The Bourgeois Virtues of Piano Recitals

Tonight I was listening to some Baroque-period music on the radio, and it took me back – not to the 17th century, but instead to my early childhood. It’s so rare to hear classical music of this kind these days, but it’s not rare to see children playing these kinds of (simplified) pieces at piano recitals across the country.

I still remember wearing my nice clothes and sitting in an old church pew at the age of a few years old, listening and waiting eagerly for the music to be over. When it was over, of course, we would all have a reception with desserts made by all the mothers of all the budding musicians. It was nothing fancy, and yet it was one of the fanciest occasions I could imagine.

The modern piano recital – the one of my childhood memories – is a remarkable thing, historically speaking.

In my childhood in the early 21st century, middle-class and working-class parents would pay to have their children (including yours truly) learn piano pieces that were several hundred years old. Their children practiced diligently. Their parents put on their middle-class suits and drove to middle-class schools and attended middle-class receptions afterwards. The whole thing had an air of the “bourgeois virtues” which Deirdre McCloskey writes about: temperance, prudence, hard work, and the humble aspirationalism of children who played music by the greats but ate cookies made by Mom.

Contrast that to the actual Baroque era, in which fine piano (harpsichord, actually) music was primarily for the royal elite and their courtiers or richer subjects. In the modern piano recital, all the finery and excess of that era has been tossed out, without the loss of that still, small voice of musical grandeur which a hearer can still find in a Beethoven piece played by an eight year-old.

The piano recital* is a concrete reminder of the progress which commerce, freedom, and human creativity have brought to the world. The music – and so many of life’s finer things – belong to all now. And as long as things like middle-class piano recitals exist, we’ll be reminded to keep the bourgeois virtues that have brought beauty to more of humanity.


Photo by Siniz Kim on Unsplash

Intellectual credit: Deirdre McKowskey for coining the term “bourgeois virtues.” I’ve not read the work but am aware of the premise. Citation: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/556638.html

*Let’s set aside the important critique of these recitals: that many of the children don’t want to be playing piano but are forced to do so by their parents. That’s a very important critique and a reason to find these same bourgeois virtues elsewhere. For the sake of argument, assume voluntary participation by all.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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