Classical Salon Music – Where the Party’s At

A brief intro to women’s music salons in early 19th century Paris

A black and white engraving depicting Pauline Viardot playing her organ for an audience of women, men, and children in her Paris salon, around 1853.
Pauline Viardot performing in her Paris salon, ca. 1853.

Most of the Classical era performances I remember learning about for music history highlighted touring musicians visiting foreign courts or giving shows on public stages, like the rock stars of their day & age.  However, until the 1850s, most of the average person’s interactions with music happened in more intimate venues, like in their homes or at church. 

I have so much more appreciation for these smaller, more casual performances after a few years of at-home recordings, streaming concerts from my living room, and thinking outside the box for new performance spaces.  And while it felt great to get back on stage this month, it’s also reassuring to know that formal concerts aren’t the only effective way to share music – and that there are other models in our history that promote a more intimate kind of sharing, collaboration, and sense of community.

Salons and Salonnières

Publicly, women’s roles in the musical community were extremely limited around the turn of the 19th century.  While musical skills were generally considered attractive in a wife, women were not allowed to publish their compositions or pursue careers as performing musicians.  For example, W.A. Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl, was also a piano prodigy – but although she also gave concerts during their family’s grand tour of Europe, she stopped performing after she turned 18 and only composed music until she married.  These outdated gender roles and beliefs are part of the reason that women’s music isn’t talked about as much and hasn’t been preserved as well as contributions by their male counterparts – but that doesn’t mean 18th and 19th century women just tapped out and gave up music to become housewives.

If you’re a woman in a male-dominated field, it’s easy to feel discouraged. But you’re in good company – there’s actually a long history of female entrepreneurs in classical music.

To make the most of their situation, women who had the means hosted music salons – a tradition that grew out of intellectual salons in Paris during the Enlightenment. Since the costs of throwing monthly parties could be quite expensive, salons were usually hosted in the homes of the Bourgeois.  Although they were associated with the elite classes & typically invitation-only, the rising middle class meant that salons were no longer exclusive to nobility and many hostesses, or salonnières, welcomed the mingling of people from different demographics. 

These functions were centers of cultural and intellectual exchange, and sometimes political debates, as attendees shared news and ideas – but in this arena, the hostess was in control of the discussions.  The topics, themes, and guests of each salon depended on the interests and connections of the salonnière.  In addition to featuring poets, artists, and musicians, hosting these gatherings also allowed women with musical talents the opportunity to promote their own  works and follow their ambitions in a way not permitted in public spheres. 

Salon Music

Marianna Martines, Sonata in E Major – HerClassical

If women actually composed quite a bit of music in the Classical era, then why don’t we hear much about their works as flutists?  The short answer is, salonnières didn’t often write for our instrument.

At the time, women were only typically allowed to play keyboard instruments, harp, or sing – instruments that didn’t make their faces look “ugly” while they played (I wish I was joking, but that really was a thing).  As a result, they tended to compose music for instruments they were more familiar with and works that they (and other women) could perform.  Consequently, music featured at salons was predominantly piano music in forms like fantaisies, miniatures, lyric pieces, opera themes, and character pieces.  By the 1830s, “salon music” had become synonymous with its own genre of Romantic era piano music that grew in popularity as salons became a huge influence in 19th century European culture. 

Unlike the increasing tendency in conservatories to program a core repertoire of older music, salons featured up & coming contemporary musicians and the latest trends in compositions.  However, in addition to commissioning and composing new music, salonnières also promoted pieces that were popular in other venues frequented by the upper class, such as works by Mozart and Beethoven.  In fact, Mozart owes part of his fame to connections he made through Countess Wilhelmine von Thun in Vienna, and both Mozart and Handel were regular guests at the salon of Marianna Martines.  Later in the century, Chopin and Liszt both performed actively in salons and composed music for those venues. 

