The Parisian Music Salons

The name of this blog is the salon music, but what does it actually refer to? And why did I chose to name my blog as a music salon?

To begin with, salons started appearing during the Enlightenment in the 18th century. It was a place where women dominated. Women served not only as hostesses but also leaded the topics of conversations. The Parisian salons of the 18th century, allowed women to be involved socially, intellectually, to be heard and to play a vital role in the French society. These gatherings took place in the private homes of bourgeois women which were opened to the public allowing common people to network with the aristocracy, with the nobility of the salons. These social gatherings engaged various activities and subjects such as politics, literature, science, art, philosophy. Some of the salons though had only specific themes for discussion.

The aesthetic experience was an important aspect in the salonierres. Poetry and literature, music and art dominated the gatherings without requiring the audience to be experts in the topics. For instance, the salonierre by Madame Germaine de Staël (continuing after her mother Suzanne Curchod) was one of the biggest salons where artists, writers and critics would discuss literature, politics as well as perform music and read poems.

Moving to the 19th century salon, the idea of the salon developed and it was not only limited to the French aristocratic gatherings by the French women for the social, intellectual and political conversations. It was a closed meeting of a circle of people away from the masses, which were held in specific rooms where people would meet. In general, the word salon refers to a small room in the house. In the 19th century salons may referred to gatherings, ie the salon music, the salon culture, the salon atmosphere, or even the Salon Pleyel (one of the smallest concert houses in Paris for public performances).

The music salon was a small gathering of specific people, of elite people. As a room, it was a separated room in a house for the reception of visitors. During the 19th century, composers, musicians and people from the aristocracy would meet in salons and listen to music. The music that was performed was usually short pianistic, romantic music. Eventually, from 1830, the notion of the salon music being of a specific genre, especially for solo keyboard of virtuosic level that lies within the romantic style of displaying emotional character emerged. Afterwards, music became the means of the salons. The youngest lady of the house would perform in order to show her skills to their guests.

Frederic Chopin was the master of the salon music. From his teenager years he preferred to play to small crowds instead to large open spaces. Therefore, the salons were ideal for Chopin. In fact he only gave 30 public concerts. Chopin never wrote any programmatic music, he has never written any music with a specific narrative. So basically his music is absolute music. Absolute music may not have a programme but some genres have an implied political meaning; such mazurkas and polonaises. Because of that many scholars oppose to the connection of Chopin with Salon music claiming that his genius was not limited only in salons.[1] Nonetheless, whether his ‘genius’ was limited to the salons, and whether that is true or not is another subject. The only thing for sure is that Chopin was indeed part of the Salon Tradition of the 19th century. This is also proved when Liszt wrote that

“the most eminent minds in Paris frequently met in Chopin’s saloon. Not in reunions of fantastic periodicity, such as the dull imaginations of ceremonious and tiresome circles have arranged, and which they have never succeeded in realizing in accordance with their wishes, for enjoyment, ease, enthusiasm, animation, never come at an hour fixed upon before hand”.[2] 

Wilhelm von Lenz calls Chopin as the only political pianist since he represented Poland, the land of his dreams, at the Parisian salons. Chopin’s polonaises, as Liszt writes, “portray bravery and valor…of his warlike nation” and his mazurkas reflect the folk Polish dance.[3] Lenz also holds that the mazurkas are the diary of Chopin’s soul journey through the socio-political areas of his Sarmatian dream world.[4]

The salon at Hôtel Lambert by the Czartoryski family became a central political place “for the expatriate Polish nobility and artistic community” where Polish politicians, artists, aristocrats and exiles were gathered together.[5] Chopin frequently performed at the salon and even dedicated some of his compositions to its members; such as Mazurkas Op.30 to Princess Wurtemberg and Princess Czartoryska. Nonetheless, he only engaged political through his music and not directly in political or social activities.

Teofil Kwiatkowski – a Polish painter at the salon – painted Chopin’s Polonaise Ball at the Hôtel Lambert in Paris portraying the annual ball at the salon with Chopin at the piano. This shows how the Polish society in Paris gathered together, dancing a polonaise by Chopin which for the Polish nobility at the salon has an implied Polish political meaning.

Polonez Chopina czyli Bal w Hôtel Lambert w Paryżu.jpg

Polonez Chopina czyli Bal w Hôtel Lambert w Paryżu  by Teofil Kwiatkowski

Furthermore, Berlioz wrote in Le Rénovateur on the 15th of December 1833 – translated by Eigeldinger – that in order to appreciate Chopin fully one has to listen to him perform in the salon instead in the concert hall “with all preconceived notions put aside”.[6] Berlioz may be right saying that there are preconceived notions in a concert hall, however regarding the particular salon there is already a Polish political notion and by performing Polish dances one cannot but link a Polish meaning to the music.

