We hear of composers as the greats of the keyboard, but I imagine there were also a lot of people who had the time and money to learn to play in their own homes. Probably not a huge number, but I suspect there were some, right? That being the case, I can also imagine that, in order to undertake such a hobby at the time you must have wanted to put in a lot of effort. Would the average amateur of the classical era be considered an accomplished pianist of today, or were there a lot of mediocre players playing the contemporary equivalent of fur Elise over and over?

Let's define classical as ending with Beethoven, and starting after J S Bach, just to constrain things.

  • The idea that amateurs must be in some way inferior to professionals is a very modern one (and not necessarily accurate even now). Amateur has become almost a byword for unskilled, whereas before the mid twentieth century leading proponents of many fields of the arts and sciences, and of course sport, were amateurs. – Bob Jul 22 '17 at 13:03
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    Also, if you're including Beethoven then I think the contemporary equivalent of fur Elise might have been fur Elise;) – Bob Jul 22 '17 at 13:06

The first question to consider is who actually owned keyboard instruments in this period. That raises two sub-questions: (1) the cost of instruments compared with typical wages, and (2) whether people were living in conditions where owning and using an instrument was practical.

I don't have any detailed answers, but one piece of data from London in 1804 shows that the cost of a new keyboard instrument was comparable to the total income of a piano teacher for 6 months. Today in the developed world, the cheapest keyboards cost only a few days' income for somebody on the average wage - i.e. anybody who "really wants a keyboard" for themselves or their children can find a way to buy one. If the cheapest keyboards available today cost say £10,000 (an equivalent sum relative to modern wages of the situation in 1800), that would be a very different scenario.

If one assumes therefore that most "musical amateurs" were from the upper classes or aristocracy, you need to consider how they would have been educated. The basic structure of education followed Plato's guidelines, and the seven liberal arts subjects were divided into three elementary ones (named the "trivium" in Latin) studied first, followed by the remaining four (the "quadrivium") which included music. Upper class children would therefore all study music as a compulsory subject perhaps starting at age 10 or 11, and most likely with daily one-to-one lessons from a tutor rather than in a "school class". That was Scarlatti's "day job" at the Spanish court, for example - the 500+ sonatas he composed were written as exercises for his pupils, (or more accurately pupil, singular) not as some grand artistic endeavour.

Given that scenario, it seems plausible that anybody who owned a keyboard instrument was likely to be competent at playing it, and also at composing - those with no aptitude or interest were unlikely to be "dabbling" with the equivalent of "Fur Elise".

These assumptions seem to be consistent with anecdotes of the interactions of professional composers and performers with their "amateur" patrons - e.g. Goldberg (plus an assortment of the numerous German aristocracy) and Bach, or the various patrons of Beethoven who had large-scale solo piano works dedicated to them.

To take another example, Haydn spend most of his working life (before he became an international celebrity) with the "official" post of a servant in the household of a prince - but that prince funded his own private orchestra, and built his own opera house! Clearly with that scale of expenditure on music, the cost of a keyboard instrument would not have been very significant.

In the 19th century, things began to change - in particular, the majority of amateur keyboard players (perhaps as many as 80%) were women who relied on their husband's income. But that is outside the OP's time frame...

  • Wow. That was an interesting read – Kolob Canyon Jul 20 '17 at 5:13
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    Just after Beethoven's era, mass production turned everything upside-down. The 'parlour piano' became ubiquitous, and a whole class of children were set to playing it. Out of all those kids, some got pretty good of course. – Laurence Payne Jul 20 '17 at 11:12
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    To slightly contradict my own answer, in some parts of Europe (particularly the Netherlands) keyboard instruments were also valued as "expensive furniture" and "works of art" - just like the rich people today who buy a Steinway baby grand but never play it! Artists like Reubens made a lot of money from painting the cases and soundboards of harpsichords, as well as the art that was framed to hang on the wall. See pinterest.co.uk/pin/548383692098384345 for examples. – user19146 Jul 20 '17 at 16:22
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    Do you have a link to that 1804 data? A decent acoustic piano would still set me back a few months' salary today. – Bob Jul 22 '17 at 13:14

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