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Parlour music
Stylistic origins opera, chamber music, art song, blackface minstrelsy, folk song
Cultural origins 19th century Europe, North America
Typical instruments piano and voice
Mainstream popularity 19th and early 20th centuries, diminishing in the face of phonograph, radio
Derivative forms Much 20th century popular music

Parlour music is a type of popular music which, as the name suggests, is intended to be performed in the parlours of middle class homes by amateur singers and pianists. Disseminated as sheet music, its heyday came in the 19th century, as a result of a steady increase in the number of households with enough surplus cash to purchase musical instruments and instruction in music, and with the leisure time and cultural motivation to engage in recreational music-making. Its popularity waned in the 20th century as the phonograph record and radio replaced sheet music as the most common method of dissemination of popular music. This is the middle and low brow music which European classical music began to gradually and eventually self-consciously distance itself from beginning around 1790. (1989, p.4, 17-18, 321)

In contrast to the chord-based classical music era, parlour music features melodies which are harmonically-independent or not determined by the harmony. This produces parlour chords, many of them added tone chords if not extended such as the dominant thirteenth, added sixth, and major dominant ninth. Rather, the melodies are organized through parlour modes, variants of the major mode with the third, sixth, and seventh emphasized through modal frames such as the mediant-octave mode, which uses the third as a floor and ceiling note, its less common variants the pseudo-phrygian, in which the seventh and often fifth are given prominence, and submediant-octave mode.

Many of the earliest parlour songs were transcriptions for voice and keyboard of other music. Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, for instance, were traditional (or "folk") tunes supplied with new lyrics by Moore, and many arias from Italian operas, particularly those of Bellini and Donizetti, became parlour songs, with texts either translated or replaced by new lyrics. Various other genres were also performed in the parlour, including patriotic selections, religious songs, and pieces written for the musical stage. Excerpts from blackface minstrel shows, arranged for voice and keyboard, were particularly popular. Also, a handful of the better-known art songs, such as Schubert's "Serenade," became part of the parlour repertory. Lyrics written for parlour songs often have sentimental themes, such as love songs or poetic meditations.

As the 19th century wore on, more and more songs were newly composed specifically for use by amateurs at home, and these pieces (written originally as parlour songs, rather than being adapted from other genres) began to develop a style all their own: similar in melodic and harmonic content to art songs of the day, but shorter and simpler in structure and making fewer technical demands on singer and accompanist. Stephen Foster's "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway" and "Come with Thy Sweet Voice Again" are early and elegant examples of the genre.

The high point of the parlour song came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the Victorian era in North America and the British Isles. Songs of this genre became more complex and sophisticated in their melodic and harmonic vocabulary, and in addition to their continuing use in the parlour, they were also often sung in public recitals by professional singers. Characteristic and popular parlour songs include "Home, Sweet Home," composed by Henry R. Bishop with lyrics by John Howard Payne, "The Old Arm Chair" by Henry Russell, "When the Swallows Homeward Fly" by Franz Abt, "Kathleen Mavourneen" composed by Frederick Nicholls Crouch with lyrics by Marion Crawford, "The Lost Chord" composed by Arthur Sullivan with lyrics by Adelaide A. Proctor, "Take Back the Heart" by Claribel (Mrs. Charlotte Barnard), "Oh Promise Me" by Reginald de Koven, "I Love You Truly" and "A Perfect Day" by Carrie Jacobs-Bond, and "The Rosary" by Ethelbert Nevin.

In addition to dissemination as individual pieces of sheet music, parlour songs were also collected into anthologies and sold in this format. The most notable collection was Heart Songs, first published in 1909 by Chapple Publishing Company of Boston and repeatedly revised and republished for the following several decades. The publisher claimed that this selection of songs "Dear to the American People" was selected from entries submitted by 25,000 people.

Mediant-octave mode examples

"The Battle Hymn of the Republic" melody beginning

Papageno's glockenspiel tune

Further reading

  • Hamm, Charles. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, 1979. ISBN 0-393-01257-3
  • Hamm, Charles (ed.). Heart Songs, 1983. ISBN 0-306-76146-7. (facsimile of original, published in 1909 by The Chappel Publishing Company, Boston).
  • van der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.
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