The ABCs of Salon Music

There are several musical terms used in salon music that we don’t necessarily learn in standard music courses – especially as flutists, since many forms of salon compositions have become almost exclusively associated with piano repertoire in modern times.  

However, digging into 19th century flute music by women composers can feel intimidating if we’re faced with terminology we don’t know – even if the pieces themselves, by contrast, seem short, sweet, and relatively simple.  

Scrabble tiles are scattered on a pink background.  In the middle, white words on a turquoise label read, "The ABC's of Salon Music."

Glossary of Salon Music Forms

These are all from the 19th century and short, single-movement forms primarily composed for solo piano, unless otherwise noted. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a brief run-down of the most common forms that we see among flute solos and transcriptions.   These forms were not unique to women’s compositions and performance venues, although they could often be heard in salons.  

Three women play a recital in a 19th century European salon.  In the center, a woman in a light green floral dress plays harpsichord, while a woman to the right in a red and yellow dress sings, facing her.  Behind them, a woman with red hair and a green dress plays the guitar. To the left, a man in a dark coat and tricorn hat accompanies them on cello, and another man in a black coat turns pages for the harpsichord player.
Jean Carolus (1814-1897), “The Recital”

Air – An English or French song, originally for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment. Although airs from previous centuries have their roots in folk music, by the Romantic era, they could also be operatic arias.  These pieces can be stand-alone works setting rhymed poetry or a movement from a larger composition, and often take on a strophic, ABA, or ABAB form.  

Ballade – These songlike, single-movement works evolved in the 18th century from a form of narrative poetry.  Musical ballades are typically lyrical narrative compositions, like their literary counterparts, and are commonly composed for piano and voice or solo instrument with piano or orchestral accompaniment.  In French music, they are normally in three stanzas with the form aabC, followed by a refrain.

Berceuse – This French term translates to “lullaby” in English.  These 19th century compositions are reminiscent of their namesake, with rocking rhythms in 6/8 time (such as a static, repetitive pattern) and soothing refrains.  They also tend to have relatively simple harmonies with minimal, if any, chromaticism.  Berceuses were commonly written for voice or solo instrument.  

Cassation – This is technically an 18th century form, but you occasionally see it in 19th century programming because it’s related to the serenade and divertimento, which remained popular.  Similar to suites, they were loosely-assembled sets of short pieces; however, cassations were originally intended for outdoor performances by chamber ensembles or orchestras.  

An audience of Parisians in the 1860s sit outside in a tree-lined lawn, crowded so tightly that you can barely see the grass. Many people stand, including men with black, long-tailed coats and top hats. A couple women with yellow dresses and blue bonnets sit in the front, with two young girls in white dresses.
Édouard Manet, “Music in the Tuileries,” 1862.
Parisians attending an outdoor performance at a weekly concert series in the Tuileries gardens.

Cortège – A slow, solemn, and stately piece that’s often in a minor key and duple or quadruple meter.  The term translates to “procession,” and these pieces were often used as funeral marches.  However, cortèges can also be used to honor notable individuals, and as a result, occasionally take on a more celebratory tone.

Divertimento – We see divertimenti more often in wind quartets and quintets than in flute solos – they’re related to cassations and serenades.  The term translates to “diversion” or “amusement,” and is a form of light music that originated in the 18th century.  These multi-movement works for winds and strings were one of the forms that evolved into the modern string quartet.  While they sometimes appear in ballet and opera music, divertimenti can also be dance suites unconnected to a narrative story.  

Eclogue – This was originally a short form of classical poetry depicting a pastoral subject – and likewise, the musical equivalent depicts a pastoral scene that romanticizes rural life.  It can also be called an idyllEclogues are light, lyrical compositions whose subjects often include shepherds, springtime, and love.  

Étude – While we often think of these studies as short exercises used to practice targeted skills or techniques, some Romantic era collections have études that can be performed in a similar style as character pieces.  These concert études tend to have creative titles that evoke images or describe a scene.  (Writing multi-purpose pieces was likely a strategic money-making move for 19th-century composers, as it helped them sell more copies of their publications).  As a result, études occasionally appear in 19th century salon programs.  