In spite of that, Chopin has also performed in Parisian salons and his programme did not only include Polish dances. From reviews and letters it is observed that the audience did not perceive a specific meaning in the music, but admired the skills of Chopin as a composer and as a performer. On the 25th of February 1832 Chopin played at the salon of MM. Pleyel et Cie. Fétis in his review wrote that Chopin’s concerto (Op.11) gave as much astonishment as pleasure to the audience as well as that there was soul in his melodies, fantasy in the passages and overall originality.[7] He also added that the young artist deserved praise as a performer since his playing is elegant, soft, graceful and has brilliance and clearness.[8] 

In salons free of politic notions, the audience admires the music and the performer and overall perceives the beauty of music. For instance, when Charles Hallé heard Chopin for the first time he quoted that “it was perfection in every sense”, that he could not even describe the “marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing”.[9] Then in 1836 after listening to Chopin he wrote to his parents that Chopin “is no man, he is an angel, a god”. And then described an image of how he perceived Chopin’s music, which is “elves and fairy dances” and that Chopin’s composition seemed “to descend from heaven-so pure, and clear, and spiritual”.[10] Hallé’s description shows his experience of the music salons free of any political notions. So, even if there was a political and social aspect in the gathering, Hallé enjoyed the aesthetic aspect. So this shows that music dominated the gatherings.

When mazurkas and polonaises were performed in a Parisian salon the audience may acknowledged that there was a political meaning, however the audience would not perceive the music in the same way the Polish audience of Hôtel Lambert would. Overall, the audience of Parisian salons appreciated, enjoyed the music and perceived it through their imagination like Hallé who imagined elves and fairy dances.

There is a myth that Chopin during his early years, 1828-1829, performed at the Salon of the Duke Antoni Radziwiłł. Henryk Siemiradzki’s painted around 1887 iconographic representations of the fact which shows Chopin at the piano and the Duke himself. Yet, there are not enough information to prove the Duke was actually presented. Thus the paintings may be a false interpretation of the fact.

Koncert Fryderyka Chopina w salonie księcia Antoniego Radziwiłła w 1829 r. [A concert given by Fryderyk Chopin in the salon of Duke Antoni Radziwiłł in 1829] by Henryk Siemiradzki.

Henryk Siemiradzki painting

Guest-Hall of Anton Radziville in Berlin

The following painting is by a living artist Władysław Kolbusz and it was firstly presented at the 60th International Chopin Piano Festival. The painting shows Chopin at the piano, performing in the Dworek Chopina, located in Duszniki Zdroj in Poland.

Władysław Kolbusz

Even though there were many composers associated with the salons, Chopin was the master of the salons. Other performers/composers include Sigismond Thalberg, Carl Maria von Weber, Franz Liszt. The following painting shows Franz Liszt at the piano. It was painted in 1840 by Josef Danhauser and it was commissioned by Conrad Graf (the piano instrument maker).

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The particular painting represents a Romantic music salon gathered by notable artists of the romantic era. Franz Liszt, who is playing the piano, is surrounded by six friends. In the painting there are six notable romantic artists (3 novelists and 3 musicians). From the left of the painting Alexandre Dumas, writer of The Three Musketeers, sits on the first chair. Next to him, dressed as a man and smoking a cigar is George Sand, Chopin’s lover. Behind her Victor Hugo, the writer of the famous Les Misérables, leans on the back the chair. On the left of Liszt there is the violinist Nicoló Paganini and Gioachino Rossini, the opera composer, and the third musician is of course Franz Liszt. The lady sitting on the front of the piano on the right of Liszt is his Mistress Comtesse Marie d’Agoult (later Riuchard Wagner’s wife).

Additionally, if you look closely the leading romantic figure Lord Byron is depicted on the painting at the back. As well as Beethoven as a bust on the right hand side. On the left side there is also a small statue of Joan of Arc. Unfortunately the photos are not clear enough, and since I have not personally seen the painting in its live form, I cannot comment on the music scores found. Nonetheless, according to Phil Norfleet the scores on the piano are a Fantasia by Liszt and the Marcia funebre – Sulla morte d’un Eroe by Beethoven. Regarding the scores on the floor, one of them includes an inscription  dédié a son élève Liszt – C. Czerny.

Overall, the painting represents intensely a romantic salon with music being superior to the other arts since the main figure of the painting is an active musician. This blog is indeed named after the Music Salon gatherings of the 19th century since it is also a 19th century music blog, a music blog ‘salon’ for a romantic aesthetic ‘experience’.


[1]  Wilhelm von Lenz, Die Grossen Pianoforte-Virtuosen unserer Zeit aus persönlicher Bekanntschaft. Liszt – Chopin – Tausig – Henselt, (Berlin: B. Behr Buchhandlung, 1872).

[2] Franz, Liszt, Life of Chopin. Translated by Martha Walker Cook, (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., [1863]), 89.

[3] Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, trans. by Edward N. Waters, (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963, 43.)

[4] Wilhelm von  Lenz, Die Grossen Pianoforte-Virtuosen unserer Zeit aus persönlicher Bekanntschaft. Liszt – Chopin – Tausig – Henselt, (Berlin: B. Behr Buchhandlung, 1872, 86.)

[5] Eigeldinger Jean-Jacques, Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, Translated by Naomi Shohet, Kyrisia Osostowicz and Roy Howat, edited by Roy Howat, (Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 163.)

[6]  Ibid, 272.

[7] François-Joseph Fétis, Revue Musicale Tome XII.-VI Année 1832, (Paris: De l’agence générale de la musique, 1832), 38-39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Charles Hallé, Life and Letters of Sir Charles Hallé, edited by C. E. Hallé and Marie Hallé, (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1896), 31-32.

[10] Ibid, 224-225.



2 thoughts on “The Parisian Music Salons

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  1. Thank you Sevastiana. I stumbled upon this -> Wie einst in schöner’n Tagen – Salonmusik der Belle Epoque which led my curiosity and searching to find your blog

    Liked by 1 person

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