Virtuosity Music Definition Essay

This article is about musicians. For the database engine, see Virtuoso Universal Server.

A virtuoso (from Italianvirtuoso[virˈtwoːzo] or [virtuˈoːso], "virtuous", Late Latinvirtuosus, Latin virtus, "virtue", "excellence", "skill", or "manliness") is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in a particular art or field such as fine arts, music, singing, playing a musical instrument, or composition.[1] This word also refers to a person who has cultivated appreciation of artistic excellence, either as a connoisseur or collector. The plural form of virtuoso is either virtuosi or the Anglicisation, virtuosos, and the feminine forms are virtuosa and virtuose.

According to Music in the Western civilization by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin:[2]

...a virtuoso was, originally, a highly accomplished musician, but by the nineteenth century the term had become restricted to performers, both vocal and instrumental, whose technical accomplishments were so pronounced as to dazzle the public.

The defining element of virtuosity is the performance ability of the musician in question, who is capable of displaying feats of skill well above the average performer.

Especially in music, both critics and musicians have mixed opinions on virtuosity. While the skill implied is clearly positive, musicians focused on virtuosity have been criticized for overlooking substance and emotion in favor of raw technical prowess.[3]

More commonly applied in the context of the fine arts, the term can also refer to a 'master' or 'ace' who excels technically within any particular field or area of human knowledge—anyone especially or dazzlingly skilled at what they do.[1] For instance, Ken Jennings' initial success on Jeopardy was described as a "virtuoso performance.[4]"

The Italian term "virtuoso" was also once commonly used to describe the group of emerging ballistic experts, engineers, artillerists, and specialists in mechanics and dynamics that arose during the late 17th century in response to the spreading use of gunpowder in Europe.


The meaning of virtuoso has its roots in the Italian usage of the 16th and 17th centuries, signifying an honorific term reserved for a person distinguished in any intellectual or artistic field. The term evolved with time, simultaneously broadening and narrowing in scope as interpretations went in and out of fashion and debates unraveled. Originally a musician was considered a virtuoso by being an accomplished composer, theorist, or maestro, rather than a skilled performer.[5]

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the word shifted in meaning, and many musicians applied it without considering merit, sometimes to themselves. Sébastien de Brossard in his Dictionnaire de Musique (Paris, 1703)[6][7] approached the word virtuoso by its Latin root virtu emphasizing exceptional training, especially in theory. This position was also defended in Johann Gottfried Walther's Musicalisches Lexicon (1732) favoring the theorist over the performer. Johann Mattheson's Der brauchbare Virtuoso[8] (1720) maintained the respect for the traditional "theoretische Virtuosen" (theoretical virtuoso) but also paid tribute to the "virtuosi prattici" (performer virtuoso).

Johann Kuhnau in his The Musical Charlatan (Der musikalische Quack-Salber, 1700) defined the "true virtuoso" once again emphasizing theory ("der wahre Virtuose") describing the "highly gifted musician" ("der glückselige Musicus") or "performer virtuoso" as having nothing more than practical facility.

In the late 18th century, people began to use the term to describe an instrumentalist or vocalist who pursued a career as a soloist. The tension about the merit of practical virtuosity started to grow at the same time and intensified in the 19th century, only to remain an open debate since then. Franz Liszt, considered one of the greatest of all virtuosos, declared that "virtuosity is not an outgrowth, but an indispensable element of music" (Gesammelte Schriften, iv, 1855–9). Richard Wagner opposed the triviality and exhibitionist talents of the performer voicing his opinion strongly:

The real dignity of the virtuoso rests solely on the dignity he is able to preserve for creative art; if he trifles and toys with this, he casts his honour away. He is the intermediary of the artistic idea[9]

Notable virtuosi[edit]

The most notable virtuosi throughout history include:

And more recently:


External links[edit]

  • Media related to Musicians at Wikimedia Commons
Examples of well known Virtuosi over time. Top Row - From left: Franz Liszt, Frederic Chopin, Niccolò Paganini, Georges Cziffra Middle Row - From left: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Antonio Vivaldi, Yo-Yo Ma, Charles-Valentin Alkan Bottom Row - From left: Krystian Zimerman, Arthur Rubinstein, Jorge Bolet, Valentina Lisitsa.
  1. ^ ab"Merriam-Webster Online, Official Definition". Retrieved 2009-09-21. 
  2. ^Weiss, Piero; Taruskin, Richard (1984). Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. Schirmer. p. 430. ISBN 0-02-872900-5. 
  3. ^Bose, Sudip. "On Virtuosity." The American Scholar.
  4. ^
  5. ^"Grove Music Online". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 2006-03-14. 
  6. ^Sebastien, de Brossard (1703). Dictionnaire de Musique (2nd ed.). Paris: Christophe Ballard. 
  7. ^Morton, Joëlle. "Brossard". Joëlle Morton. Retrieved 2006-08-24. 
  8. ^
  9. ^Gesammelte Schriften; English translation, vii, 1894–9, p. 112


Robert Childs, one of the leading British euphonium soloists of the past three decades, demonstrates his virtuosic command of the instrument in his performance of a theme and variations on the popular tune “Carnival of Venice.”