Fantasia – These compositions were improvisational, imaginative, and inventive, like the impromptu.  Although fantasias are not characterized by a strict form, they are usually self-contained works of instrumental music for an unaccompanied soloist.  Some Romantic era compositions were inspired by the earlier contrapuntal fantasias of the Baroque era.  

Humoresque – These pieces were inspired by a genre of literary sketches that portrayed the fragility and contradictory nature of the human condition, and first became associated with classical music in the works of Clara Schumann.  In the hands of the Schumanns, the humoresque became a multi-movement suite of short, contrasting sections for piano solo or chamber ensemble.  From there, they evolved into short tunes reminiscent of a scherzo, with a charming, fanciful style and frequent repetitions of a short melody. 

Black and white cover of a collection of piano solos by Clara and Robert Schumann titled "Breitkopf & Hartel's Klavier Bibliotek." An ornamented leafy border surrounds a list of the contents in the middle of the page.
Clara Schumann’s Op. 10 was one of the first Romantic era humoresques.

Idyll – In the Baroque era, an idyll was a short pastoral poem set to music that took its name from a style of short, simple Greek poems about natural objects.  As we move into the Romantic era, these compositions are characterized by a tranquil mood reminiscent of that poetry, and evoke rustic, pastoral images of rural life.  This compositional form is also related to the divertimento and eclogue.  

Impromptu – A short composition meant to sound improvised.  As a result, there is also no set form – though ternary and rondo forms are not uncommon.  This form is also related to the  fantasie, caprice, and bagatelle.

Miniature – These pieces can feel like fragments of thought.  They’re often 30 seconds – 2 minutes long and express a single idea, like a feeling, emotion, rhythm, or sonority.  Miniatures don’t have an overarching narrative, and aren’t long enough to have a development section – but some composers use them as an exploration of small musical details.  Miniatures are often grouped into collections or suites, especially for use as recital pieces.  

Nocturne – A short character piece that was inspired by or evokes images (or feelings) of a night scene.  Nocturnes often have a romantic, dream-like, or contemplative mood, and include embellished melodies and sonorous accompaniments.

An etching of a shepherd girl and boy sitting below two trees, with two sheep and farm buildings in the background.  The girl wears a long dress, slippers, and bonnet, and holds a flute in playing position. The boy, with breeches, a long coat, and his hair tied back, reaches over to correct her hand position.
Claude Augustin Duflos, “La bergère avec sa flûte,” ca. 1768

Pastorale – A vocal or instrumental piece with a pastoral theme that reflects its subject either in form (like an adaptation of a pastoral poem or folk song) or in mood.  The pastorale originated in the Baroque era as a melody in thirds over a ground bass in 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8 time, and is related to the tarantella.  

Romance – A short, lyrical piece for voice or solo instrument with accompaniment, or a small chamber ensemble.  Romances originated as narrative ballads from 18th century Spain, and are characterized by a tender and sentimental quality, rather than any particular form or meter. 

Serenade – This was originally a type of courtship song associated with nighttime.  However, by the late 18th century, it lost the association with courtship and evolved into a multi-movement composition for small orchestra.  Serenades are light and dance-like or march-like, and are related to the divertimento, cassation,and nocturne.  They were typically played at outdoor evening concerts and special occasions, like weddings.  When performed in music salons, serenades  were often arranged for solo piano, another instrument with piano accompaniment, or chamber ensemble to better suit the smaller, indoor space.  

Art deco cover for Cecile Chaminade's flute piece, "Serenade aux Etoiles." A tall bush of small white flowers grows out of a rocky riverbank, with a blue night sky in the background.
Cécile Chaminade’s 1911 flute solo, Sérénade aux étoiles, with cover art by Georges Auriol.

Suite – A set of short instrumental or orchestral pieces that are performed consecutively and connected by themes or tonalities.  Although the suite originated in dance music, Romantic era musicians also used them to collect character pieces or other chamber works into longer, multi-movement compositions for performances. 

Villanelle –  This was originally the term for a 19-line poem on a pastoral theme.  Similarly In classical music, it indicates a programmatic work depicting a pastoral scene, like a harvest festival or a romanticization of daily life in the country.  It is often a musical setting of a poem in villanelle form. 


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