The Secret History of Amateurism in Classical Music

Why does it feel like there’s something lesser about being an amateur, and where did the idea that musical clubs can’t be “serious” ensembles even come from?  Read on for a brief rundown of the history of amateurism in classical music.

Amateurism in Classical Music

Early last month, I had a troubling discussion with someone who seemed to be operating under many internalized elitist & patriarchal beliefs about classical music that he’d never been called on to question.  I was very surprised to find someone who believed that there was a strong difference between “serious ensembles” and “music clubs” working in a community band space where most of the musicians were amateurs… and found his inability to be open to other perspectives extremely frustrating. 

It’s easy to say that there’s no problem with being an amateur, everyone has to start off as a beginner, and if you’re passionate about music that’s what counts the most – but if our musical environment doesn’t also support those ideals, we need to dig a bit deeper.  Out of all the slides in that post, the one above was the most shared – which also tells me that the history of amateurism in Western classical music is something worth making time to unpack.  

I can’t speak to all of the complexities of this, but there are a few aspects that I’ve come across that also overlap with the intersection of gender studies & music history.  For example – did you know that some of the stigmas around amateurism are rooted in the same 19th century societal norms that tried to restrict women from becoming professional musicians?  Those roots in outdated social norms are the reason these stigmas remain stubbornly persistent.  So the next time you catch yourself feeling like an impostor or wondering why some people seem to over-glorify formal credentials, here’s a bit of perspective to keep in mind. 

What’s an Amateur, Anyways??

Amateur (noun)

  1. A person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure
  2. A person who is inexperienced or unskilled in a particular activity

Let’s start with the definition and etymology of the word “amateur.”  Originally, it encompassed only definition number one (above).  This spelling and meaning was borrowed directly from French in the 18th century, and evolved from the old French “ameour,” which meant “one who loves, lover.”  That word had evolved from the Latin “amatorem,” which means “lover, friend.”  Note how there are no negative connotations to the original Latin or French – and in some languages, the modern equivalents of those words are still taken as a compliment.

Revolutionary Thinking

So when and why did those connotations start to change in western Europe?  The second definition came about around the turn of the 19th century, when it became synonymous with a “dabbler” or “dilettante,” which were both viewed disparagingly.  In music history, this time period corresponds with the Classical era (1750-1830) – so let’s take a look at what else was going on around that time. 

Timeline - Amateurism in Classical Music
The French Revolution

In the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799), there were a few key developments that had a major impact on the classical music scene.  First of all, this was a major upheaval of the social order.  Although the old nobility was gone, upper-class status during Napoleon’s reign (1799-1815) was still determined by wealth and property.  The new elite came from a combination of the old middle class and what remained of the previous upper class.  Many of these people had generational wealth, access to higher education, and vocations like bankers or doctors that required high levels of specialized training.  As a result, credentials from high-level educational institutions took on an increased importance as indicators of social status. 

The Paris Conservatory

Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, the Paris Conservatory was founded.  It evolved from a training program for military band musicians who played at propaganda events for the new Republic, and transitioned into a vocational school for musicians in 1795.  It was also tasked with making the musical scores and instruments seized from the old nobility accessible to the public – and marked the beginning of institutionalized classical music as we know it.  Conservatories became the places to be for musicians who wished to obtain professional certifications, and places for them to display their virtuosic achievements for the select audiences that controlled the musical societies of that era. 

The Industrial Revolution

To compound matters further, the Industrial Revolution (1750-1840) also happened pretty much simultaneously.  In previous eras, classical music was typically reserved for the upper class.  However, as technology in instrument making and music printing improved, musical instruments and sheet music became increasingly more accessible for people from lower classes.  And the influx of new musicians created a growing demand in music accessible to beginner- and intermediate-level players.  

The popularity of these publications actually helped preserve a significant quantity of music from this era, including music by women composers – so these amateurs were actually really important for our records of music history.  However, in light of the increasingly polarized distinction between amateur and conservatory-level music, this cohort of beginners only fed into the idea that “amateur” was synonymous with “unskilled.”  

It’s also important to take a look at where this “amateur” music was played – most people interacted with music in the privacy of their home – in salons or drawing rooms, in the company of family and/or friends.  The private sphere was considered to be the realm of women – leading to the 19th century stigma that amateur music was “a diversion for housewives.”

Painting of a warm, yellow-walled Victorian drawing room.  A woman accompanies three singing children on the piano, while three other family members relax around the room. A fireplace burns on the far side of the room, and a green and orange rug occupies the foreground of the painting.
A Victorian era family playing music in their drawing room.

Victorian Ideologies

Amateur Music: Not a Women’s Genre

The dominant narrative promoted by 19th century classical music institutions celebrated the achievements of professional male musicians not only at the expense of women, but also at the expense of male amateurs.  Men who wished to play music as a hobby were forced to downplay their activities once non-professional music-making became associated with domestic pursuits – which is one reason that our surviving records of amateur musicians are so skewed towards women.  On top of that, the partaking of men in female-coded activities was actually seen as worse than when women participated in “masculine” activities.  This might seem odd, since men generally had higher social status – but some modern sociological theories can help shine light on why that is.  

There’s a few different modes of analysis, such as Bem’s gender schema or status characteristics theory.  However, many scholars seem to think that when masculine-coded traits more heavily contribute to one’s social status, that results in goal-oriented social interactions with an increased pressure on men to publicly demonstrate their masculinity to preserve their status.  While those theories are generalizing, they’re also food for thought – and a good reminder that the world of classical music doesn’t actually exist in a vacuum segregated from the rest of society. 

