Music and Polite Society

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, amateur music making was increasingly part of the repertoire of accomplishments through which politeness and taste could be displayed. The ability to play a musical instrument and sing, as well as dance and draw, was among the fashionable skills to be cultivated under the tutelage of music teachers, dancing masters, and artists. Music making was also a collaborative endeavor, bringing groups of people together to perform and to listen, and as such was thought to contribute to, and illustrate, social harmony. The visual arts of the period reflect these aspects of polite music making: the presence of musical instruments in solo and group portraits claimed polite accomplishment and family cohesion, while satirists were quick to point out the less-than-harmonious realities that might underlie such claims. 

For middle- and upper-class women, music making was a domestic accomplishment, one of many — like needlework and the ability to speak French — that signaled marriageability. The most popular instruments for women were the square piano and the guitar, each of which enjoyed a steadily expanding repertoire during the period. Guitar music generally consisted of solo arrangements of theater songs and dance tunes, although contemporary composers such as J.C. Bach, Felice Giardini, and Francesco Geminiani were writing duos and trios that included parts for the guitar. A dominant figure in the keyboard repertoire was Joseph Haydn, who visited England in the 1790s and whose popularity during the period was matched only by that of his pupil, the composer and music publisher Ignace Joseph Pleyel.