Salon music consisted of pleasing, tuneful classical and light classical works, selections from operas and musical shows, international airs, and a scattering of popular and dance melodies played by small groups of formally trained musicians. From the last quarter of the 19th century through the depression of the 1930s it was often heard in elegant hotels, restaurants, and drawing rooms, where it usually functioned as background music, although exclusive concert teas and polite soirees featuring ensembles of up to eight or ten players were not uncommon. Stylistically it can be characterized as continental ( of European origin ) , light, fashionable, superficially brilliant, and rhythmically subtle.
A pianist and one or more violinists might constitute a typical group, perhaps with the addition of a cellist. It might be a string trio, quartet, or quintet, with a flute and clarinet. Combinations specializing in the national and regional repertoire of their homeland could also contain a harp, a guitar, cymbalon, an accordion, or a balalaika .Salon musicians sometimes performed from memory, and occasionally faked – aurally approximated compositions of only marginal familiarity – or partially improvised their music. The presence of a greater number of players necessitated their using home-made or printed music, which eventually came to include the stock orchestrations of theatre and popular music issued by American publishers. Those who played for dancing were first employed by wealthy families of the 1880s seeking to cultivate European manners and fashions, but soon began to infiltrate more common dance bands. By the 1910s, when a dance capability became a must for most salon ensembles, their delicate grace, decorativeness, and resilient swing had greatly leavened the country’s dance music.
Early recordings of salon music, notably Labitzky’s The Herd Girl’s Dream of 1907 by Stehl, Lufsky, and Serth, and the light pieces of Fritz Kreisler, became substantial hits, as did similar sides by the Neapolitan, Taylor, and Venetian trios, and violinists Charles D’Almaine, Jascha Heifetz, and Mischa Elman. Early recording orchestras were little more than inflated salon ensembles, and partook of some their feeling, textures, and interplay. Early broadcasting featured many local groups, at least one of which, the A & P Gypsies, achieved national fame.
From 1924 the Victor Salon Orchestra, brainchild of that company’s musical director Nathaniel Shilkret, brought the lightness, beauty, grace, and vivacity of the style to the popular hits of the day in a series of creative recordings continued through the next decade by his successors. Other labels followed suit with more traditional salon fare by Louis Katzman ( Brunswick ) , Adrian Schubert ( Banner ) , Vincent Sorey, Vladimir Selinsky, Al Goodman ( Columbia ) , and European leaders such as Marek Weber ( RCA, then Columbia ) . After the conclusion of the long-running A & P Gypsies radio show Decca engaged arranger–conductor Harry Horlick as a salon artist, and from 1938 to 1943 he crafted almost twenty musically sturdy, somewhat careful, albums, a number devoted to popular and theatre music, for that company. Many additional hours of salon programming were available from transcription services.
The later recordings and transcriptions reveal a basic, unidimensional approach that seems to have lost its original liveliness and flair. Simply arranged, tasteful, and uneventful, often marketed as popular dance music, we may think of them as "easy listening", which is perhaps how they were intended. As this they were soon superseded by the increasingly smooth, lush and thrilling ballad sounds beginning to emanate from the big dance bands, the warmer, hip, dance–oriented mood music of Paul Weston, the polite institutional efficiencies of wired radio, and the more interesting and colorful orchestral popular styles that were finally finding their way on to wax and vinyl.
The mid-century successes of English maestros Mantovani and George Melachrino were strongly rooted in the salon mode of expression, as were many 50s LPs of Franck Pourcel and, later, Ron Goodwin. The 1970s saw a rekindling of interest in the original idiom that blossomed into a full-scale salon revival before the end of the century, flowering in concerts, recordings, and original compositions, and bringing a new respect for the music.
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