Public Displays - Part 1

If we were so inclined, we could divide music into two broad categories: public music and private music. Some genres have always been public (i.e. intended for performance before a large audience) like the opera and the symphony, where lots of people watch lots of performers.

PUBLIC - Modern Day Concert Hall

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And there are some genres that are better suited to an intimate gathering, like a piano sonata (piece for solo piano) or a string quartet, where a smaller number of people watch one or two performers.

PRIVATE - 19th Century 'Domestic Music Salon'

(Having said that, for at least a hundred years these ‘chamber’ style pieces have also been performed in big concert halls instead of private venues, mostly for the financial opportunity that it potentially presents.)

From a purely pragmatic point of view, with one pianist playing one piano, there is a limited quantity of sheer sound, whereas with a hundred musicians in an orchestra you can make a lot of noise. So, naturally, some music is more appropriate in one setting than the other. 

Now, along with these different genres, different musical characteristics tended to emerge, and they tended to explore different emotional spheres (in much the same way that you would speak differently to your family gathered around the dinner table compared to a large conference-room filled with business associates.) The public genres were larger than life and often more revered because originally only the aristocracy could afford them. The opera was beautiful and beguiling melodrama, like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, while the symphony was dramatic, bombastic, and exalting, like all of Beethoven’s symphonies. And then along came Schubert.

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 - 1821)


Schubert was the precocious young boy of a school headmaster. He began trying his hand at composing symphonies in his teens, lived a Bohemian lifestyle as a struggling composer in his 20s, and died all too young at the age of only 31. Schubert did not achieve fame during his own lifetime. Though he had a small band of devotees in his hometown of Vienna, he only became well-known decades after he died.

There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, Schubert was not a virtuoso on any instrument (unlike Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et al.) This meant he wasn’t able to publicize himself and his music through performances that dazzled crowds with prodigious technique. The second reason is that Schubert mainly composed Lieder (pronounced ‘LEE-da’; in English this is known as ‘art-song’. It is poetry set to music to be performed by one singer, accompanied by the piano.) Lieder is the very definition of private music, specifically intended for performance by only two musicians. It might have been a way that two friends quietly passed the time together on a weeknight, or it could have been part of a fun night out, with lots of booze and a bunch of people crammed into someone’s apartment – like a sing-a-long. (In fact, in certain circles these evenings became known as Schubertiades, and Romantic artists loved to paint scenes of these.)  


And just like today, songs made you famous. Songs were considered 

‘domestic’, i.e. for private use in the home. So even though they were less highly regarded than those grand orchestral works of the concert hall, every man and his dog had access to them and felt a sense of personal ownership over them - kind of like the relationship we develop with beloved TV characters.

To be continued in Parts 2 & 3… 

Kirsten Hicks