Nineteenth-Century Classical Music

  • Violin: The Antonius
  • Cor solo
  • Nicolo Paganini
  • Cornet à pistons in B-flat
  • Guitar
  • Grand piano
  • Square piano
  • Grand piano
  • The Music Lesson
  • Bassoon
  • Idle Hours
  • Pedal harp
  • Two Young Girls at the Piano


The nineteenth century brought great upheaval to Western societies. Democratic ideals and the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe and changed the daily lives of citizens at all levels. Struggles between the old world order and the new were the root causes of conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the American Civil War. From New York, to London, to Vienna, the world was changing and the consequences can still be felt to this day.

The lives of musicians, composers, and makers of musical instruments were greatly altered by these social changes. In earlier times, musicians were usually employed by either the church or the court and were merely servants to aristocratic circles. Composers wrote music for performances in these venues, and musical instrument makers produced instruments to be played by wealthy patrons or their servant musicians. With the rise of the middle class, more people wanted access to music performances and music education.

A new artistic aesthetic, Romanticism, replaced the ideals of order, symmetry, and form espoused by the classicists of the late eighteenth century. Romantics valued the natural world, idealized the life of the common man, rebelled against social conventions, and stressed the importance of the emotional in art. In music, Romanticism, along with new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer, produced two seemingly opposite venues as the primary places for musical activity—the large theater and the parlor.

Music as Public Spectacle
One result of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of a middle class. This new economic strata consisted of a larger number of people with more expendable income and more leisure time than had ever existed before. Musical extravaganzas that triumphed the musician or composer gained popularity with the masses of concertgoers. Beginning with Beethoven, composers began to arrange large concerts in order to introduce their works to the public. As audiences desired more, composers wrote larger musical works and demanded more of performers and their instruments.

The “bigger is better” mentality led to new musical forms such as the tone poem and large-scale symphonic and operatic works. Orchestras grew, including larger string sections with a full complement of woodwinds, brass, and ever more percussion instruments. New types of orchestral winds (2003.150a-g) and brass (2002.190a-n) that allowed for greater facility and more accurate playing were introduced. Composers such as Hector Berlioz, and later Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, continually pushed the limits of the available musical forms, performers, instruments, and performance spaces throughout the nineteenth century.

Musicians who could dazzle and amaze their audiences by their virtuosity became the first musical superstars. The two most famous nineteenth-century examples were the violinist Nicolò Paganini (1782–1840) and the pianist Franz Liszt (1811–1886). Both dazzled audiences throughout Europe with their performances, elevating the status of the musician from servant to demi-god. Their fame grew throughout Europe and their likenesses would be recorded in a variety of visual arts.

In order to withstand the virtuosic and often bombastic playing of these soloists, as well as to provide the type of volume needed in large concert venues, more powerful instruments were needed. Larger and louder violins like those by Antonio Stradivari or Guarneri del Gesù (1698–1744)—preferred by Paganini—replaced the quieter and subtler violins of earlier masters like Jacob Stainer or the Amati family. The demands of pianists like Franz Liszt pressed the technology and design of pianos to ever-larger instruments, eventually replacing the internal wooden structures of the eighteenth century with cast iron frames that could withstand thousands of pounds of pressure.

Parlor Music
Conversely, music gained popularity in the intimate nineteenth-century parlor. At the time, home life was centered in the salon, or parlor, where children played and learned with adult supervision, and where the family entertained company. Musical performances for small groups of people became popular events, and some composers/performers were able to support themselves financially by performing in these small venues and attracting wealthy patrons. Most famous among these was Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849).

Music in the parlor was of a very different sort than in the concert hall. Solo performances and chamber music were popular, and included everything from operatic and orchestral transcriptions to sentimental love songs and ballads. In the United States, hymns and folk songs by composers like Stephen Foster (1826–1864) supplemented the European repertoire.

With the rise of the parlor as the center of family life, music education became increasingly important. Children were often taught to play musical instruments as part of a well-rounded education; for girls, playing an instrument was more important than learning to read. When guests and potential suitors visited, the children and teenagers would entertain with performances of the latest popular works.

All sorts of musical instruments were used in the home, and at various times the guitar, harp (2001.171), concertina, and banjo were extremely popular. However, the most important musical instrument in the home was the piano, because it was useful as both a solo instrument and as accompaniment to a group of singers or instrumentalists. To accommodate home use, smaller pianos were created, first square pianos and later uprights. Small pianos took up less space and, although they were not as powerful as larger types, they were also less expensive. With the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, the mass manufacturing of musical instruments—especially pianos—provided a seemingly endless supply of musical instruments for the huge markets of both the United States and Europe. The piano would remain a central component of domestic life until it was replaced by the phonograph, radio, and television in the twentieth century.

Jayson Kerr Dobney
Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2004


Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Nineteenth-Century Classical Music.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

Further Reading

Samson, Jim, ed. The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.