Near the conclusion of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we heard from the former chief music critic of The New York Times Harold Schonberg, who wrote apropos of Moritz Moszkowski’s piano music that:
“no better salon music has ever been composed, or any so gratefully conceived for the piano.”
“Salon Music.” It’s a phrase often used as a pejorative, to distinguish between “serious” and “substantial” concert works and music intended merely to amuse and titillate the denizens of Europe’s elite “salons” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Let’s get a handle on what constitutes “salon music”, lest Schonberg’s complimentary phrase – that “no better salon music has ever been composed”– be considered more damnation than praise.
Aside from being “an establishment where a hairdresser, beautician, or couturier conducts business”, a “salon” is a reception room in a large house. A “salon” is also a particular type of social gathering in such rooms, typically hosted by prominent women, which brought together “guests of distinction” for a conversational exchange of ideas and amusement.
Such gatherings were invented in Italy in the sixteenth century, where they were called “salones”, a word derived from “sala”, which is the large reception room in an Italian mansion. Salons became all the rage in Paris during the seventeenth century and remained so into the 1920s. Writes Steven Kale in his book French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006):
“A whole world of social arrangements and attitude supported the existence of French salons: an idle aristocracy, an ambitious middle class, an active intellectual life, the social density of a major urban center, sociable traditions, and a certain aristocratic feminism.”
During this so-called “age of conversation”, different salons centered on different topics depending on the interests of the host – the salonnière – and her guests. It was up to the salonnière to moderate the discussion and introduce whatever special activities were to take place during a salon. Those activities might include poetry readings, presentations of scholarly papers, and musical performances.
“Salon music”, then, was a particular genre of Romantic era piano music associated with nineteenth century salons. Such works were typically brief and overtly expressive: portraying a particular emotional state and/or describing a literary program. Such works were often quite virtuosic in character, intended as they were to dazzle their audiences.…Become a Patron!