto (in E♭, 1799), made his early name in Russia with more concertos, but after 1822 composed only for solo piano or for piano intimately accompanied by a string quartet ad libitum. He had shifted his field of operations from the concert hall to the salon, and his music responded to the change with an ever-increasing quotient of Innigkeit.

To jump ahead briefly to Frédéric Chopin (1810–49), the last and most famous representative of the “Field tradition,” the fact that—after an early group of concertos and other orchestrally accompanied pieces composed in his native Warsaw—his output consisted almost entirely of works for solo piano in small forms was due not only to his personal or “disinterested” esthetic predilections, but also to the ready support his creative and performing activities were receiving from Paris “salon culture.”

The salon, in other words, was a new vehicle for the channeling of art patronage, based on a newly negotiated symbiosis between social and artistic elites. Music played at salons, much of it written to be played there, was marked by its milieu as socially elite. Reciprocally, its presence there, especially when played by its creators, marked the occasion and the assembled company as culturally elite. Each elite helped define and support the other. There were material benefits, too, for pianist-composers in social contacts that led to fashionable pupils, mainly the daughters of those in attendance. That was how Field (and later, Chopin) earned a living.

The material side of things was of course banished from the official discourse of romanticism. For the official view, consult the famous painting shown in Fig. 2-1: Liszt at the Piano, by the Austrian genre specialist Josef Danhauser (1805–45), a minor artist who nevertheless made a major statement here in producing what has become perhaps the most widely reproduced, and widely commented-on, depiction of early nineteenth-century musical life. It is in reality no such thing, but rather a fantasized scene that did not take place and never could have taken place. It renders a salon not as it actually was but as an artist might have idealized it, populated almost exclusively by artists (four writers and four composers) who have gathered to partake “disinterestedly” in art for the sake of art.

Salon Culture

fig. 2-1 Liszt at the Piano (1840) by Josef Danhauser.

Seated furthest left is the French poet Alfred de Musset (1810–57), author of the famous novel La confession d'un enfant du siècle, one of the earliest examples of autobiographical fiction, a quintessentially romantic genre. Seated next to Musset is Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin (1804–76), the Baroness Dudevant, who under the pseudonym George Sand was one of the most prolific novelists of the day, as well as the author of a truly immense autobiography. Her masculine pen name as well as her masculine attire and her trademark cigar (which the artist has made sure to include in the picture) identify her as a fighter for women's rights, including free love. She fought, of course, by the lights of her time, when women sought equality with men by, as it were, becoming “social men,” as if playing out the role of the operatic musico in real life. Inverting (but thereby nevertheless asserting) the romantic formula of “public privacy,” George Sand's private love life was quite public long before she actually wrote about it. Her most highly publicized extramarital liaisons were with Musset, as shown (thus dating the scene depicted to the early 1830s), and with Chopin.

Behind and between Sand and Musset stands Victor Hugo (1802–85), master of all genres of romantic literature, and author—in the prefaces to his historical dramas Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830), performing which had brought about near-riots and fisticuffs in the theater—of perhaps the most militant manifestos ever penned on behalf of romantic art. (“Living form in place of dead form,” he called it in the former; “liberalism in literature” in the latter.) To the right of Hugo are two composers. Hector Berlioz (1803–69), to whom we will be formally introduced in a later chapter, was often compared with Victor Hugo as a militant romantic; of all important contemporary musicians he was perhaps the least beholden to salon culture and its intimate media. Embracing him is Rossini, whose “purely sensuous art” Berlioz loathed and, as critic, publicly excoriated. Although he would later run a famous salon himself, in this picture Rossini is for all sorts of reasons (reasons anyone who has read the previous chapter could easily list) completely, even a bit comically, out of place. The Austrian painter, in an early version of the notorious historiographical myth described in the previous chapter, has colonized him on behalf of the big bust on the piano.

Before we get to the big bust, let us identify the remaining living figure, nestled submissively to the right of Liszt. She is the Countess Marie d'Agoult (1805–76), presumably the nominal hostess of the evening, who under the George-Sand-like pseudonym Daniel Stern was a minor French writer, but who was best known both during her lifetime and in history for her sexual liaison with Liszt, to whom she bore three daughters, one of whom (Cosima) will figure again in our narrative. She is probably posed with her back to the viewer because the painter did not know her face and could not make her recognizable.

This painting is famous not only for its cast of characters but for its implicit (and possibly inadvertent) commentary not just on their gathering, but on the whole discourse of romanticism. It is a preeminently a portrait of shared solitude. All present are lost in a music trance, even (or especially) Liszt himself, who is sitting with his back to his hearers, eyes fixed on the big bust—none other than (who else?) Beethoven, the patron saint of creative isolation and all artistic truth. By a skillful trick of perspective, Beethoven has become a floating presence, a true divinity: although presumably supported by the pile of music atop the piano, his image can also be optically construed as resting on the distant horizon, dominating the whole landscape beyond.