Reality Check

How many professional auditions have you played that specifically requested a Mozart flute concerto?  These pieces are often upheld as the epitome of flute music in the Western classical style – but did you know they were commissioned by an amateur??  Mozart’s patron was Ferdinand de Jean – a surgeon employed by the Dutch East India company.  I’ve never read any history books that knock that guy for being an amateur – so this feels like a HUGE double standard. 

The Gentleman Amateur

The stigma against amateurs doesn’t actually hold up across all eras in Western history – prior to the 19th century, to be a “gentleman amateur” was considered a mark of distinction.  It’s important to note, however, that the social role of an amateur was very different at that time – after all, Frederick the Great was one of the most famous amateur flutists, and he was a king.  

Musical societies that incorporated amateurs included noblemen, government representatives, financiers, and people with generational wealth and higher education.  They tended to be grouped around salons or artistic circles that were still pretty elitist, even after they started opening up to a wider demographic during the Enlightenment.  These societies curated a certain aesthetic and taste in cultural arts, and they’re also responsible for many commissions and manuscripts that survive today. 

I’m making a point to highlight guys here because there’s a discrepancy in how we’re commonly taught about noblemen like Frederick the Great – their musical achievements are applauded while glossing over the fact that they were amateurs in order to preserve the popular narrative around professionalism.  Our modern perspective is actually the result of looking back on the 18th century through a 19th century lens, and comparing the perception of male virtuosos across eras provides a point of reference that illuminates the systemic bias in institutionalized music education. 

Parisian Redheads - All-Women Ensemble
The Parisian Redheads, a popular all-women ensemble from the 1920s.
Turn of the Century: Musical Clubs

Beginning around the 1890s, women started teaming up to form all-women ensembles and music clubs to create their own performance opportunities.  Their goal was to prove that women were just as capable as men at being performing musicians, despite being prevented from joining the ranks of professional bands and orchestras (which were exclusively male at the time).  The movement really took off after men were drafted for WWI, and women were finally allowed to apply for jobs they had been previously excluded from.  However, it wasn’t until after WWII that they were able to keep the orchestral chairs that they earned even after their counterparts returned home from war.  

Part of the reason that these ensembles were often dismissed is that the media characterized  them as “novelty acts” or “showgirls,” and critics would often focus more on their appearance than their musicianship.  However, it’s important to note that these groups DID succeed, and slowly but surely, women began to fill the ranks of major orchestras across North America and Europe.  This belief is outdated too – and women’s music clubs of the early 20th century actually disprove that stigma instead of reinforcing it. 

Connection > Achievement

So now that we’ve reframed stigmas around amateurism as an outdated social construct, how do we create a more supportive atmosphere for the amateur classical musicians of today?  First, think about the aspects of music-making that you find most fulfilling, and the type of music you enjoy – truly enjoy.

Are you playing certain repertoire because that’s what others have told you is the most socially acceptable in musical circles, or because you enjoy its aesthetic?  And do you feel motivated to learn pieces at a higher level in order to prove your worth, or as a form of self-improvement?

To me, music is a form of communication – so the best music is something that connects, whether through shared feelings, evoking memories, reminding people of stories, or encouraging them to let their imaginations wander.

While technical proficiency does help my performances, it’s also not necessary to be “perfect” – this may sound counterintuitive, but you don’t actually need to hit all the correct notes to capture the right feeling.  Consider alternate measures of success when you’re taking stock of your playing, and make sure to acknowledge the amount of effort put into preparing a piece and celebrate hard work & improvement. 

Lastly but most importantly, keep an open mind.  When you come across something that doesn’t line up with your point of view, be curious about why.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions about that difference, but make sure to do so in a way that’s respectful.  Music appreciation is subjective, not objective.  Just by listening to someone perform, you can’t tell how many hours they’ve put into practicing, how much they’ve struggled, or how much they’ve learned – we’re taught to mask those things & keep them locked away in a practice room.  Be generous, and be respectful of everyone’s personal journey. 

Opening the Doors

When people talk about how “classical music is dying,” I don’t read that as a judgment of the music itself, but as a reflection on how the elitism and exclusivity of our cultural institution has painted itself into a corner.  In order to keep people interested and keep classical music relevant, we need to let go and open those doors.  It can feel scary when it goes against what we were taught in school… but we can’t even begin to talk about being more inclusive of diversity if we’re not welcoming towards people who are already trying to be active participants in our musical world.  If you love playing a musical instrument, you’re a musician – and I truly mean that when I say it.  

This month’s post ended up being a bit longer than normal – so if you’ve read this far, thank you for sticking around. ♡  If you’ve got any attention span left and want to keep exploring the contributions of amateur flutists, check out the links below! 


Sheet Music

A performance of one of General John Reid’s flute sonatas by Ensemble Hesperi.
A 1929 performance of the Parisian Redheads (they later changed their name to the Parisian Bricktops, which is the name shown in the video title).  These women were not amateurs, but this was from a time period before it was common for women to be professional musicians. 
Further Reading

Coincidentally, I just started reading this book, and Dr. Bull expands a lot on the intersection of social class & classical musicianship that I’ve only touched on here.  If you’re interested in a socio-economic analysis of the world of classical music, this is an amazing resource!

PS – This article does not include links for affiliates or sponsors. I’m just passing on some resources that I’ve enjoyed & found informative, to help spread the word 🙂

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