Classical Music--How Popular Was It In the 19th Century and Earlier?

Before rap, punk, metal, rock, jazz, country, dixie, etc., just how popular was classical music? That is, was it widely popular with the masses, or was its appeal generally limited to the upper classes? My impression is that in 18th and 19th century America, for instance, classical music’s popularity was principally limited to the larger cities that had the orchestras, chamber groups, or small groups to perform it live (given the lack of recording devices). In the towns and outlying areas, on the other hand, an assortment of folk, bluegrass variants, and related music prevailed.

How about in 17th, 18th, and 19th century Europe? Was classical music wildly popular then, something like rock was in the 60s? Or was it more of a cerebral pursuit and the province of the well to do?

Yes, that gets us into a debate on what precisely do I mean by “classical music,” but I’m hoping you get the idea and can erase a small portion of my ignorance.


The quick answer: pretty popular.

Rossini was a huge celebrity, as were other 19th century opera composers (e.g., Verdi). When Beethoven died, his funeral procession had thousands in it. And the 19th century saw the rise of “rock star” virtuosos such as Paganini on fiddle and Liszt on the piano.

Earlier, many composers made their livings writing church music. J.S. Bach - who wasn’t that popular in his day - had to write a tremendous amount of music every week for church services. His son, CPE Bach, was much more popular, but he too eventually took a church job in Hamburg and wrote a lot of music for the church - even though that isn’t what he’s known for today.

Handel was very popular in England - first his operas and then his oratorios (basically operas on religious topics, in a concert format rather than staged) did very well.

What is very different about “classical” music today compared to any time before the 19th century is that contemporary music was much highly prized than old stuff. The veneration of DWMs began in the 19th century - especially due to the recognized genius of Beethoven. For the first time, contemporary composers had to compete with dead masters for space on the concert bill.

That’s one of the reasons JS Bach was not that popular in his day - he wrote in an “old-school” idiom that was not nearly as hip as Telemann.

Anyway, there are some random thoughts - I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.


Can’t add much to what D18 already said.

Except to say–um.

TS, 'cause it’s you, I came in here. :slight_smile: Anybody else, I would have passed right on down the forum.

Before “rap, punk, metal, rock, jazz, country, dixie”, so-called “classical music” was popular because that’s basically all there WAS by way of musical entertainment for thinking persons.

Oh, sure, there were the equivalent of pop ballads, trashy little ditties about love and romance and current events (one that springs to mind from the 18th century had something to do with a politician’s current mistress and the interesting fact that her name–“Jordan”–was also a slang term for a chamberpot.) And there were what we call “folk songs”, love songs and suchlike.

However, music that came from people like Vivaldi, William Byrd, Purcell, Beethovan, Mozart, etc. was not only for the Great Ones in their palaces. The sheet music for “classical music” was printed up and widely disseminated for people to play in their own homes. That’s what they did before they had TV–sat around and played chamber music. Sonatas, and transcriptions of things like Handel’s oratorios, and quartets, as soon as Mozart and Haydn got around to inventing them. And other people came over to your house to listen to the music.

And as soon as the piano was invented, and perfected, and everybody had one, in the mid-1800s, publishers rushed to produce piano transcriptions of symphonies and operas. Oh, sure, you could sit down at the piano after dinner and play “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” for your dinner guests, but that wouldn’t IMPRESS anybody. It was much better to be able to bang out Mozart or Chopin, or part of a Wagner opera arranged for four hands.

So. It was either Beethoven or “Camptown Races”. Most cultured people opted for Beethoven.


Duck Duck Goose raised a very good point - in the day of being music consumers, we forget that for most of history, the only way to be a music consumer was to also be a music performer! Or know someone who was a performer.

One of the reasons that musicians used to know music so deeply was because most of the time, they had to bash through the transcriptions if they wanted to hear it - you can’t go to a concert every night.

But there was kind of parallel universe of really, really bad (but easy to play) “classical” music, too. There was this old magazine, for instance, called Etude that used to come out every month, and the high point was some corny piano sonata by some hack. (One can imagine David Foster making his living doing this if he had’ve lived in the 1800s!) There was this one guy, Chas. E. Blake (always billed as “Chas.”) who I noticed once was up to Opus 2000 or something! (By way of comparison, Beethoven made it to Opus 120-ish.)