Accompanied Sonatas

Jane Mary Guest, Sonata No. 2 – Maria Gabriela Alvarado

But over the past couple months I’ve learned about several works in this form by prominent male composers of the time, including C.P.E. Bach and François Devienne.  So what was this style of music really about and why had I never heard of it?  

These sonatas commonly featured keyboard instruments accompanied by violin or flute, but could also be written for the harp.  While the accompaniment adds a unique bit of color, it was sometimes ad-libbed or considered to be optional.  Publications of these works first appeared in the 1740s, and they became a major publishing category thanks to their popularity at salons in Paris and London.  An increased demand for music accessible to amateurs and the rising middle class added to their popularity; however, these associations also made some traditional composers resistant to this genre.  It was an experimental form that grew out of the transition between the Baroque and Classical eras, and some composers considered it to be too trendy. 

“I have finally had to do what was fashionable and compose sonatas for the clavier that one can play alone without missing something, and also that are accompanied only by a violin and a violoncello, and are easy.”

C.P.E Bach in a letter to Johann Nikolaus Forkel – 20 September, 1775

These days, accompanied sonatas seem to be considered a precursor to piano trios and quartets, with the accompaniment as a written-out right hand figure that’s played on another instrument. The keyboard player is the featured soloist, so it’s not typically seen as a wind instrument genre.  However, these sonatas would make lovely pieces for chamber concerts and also great practice for intermediate players, as an introduction to Classical era styles and a great exercise in ensemble playing. 

At one of my last juries in college, I accompanied a vocalist friend on “Infant Joy,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams (it’s not an accompanied sonata, but wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a salon).  This piece was outside of the typical repertoire performed by members of either of our studios, and a few of our adjudicators looked a bit skeptical when we handed them our jury sheets.  However, learning this piece together was an awesome experience – the flute is the closest instrument to the human voice, and I love playing harmony lines and colorful tonalities that we don’t usually see as melody instruments.

The first page of Ralph Vaughan Williams' song "Infant Joy" on top of a black music folder, with a flute lying diagonally across the bottom of the page.

So why don’t we perform pieces like this more often?  And by extension, when did people in the Classical era play accompanied sonatas if women were not allowed to play the flute in public and gender roles typically separated men and women into different spheres?  Salons were one of the spaces where both women and men were allowed to mingle, though there were social restrictions on the types of activities that they could participate in together.  Playing music was one of those structured activities.  These sonatas could be performed by a woman on piano or harpsichord accompanied by her brother, husband, another male relative, or possibly a potential suitor.  However, this isn’t the 1800s anymore – we can totally flip the script, and I think our predecessors would approve.  

Innovation and Imagination

The Classical era saw the rise of the virtuoso soloist – but just like today, only a tiny percentage of people in the music community were able to make names for themselves performing and touring for a living.  It always surprises me to find out just how much things in this industry have stayed the same since the 1800s… but I think that’s even more reason to talk about other ways to be a classical musician.  

If we think things were ever only one way in the past, it limits our creativity and the possibilities we can imagine for the future.  Hearing another side of the story can be liberating and validating – I know it has been for me.  Music salons were places where women rallied, persisted, and showed off their talents the best they could given the resources they were allowed. Their homes were places of innovation, imagination, and entrepreneurship.  And these women’s perseverance helped pave the way for female composers and musicians in all the centuries that have followed. 


Selected Accompanied Sonatas

Want to try your hand at accompanying a friend?  Here’s a short list of accompanied sonatas from the Classical era to help you get started! 

Virtuosa Flute Solos

There’s so much more to the world of women’s music history than many of our textbooks and anthologies of Western classical music might suggest.  To explore the world of flute music by women composers, check out my database of over 160 flute solos by women composers!  

This list includes music from both historical and modern composers, so whether you’re looking for a substitute for CPE Bach’s sonatas or are curious about extended technique, I’ve got you covered.  Click the button below to check it out!

Notable Salonnières

If you’d like to learn about more badass salonnières, here’s a brief list of hostesses, musicians, and composers from the Classical and Romantic eras!