The musicians that I aspired to be in my youth (and who I continue to admire into my middle age) were virtuosi, musicians who demonstrated what seemed to be an effortless command of their instruments and, in the words of musicologist Dana Gooley, “cross … the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.”1 As such, they often command a degree of respect and even reverence from other musicians and rise to great fame in the eyes of concert-going audiences. (In fact, many of the leading classical solo recording artists of today might be accurately understood through this lens.) Yet, away from the stage and studio, virtuoso musicians also dedicate long hours to careful practice of technical exercises, subject themselves to isolation from their peers, and devote their lives to the development of their craft in a way that most people simply are not willing to do. As Sara Haefeli recently noted in "The Problem with Geniuses," “none of the ‘geniuses’ were born that way. They were all trained, products of a specific time and context. It’s not a special ‘spark’ that made their music, and we don’t need to be geniuses to listen.”

Virtuoso musicians are often deeply involved in the process of presenting themselves as extraordinary human beings. As people on the margins of both society and musicianship, virtuosi must often work especially hard to cultivate a persona that engages the imaginations of their audiences and convinces them that they possess that “special ‘spark.’” As Lawrence Kramer has argued, the nineteenth-century virtuoso concert pianist Franz Liszt developed “carnivalesque features” that he integrated into his public performances, including the extreme use of his body to draw his audiences into the emotional expressivity of a work and what Kramer describes as “the coexistence of exaltation and debasement,” in which the composer-performer would edify his audience while coming down from his lofty perch to engage with them.2 During the nineteenth century, virtuosic pianists, violinists, singers, and even conductors built sometimes lucrative careers by parlaying their carefully refined musicianship into successful concert tours of Europe and the United States.3


Martha Argerich, a twentieth-century piano virtuoso, demonstrates the intense skill, physical effort, and mental focus that the music of Franz Liszt—who was himself a piano virtuoso—demands of the most skilled pianists.


Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, recorded here late in his career, plays one of the virtuosic showpieces of the violin literature, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne in D minor (from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004). Note the ways that the camera highlights both the intensity and the isolation of Heifetz as he concentrates on this performance.


In addition to demonstrating remarkable control over their instruments and voices, virtuosi frequently use improvisation to illustrate their musical fluency. In some instances,  these improvisations take the form of variations on a popular theme, in which the composer-performer reveals the hidden possibilities of a rather simple and commonplace tune. In still other traditions, including the jazz tradition, musicians reveal their prowess by improvising melodies that emerge from the harmonic structures of well-known popular songs, forcing the musician to display not only their command of their instruments but the complexity of their harmonic vocabulary as well. Such is also the case in the Hindustani classical tradition, in which musicians frequently explore the structures of the raga (melodic mode) that the piece is based on while also demonstrating their facility as singers and sitar players. Consequently, virtuosic musicians are often seen as transcending the ordinary, as they can often take material that seems familiar and perhaps even simple on the surface but that, in their hands, is revealed as a source of great complexity.


Organist James Kennerley improvises a set of variations on the plainchant “Veni creator spiritus.” Listen carefully to the ways that Kennerly reharmonizes and ornaments the melody.


Alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt barely makes the tune of the popular ballad “Lover Man” clear in his improvisations over the song’s chord changes. Instead, he explores the nuances of its harmonic structure and occasionally alludes to some of the tune’s melodic motives.


Hindustani singer Kaushiki Chakrabarty offers a performance of a musical composition built around raga Multani. Take special note of the ways that the musicians with whom Chakrabarty is playing respond to her exposition and variations on the raga.


Presenting oneself as a virtuoso does not necessarily gain an artist a wide following. In fact, as MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Chris Thile—who is perhaps best known for his work with the bands Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers—has wisely observed, there might not be much interest in someone who can “play too many notes on the mandolin.” But, as musicians such as the members of the jazz collective Snarky Puppy, turntablist DJ Qbert, and jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding indicate, virtuosi continue to push devoted audiences to explore the boundaries of human musical performance, challenging us to think of the ways that we, too, might realize our own potential.

For Discussion

  1. How do the physical exertions required of virtuosic performances relate to similar physical exertions in other forms of bodily expression, such as dance or athletics? What does the vocabulary that we use to speak of these exertions tell us about the things that we value in physical performance?

  1. How do virtuosi push against the limitations of their instruments? How have instrument manufacturers responded to the needs of virtuoso musicians?


1 Dana Gooley, The Virtuoso Liszt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1.

2 Lawrence Kramer, Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 84-86.

3 See, among others, Gooley, The Virtuoso Liszt; Jim Samson, Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); R. Allen Lott, From Paris to Peoria: How European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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