The other thing that must have been wild - and is almost incomprehensible now - is the idea of a “classical” performance causing a riot - e.g., Stravinski’s Rite or (IIRC) Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. And Verdi served as a nationalistic symbol for the Italian unity movement in the 1800s as well. They even back-formed an acronym on the name VERDI in support of the movement.

In short, for most of history, the idea of the mis-understood, ignored, genius composer is crap.


Now, wait…remember, in 19th century Europe you didn’t have suburbs. They was a wide difference between rural and urban people.

Country folks had their own music, and it wasn’t all “Camptown Races.” There were professional musicians – well, people who earned their bread and butter playing music – who must have been pretty damn good, even if they couldn’t read written-out scores. Traveling fiddlers and guitarists and wind-players who performed for dances and general entertainment.

Given the prowess of contemporary improv musicians in the jazz and rock realms, I would think that there were some pretty darn fine musicians running around the countryside in those days. It didn’t all start with Louis Armstrong or Jerry Garcia.

Of course, among the urban educated classes, there was a great deal of interest in what was going to be played that night at the concert hall. And, as DDG said, everybody from the middle-class on up owned a piano, and used it to play transcriptions of popular contemporary operas and symphonies.

I’m just reading Norman Lebrecht’s MAHLER REMEMBERED…after the Emperor, Gustav Mahler (as Director of the Opera) was the most famous man in fin-de-siecle Vienna, the omnipotent cultural figure in a city where culture was king.

But weren’t the middle and upper classes a relatively small part of society? My impression is that the poor and the working class very much outnumbered the middle class and the rich. If that were so, then what we call “classical” music would have been the pursuit of a minority, and what we call “folk” (and maybe “pop” – IIRC, there were commercial songs and ballads written for the masses back then) music was the kind of stuff that most people played and listened to.

My grandmother and her sisters and brothers, who had to flee Scotland and starvation, nevertheless had windup phonographs that they played Melba and Caruso on. Only one of them had any real education.
(And my parents had about two years of public high school education and read Dickens and were geniuses compared to college graduates nowadays, because of the latest method of instruction which has been going on for the last two generations, called “student-centered” instruction, in which the teacher isn’t the teacher, but a “cooperative element” with the student as he or she pursues his or her ever-growing emptiness and tastelessness. My parents had good handwriting, as did my grandparents, and could spell, do mathematics, and so forth. They knew that London was in England, Paris was in France, Europe and Africa were east of here, and they knew the names of the continents). (A minor hijack) (no need for reply or nasty comments)

Another type of popular music amongst the poorer people,most of who could not read, was the Broadside ballad. these were the newspapers of the day telling of the latest happening at court or the latest grisley murder or any other news . Bands of travelling musicians would tour the country ,singing the songs and selling the music.In this way ordinary folk got a (sometimes exaggerated) idea of what was happening in the rest of the country.

You honor, me, my dear DDG. I will surf a 120-foot tsunami in your honor–and then bail out and let the residual wall of water sweep over Hollywood. Give 'em something to really talk about.


But weren’t the middle and upper classes a relatively small part of society? My impression is that the poor and the working class very much outnumbered the middle class and the rich. If that were so, then what we call “classical” music would have been the pursuit of a minority, and what we call “folk” (and maybe “pop” – IIRC, there were commercial songs and ballads written for the masses back then) music was the kind of stuff that most people played and listened to. **

What brought up my question was my 447th viewing of A&E’s spectacular mini-series, “Pride and Prejudice.” I love it! Wish I could go back in time, sweep Lizzie off her feet, make her fall madly in love with me–and then run off with Jane! (Yes, I’d keep the snotty but, ultimately, lovable Mr. Darcy, but only as my gardener. Providing I get Pemberly.)

During the mini series, we see the Bennett’s going to various homes/manors (the Bingley’s, the Lucas’)and dancing to both elegant music and rather folksy stuff–music that seems like a very distant relative of (gentrified) bluegrass. Funny thing is, Jane Bennett in the movie says, “We’re not that poor, Lizzie.” I agree; the family never struck me as poor at all. Barely coasting on the ancestral vapors of Bennetts past, yes, but certainly privileged and pampered. And in episode 1, we see the common street folk (drunk, of course) doing some kind of jig accompanied with rather wild music.

My thinking was that American bluegrass and its parent, country folk (whatever), came from Scotland and Ireland. Generally speaking, the poor liked this music, whereas the well-to-do people steered toward classical, if only to differentiate themselves from the masses.

