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A virtuoso (from Italian virtuoso, "virtuous", Late Latin virtuosus, Latin virtus, "virtue", "excellence", "skill", or "manliness") is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in a particular art or field. This word is often used to refer to an individual with superior technique or execution in fine arts, or music, often singing, playing a musical instrument or composition. This word also refers to a person who has cultivated appreciation of artistic excellence, either as a connoisseur or collector. Virtuoso's plural form is either virtuosi or the Anglicisation, virtuosos, and the feminine forms are virtuosa and virtuose.
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.
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. For instance, Ken Jennings's initial success on Jeopardy was described as a "virtuoso performance."
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 unravel. Originally a musician was honored the classification by being a composer, theorist or famous maestro, more importantly than being a skilled performer.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw a shift in the meaning of the term, which started being self indulged by a great number of musicians, without considerations of merit. Sébastien de Brossard in his Dictionaire de Musique (Paris, 1703) 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. Johan Matthenson's Der brauchbare Virtuoso (1720) maintained the respect for the traditional "theoretische Virtuosen" (virtuoso theoretical) 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 the term started to be used to describe the musician, 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 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" (Gesammelte Schriften; English translation, vii, 1894–9, p. 112). Pejorative connotations started in this epoch exemplified by new German expressions such as "Virtuosenmachwerk" (piece of routine display). "Pultvirtuoso" (conductor with virtuoso qualities), on the other hand, is not pejorative, but complimentary.