A virtuoso (from Italian virtuoso, late Latin virtuosus, Latin virtus meaning: skill, manliness, excellence) is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability at singing or playing a musical instrument. The plural form is either virtuosi or the Anglicisation, virtuosos, and the feminine form sometimes used is virtuosa. Virtuosi are often musical composers as well. During the age of Baroque music many composers were also virtuosi on their respective instruments.
The Italian term of "virtuoso" was also 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.
In other contexts, virtuosity can be generalized to define a person who excels technically in some area of human knowledge, although its use is more commonly applied in the context of the fine arts.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw a bastardization 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) and "Pultvirtuoso" (orchestral player of virtuoso temperament).