And what an imposing, outsized Beethoven it is, this bust, even if confined to quarters—a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered, bullnecked Arnold Schwarzenegger of a Beethoven, a god not only of artistic culture but of physical culture as well. Why such machismo?

As usual, machismo masks nervousness, a nervousness related to the middle-class solidification of gender roles and identities noted in the previous chapter with regard to the newly “naturalized” assignment of voice types in opera. There was something feminine—uncomfortably feminine for “self-made men”—about the passivity of romantic listening. Salons, often if not usually hosted by rich or titled women (like the Countess d'Agoult and the Baroness Dudevant), where the music (unless performed by its composers) was usually performed by women, were increasingly looked upon as a women's world; and as the music historian Jeffrey Kallberg has shown, the connotation spread to the music typically played there, particularly to the nocturne, its emblematic salon genre. By 1841, one German writer unearthed by Kallberg charged the nocturne with “a twofold error” consisting, in the first place, of “dawdling,” and in the second, of “falling into the effeminate and languishing, which displeases stronger souls and altogether tires the listener.”11 By 1844, another writer was complaining of the “soft, rapturous, tender, lyrical, almost womanly character of the Fieldian cantilena.”12

Ironically enough, then, it was precisely from the early to middle nineteenth century, the heyday of musical romanticism, that the stigma of effeminacy—and of license, too, symbolized by the libertine, transvestite figure of George Sand and the adulterous Marie d'Agoult—began to attach itself to music, making musicians uneasy in a society where conformity to standardized sexual roles (and role-playing) was becoming more and more a requirement. By 1909, a critic could warn that exposure to a certain nocturne by Chopin “bewitches and unmans” a listener who is incautious enough to “tarry too long in its treacherous atmosphere.”13 This unease, and the misogyny to which it gave rise, were among the factors that conspired, beginning around the middle of the century, to cast the high-prestige notion of “salon music” into disrepute—a disrepute that has grown apace, so that the phrase is most often used today as a term of abuse, dismissing a composer as shallow or a work as trivially pretty. Rossini's late career as a social lion, and the Péchés de vieillesse and Quelques riens he composed for performance at his own salon, also did their bit to recharacterize the nature of the salon (or return it to its eighteenth-century status) as a merry place where music functioned as aristocratic entertainment—a double sin for those who believed that art should have no social function beyond “disinterested” esthetic edification (that is, trance-induction). There was also the stigma of sensuality. At the soirée, described in the previous chapter, where Rossini discussed bel canto with his wealthy interlocutors, the discussion of music took place over fine cognac and imported cigars. A social milieu that put music in the category—or even the proximity—of “vicious pleasures” could only sully its reputation with a romanticism that was becoming increasingly imbued with Victorian values.

The last straw was the petit-embourgeoisement of the salon, its loss of social cachet. In today's French the word salon simply means “the living room” in any house or apartment. The change came about not through democratization, but by the ambition of middle-class households during the Victorian Age to enhance their social prestige by aping what the French called the grande bourgeoisie, the urban aristocracies of birth and wealth. A cynical sub-industry arose among music publishers in the later nineteenth century that catered to this pretense by supplying tacky mass-produced imitations of salon genres to grace the imitation salons in “petty bourgeois” homes. By then, moreover, the music that had inhabited the high-prestige salons of old had moved decisively into the concert hall, impelled by the canonization of some of its chief composers.

But beware: the “tackiness” of the later product has been defined from a grand bourgeois point of view unwittingly adopted by historians loyal to Field and (especially) Chopin. The tackiness inhered as much in the mass-production and the cheap dissemination as it did in any ostensive defect of the product itself. When Carl Dahlhaus, for example, speaks of “the deadly mixture of sentimental tunefulness and mechanical figuration”14 found in what he calls “pseudosalon music,” and defines the latter as “pieces that were intended to delude provincial middle-class audiences into a musical daydream of salons they were not allowed to enter,”15 it is hard to miss the note of social snobbery.

All of these bad qualities, perhaps needless to add, have been found in Field and Chopin, too, by those who have needed to find them. More often than not, what is tacky about tacky music turns out to be the people who listen to it. What really happened to salon culture in the later nineteenth century was that, by inundating the market with music that targeted the petty bourgeoisie, the music publishers of the nineteenth century managed to render the salon, and many of its musical genres, “déclassés” no longer capable of creating the sense of an elite occasion. Let this brief account of the salon, its culture, and its fluctuating reputation serve to remind us once again how accurately (and how often) attitudes about art encode social attitudes.


(11) Ferdinand Hand, Aesthetik der Tonkunst (Jena, 1841), quoted in Jeffrey Kallberg, Chopin at the Boundaries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 33–4.

(12) Carl Kossmaly, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (17 January 1844); quoted in Kallberg, Chopin at the Boundaries, p. 34.

(13) Frederick Niecks, quoted in James M. Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music (New York: Scribner's, 1921), p. 262.

(14) Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), p. 148.

(15) Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 147.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 The Music Trance. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 The Music Trance." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-002004.xml