In the early 1900’s several people in England woke up to the fact that a lot of folk music was becoming extinct.People like Cecil Sharpe and Ralph Vaughan Williams started to go round the country to capture this on paper before it was too late. It was too late in some cases so they travelled over to the US and found that the music being sung there was of the same stock. This enabled them to save more songs for posterity .

When tape was invented in 1955, a man who had been born in Appalachia and gone to college went back with a tape recorder and is famous for recording the hillbilly music.
I also heard that Flatt and Scruggs, who later appeared on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES did a lot for hillbilly music. On several episodes Flatt and Scruggs visit Jed and his family, and they have these beautiful wives as a comic touch, as they themselves were homely. One of their’s wives was the beauteous blond Joi Lansing, who appeared on some other shows. She was one of the applicants for a role that Lucy (Mrs. Ricardo) was also trying out for in one of her ongoing attempts to get into show business.
I don’t think that the relationship between rock-pop and classical music, or between rock-pop and the culture in general is the same as the relationship between popular music of the streets in the past and classical music or than the rest of the culture. One example is your intellectuals, artists, and writers of the old days were not on the popular culture bandwagon, nor were university professors. Another example is that if you go back far enough, there were no teenagers as a concept of a cohort that everybody has to accommodate and cater to because of their “hormones.” There was never a society that tolerated rudeness and all the works of today’s teens that their idle hands have time for.
There were no idle teens in the past. Without this group of consumers with childish tastes we would never have such a thing as the kind of popular music we do have. Since a lot of it is very entertaining, we can thank the spoiled, agressive, largely unmannerly and criminal adolescents of the last two or three generations or more. (In the Middle Ages, nine-year old boys were responsible heads of families working all the time and ducking plagues and the Church all the while as well).

Yep. In the 1600s and 1700s, English, Irish and Scottish folk settled in the Applachians and brought folk tunes with them. The music that came out of those mountains was by, for and about poor people. The southern folk music became known as “Hillbilly” and later as “Country 'n Western.” “Bluegrass” was an hybrid outcropping from country folk music in Kentucky.

Anyway, you’re right about classical music - it was primarily an upper class/ intellectual type of thing. And in America it was mostly restrained to the big cities.

“Classical” music, that is, what comes to mind when we think of the music of the past few centuries, definitely began as the pursuit of the upper classes - originally the Church, later the monarchy and the nobility. The Catholic Church didn’t pay composers and arrangers, of course - the musical manuscripts that survive were written by monks and priests and intended for religious services.

Later on, however, the monarchy and nobility started having money to throw around and plenty of leisure time, so they started hiring court musicians and composers for concerts and to provide music for important occasions. Musical instructors were often also part of the retinue, and it was from these people that the study of music theory came about. In essence, the development and advancement of musical styles stemmed from the people who lived at the benificence of the local rulers.

Folk styles also developed alongside the classical styles; teachers would take on other students outside of the court, and the learning would pass from person to person and spread outward. Or people would learn from others who weren’t full-time musicians but had learned much through experience and picking up techniques along the way.

Classical music really started to spread into the general population with the growth of the cities. Entertainment was obviously in high demand and even small concert halls meant for the masses could turn a tidy profit. I can’t remember offhand the source I read for this, but I do recall reading that the works of composers such as Mozart were often reworked for the intended audience (much like the treatment of Don Giovanni in “Amadeus”).

Even with the spread of classical music’s popularity in the cities, you still really couldn’t make a living as a composer or musician unless you got a patron. Of course, if your career took off and you got wildly popular, you could manage an independent existence. But most of the time you had to play for your supper or find someone who’d give you a job as a musician. It still happens today, though we call them “record labels”.

Plenty of musicians went back to their folk roots in the pursuit of ideas or just to preserve the musical heritage of their country. Bartok, for instance, roamed the Hungarian backwoods armed with a wax cylinder player. Aaron Copland picked up the “Appalachian Spring” theme (you know, the “Beef - it’s what’s for dinner” music…) almost completely from a fiddle tune he recorded while on a trip, IIRC. And of course, plenty of ethnographic studies have preserved folk music from all over the world. Much more has been lost over the years simply because it wasn’t written down

don willard - hush yo’ cranky ol’ mouth. Blaming teenagers for the styles of music popular today is like blaming them for not drinking water or fruit juices when the media bombards them with ads for Coke, Pepsi, and Sprite.

Some minor corrections. The music is the “Hoedown” from Rodeo. The original piece is called “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and you can hear a 1937 recording of fiddler W. H. Stepp performing it at .