In This Article Virtuosity/Virtuoso

  • Introduction
  • Reference
  • Historical Overviews
  • Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches
  • Virtuosity in Ethnomusicological Literature on Non-Western Musics

Music Virtuosity/Virtuoso
by
David VanderHamm
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0236

Introduction

The terms virtuosity and virtuoso are both widely used in scholarly and popular literature to describe individual excellence and those musicians that possess it. The precise meaning of the terms varies widely, although they generally encompass extraordinary skill, technical ability, and an element of display. Studies that interrogate the phenomenon have come from diverse fields, including musicology, ethnomusicology, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and performance studies. This interdisciplinary appeal can be attributed to the breadth of issues central to the humanities and social sciences that virtuosity brings into play. In addition to aesthetic considerations of artistic expression, scholars have found virtuosity to be a fruitful site for approaching issues of embodiment, technology, power, economics, ethics, identity, and the relationships among these categories. Jankélévitch 1979 (cited under Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches) claims that virtuosity as a phenomenon is “as old as music,” but virtuoso and virtuosity as terms originated in Italy during the 16th century. In this context, the terms described the presence and display of cultivated skill and knowledge in a particular craft, art, or science. The terms directly mirrored two prevalent streams of thought during the Renaissance, where possessing virtù meant a propensity toward actions of conventional moral good as well as general efficacy or power (Wiener 1973, cited under Reference). The virtuoso aimed at admirable ends while also possessing the necessary power and acumen—mental or physical—to accomplish the desired outcome. Brossard 1703 (cited under Reference) offers a similar definition, noting that the title of virtuoso was by that time most often reserved for “excellent musicians” (translated in full in Le Guin 2006, cited under Instrumental Music before 1800). If virtuosity in this context claims to simply name the presence of remarkable skill in an individual, its usage since the 19th century has increasingly included (or at least implied) the audience experience of that skill as well. The presence of an audience shifts the legitimating context for virtuosity from the semi-private guild of expert practitioners or the noble court of connoisseurs to the public sphere of the marketplace, where virtuosity has been both widely celebrated and decried as an aesthetic debasement. Despite the importance of these terms, this entry presents scholarship that deals with issues of mastery, skill, and display in diverse genres and periods, including sources that directly invoke virtuosity and virtuoso, as well as those that deal with issues of skillful display using different vocabularies.

Reference

Virtuosity and virtuoso, as well as their cognates in German and French, are included in many musical dictionaries. One value of reference works for researching virtuosity lies in etymological background (Wiener 1973) and those works that trace the shifting connotations of the terms. Brossard 1703 is a historically important entry that notes the narrowing meaning of virtuoso to primarily refer to an excellent musician, and Reimer 1972 quotes historical dictionaries and writings from composers and musicians in describing the shifting usage of the term. Cooper 2013 defines the term while also offering a structural explanation of the causes that led to the rise of the virtuoso in the 19th century. Reynaud 2003 and Slonimsky 1997 define the abstract term, while offering selected lists of performers who historically defined virtuosity on their instrument.

  • Brossard, Sébastien de. “Virtu.” In Dictionaire de Musique: Contenant une explication des termes grecs, latins, italiens. By Sébastien de Brossard, 248–249. Paris: C. Ballard, 1703.

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    A historically important entry that is widely cited within the literature, as it marks the increased specificity of virtuoso to most often describe excellent musicians.

  • Cooper, John Michael. “Virtuoso (M.), Virtuosa (F.).” In Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music. By John Michael Cooper with Randy Kinnett, 665–666. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013.

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    Attributes the cult of virtuosity in the 19th century to the growth of the urban middle class, technological advancements in both travel and musical instruments, and the spread of Romantic values that celebrated the transcendent and the superhuman. Explains conflicts over virtuosity and offers a selected list of important virtuoso performers.

  • Heister, Hanns-Werner, and Peter Küpper. “Virtuosen.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik. Vol. 9. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1722–1732. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1998.

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    An extensive entry that situates the term conceptually and historically both within and outside of Europe. The most substantial overview of the concept in the reference literature. Available online by subscription.

  • Jander, Owen. “Virtuoso.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2017.

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    Offers a summary of the etymology of the term, its changing meanings, and its pejorative connotations.

  • Reimer, Erich. “Virtuose.” In Handwörterbuch der Musikalische Terminologie. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, 569–576. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1972.

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    An overview of the term’s usage that includes quotes from many historical reference works. Especially useful for its extensive quotations from composers and theorists writing about virtuosity from the 16th century forward.

  • Reynaud, C. “Virtuosité.” In Dictionnaire de la musique en France au XIXe siècle. Edited by Joël-Marie Fauquet, 1288–1289. Paris: Fayard, 2003.

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    One of a relative minority of resources to define the abstract term virtuosité rather than the individual title of virtuoso. Outlines issues of virtuosity as an object of discourse and performance during the 19th century.

  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Virtuosity.” In Baker’s Dictionary of Music. Edited by Richard Kassel, 1104–1105. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

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    Written for a general audience, this resource defines virtuosity as belonging to the sphere of the performer, although it locates the origins in “the loss of religious restrictions on compositional excess and the new monodic textures” of early Baroque composition.

  • Wiener, Philip P. “Virtú in and since the Renaissance.” In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Vol. 4. By Philip P. Wiener, 476–486. New York: Scribner, 1973.

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    Provides a useful background to the etymological and conceptual roots of virtuosity, pointing to the dual meaning of the term to denote both moral excellence and effective power.

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