Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Etiquette of the Gilded Age Musicales

The strictly fashionable, correct New York musicale is as solemn as an evening funeral and as stupid as a love scene in the original; no one enjoys it but the performers. I think, without question, that you can manage to spend more money and make a larger proportion of your guests uncomfortable at a musicale than at any other form of entertainment yet devised. 

How a Musicale is Run
Just What the Guest and the Hostess Should Find to Do

To the Editor of the Sun –
Sir: I was interested in the Sunday Sun’s article describing the etiquette of a New York wedding. Now, won’t you please tell us what they do at a New York musicale in a private house? — Etta Milford, April 25

The writer called on a woman well known in New York society, propounded the request as printed above, and this is the way the society woman rattled on in answer: 

The strictly fashionable, correct New York musicale is as solemn as an evening funeral and as stupid as a love scene in the original; no one enjoys it but the performers. I think, without question, that you can manage to spend more money and make a larger proportion of your guests uncomfortable at a musicale than at any other form of entertainment yet devised. In the first place there are the invitations, which must be engraved and read something like this:
Mr. and Mrs. Smith request the pleasure 
of Mr. and Mrs. Jones’ company on Monday at 3 p.m. 
R. S. V. P.                     Music.

You send these invitations two or three weeks ahead to insure the presence of some of your guests, for people always avoid a musicale if possible, as they do an appointment with a dentist or an interview with a creditor. Then you set about procuring your talent for the occasion, and mortgage most of your property to pay them. You must send a carriage for every artist separately, for they are usually such antagonistic rivals that they couldn’t be expected to ride the length of the block in the same vehicle. You furnish them with flowers, add your unbounded gratitude to the modest sum you pay, and dress yourself in some quiet home dress, with no bonnet or glove, to receive your guests. Sometimes you give a musical luncheon, where you vary the programme by inviting a small number of your most intimate friends to luncheon, and have the music afterward, to which it is quiet comme il faut to invite as many people as you can accommodate in your rooms, though they were not present at the luncheon. 

Musical breakfasts are on the same general order, occuring a little earlier in the day, though 1 o’clock is the fashionable hour. Sometimes the music precedes the breakfast, and sometimes a band of concealed musicians play through the meal as well. The style of music is extremely classical and very heavy. We are so cultured and melodious now that we don’t enjoy any harmony that we really can understand, and we talk very knowingly of shading and motives, touch and phrases and expression, though, of course, we don't know what any of it really means. The others do not understand either, so it doesn’t signify; no one knows if you make a mistake. 

The stylish musicale is hardly complete now without the Hungarian band, and the leader of that institution has been so battered and feted in America that he forgets sometimes that he was once hired as a kind of upper servant by the Countess Esterhazy’s father, who employed him to entertain his guests as he hired the butler to pour out their wines. Mrs. Hicks-Lord was conversant of the fact, and when, on a recent occasion, she paid $200 to $300 for his services, and he asked in addition to be presented to her guests, she aired her knowledge of his former situation with promptitude. The girl violinist is a very stylish creature of the musicale this winter, because she is such a picturesque and beautiful object and really doesn’t play the violin any more execrably than any other instrument. She has a pretty fashion of getting herself up in an artistic, flowing sort of a gown, with large sleeves falling away from the bare arms, and is a very delicious vision, quite reconciling one to listen to her.

If you really want to spend money on a musicale, you can invite your personal friends to entertain the guests instead of hired operatic stars. Of course they don’t charge you anything, as they are not professional; you just make them some trifling presents of a brown-stone block, a carriage and horses, a diamond tiara, and some other little things of that kind, and remain forever under a burden of gratitude besides. It is like having tickets sent you for the theater or opera by a friend; you have to give them something in return that costs more than a box in the grand row. A musicale returns any kind of an obligation—a dinner, luncheon, reception, or tea and costs more than all of them in one. Some people give a series of musicales, three or four in number, but one handsome musicale in the season is all that is really required or often given. The programmes must be also engraved and closely followed, and no refreshments are served of any kind. 

S0 much for the hostess; now for the guest. She must go dressed in her richest garments, as to the handsomest receptions with bonnet and gloves; she must keep her engagement, if she accepts the invitation, almost as carefully as to a formal dinner; she must come in time, and on no account leave the room after she arrives until the entire programme is completed. Usually, the house is filled with uncomfortable little folding chairs, into which you crowd your draperies as best you may and sit with your lower extremities paralyzed and prickling from the pressure of the bar across the front of the chair, with the delightful consciousness in your heart that your are ruining your best gown and that you can’t go until it is over, through one, two, three and sometimes four hours of agony, applauding and encoring every selection and smiling like a ballet girl upon every performer. If you don’t care for the programme, you can’t leave as you would a public hall where you bought your ticket, but must remain to tell your hostess at the close that you spent such a delightful evening. 

That’s the musicale genteel, correct and fashionable, but a bachelor friend of mine knows how to give the musicale enjoyable. In the first place, he doesn’t invite any more guests than he can accommodate without crowding them. The chairs are not arranged in solid phalanx, but distributed about the room here and there. People move about and talk with their friends, or partake of some of the dainty trifles scattered about the punch-bowl on a side table. There is no evidence of a stilted programme. People sing or play whenever it occurs to them, and after it is all over, you are taken into another room to the most delicious little supper. There are musicales and musicales, and, while they may he the most enjoyable of occasions, they usually are extremely fatiguing and stupid.— New York Sun, 1889

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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