If you approached bystanders on a street corner in sixteenth-century Naples and asked them “What do conservatories conserve?” the likely answers would not have been “performing arts” or “rare plants.” No, you would have been told confidently that conservatories conserved orphans and foundlings. These church-sponsored orphanages practiced a kind of alchemy—they took in defenseless little social outcasts and transformed them into skilled artisans whose services would one day be in high demand. A range of skilled trades were taught at the almost two hundred conservatories in Naples, including four conservatories that taught the trade of music.
A seven- to ten-year-old boy entering one of the four music conservatories in Naples might as well have been enlisting in the army. Six days a week from sunrise to sunset he had to follow a regimented existence where lessons in music were interspersed with lessons in reading, writing, and other subjects that would be useful to a future court or church musician. There were no vacations or trips to see the family because for an orphan boy the conservatory was home and its teachers and students were all the family he had. When the alternative was begging on the street, one can be assured that a conservatory boy was determined to make a go of it.
Was this a form of child abuse? Were the old conservatories like dysfunctional Olympic training camps where young athletes could be exploited for the sake of future medals and national pride? Answering that question fairly would first require that we today and the inhabitants of Naples centuries ago could agree on what children ought to do with their childhoods. Modern parents might think of childhood as a special time to frolic and grow, safe from the cares of the adult world. The old Neapolitans, by contrast, seem to have viewed childhood as a burdensome and dangerous period that should be grown out of as soon as possible. They assumed that all but aristocratic children would work as soon as they were able, starting with easy tasks and eventually reaching an adult level of competence. Children with parents worked approvingly alongside them in the family business or trade. Similarly, older children in the conservatories were rented out to work as junior musicians in order to help support their institution.
While improvisation plays almost no role in classical music today, in Naples it was central to the curriculum. A student would sit at a harpsichord and be given a left-hand, bass part to play as written. The student’s right hand was then expected to improvise a melody and perhaps some chords to bring out or “realize” what was implicit in the bass. Much like a modern studio musician improvising a performance based on a single-staff lead sheet, the Naples-trained musicians used single-staff basses as cues to produce multi-voice compositions. This type of instruction was so successful that musicians trained that way came to dominate Europe and its colonies by the eighteenth century. The Paris Conservatory was set up in 1795 to imitate Neapolitan successes, and most conservatories today can trace their descent back to those early institutions.
In recent years the meteoric rise of the child composer Alma Deutscher has given a good indication of how powerful the old, improvisation-based lessons can still be in the hands of a precocious child. She was trained from age five in the same exercises taught to the orphan boys of old Naples. The need to internalize specific musical patterns in order to be able to complete guided improvisations led to the development of a rich vocabulary of melodies complete with harmony and counterpoint. Alma, like those orphans of long ago, gradually became able to “speak” classical music, and from that point onward the art of composition became mostly the process of notating musical passages already conceived in her mind. The old conservatories, in developing reliable methods to teach a trade, ended up training talented young minds to think directly in a language of multi-voice music. What today we call classical music is in many cases just surviving transcriptions of those nonverbal thoughts.
Featured image credit: Choir Boys. Painting by William Frederick Yeames, 1891. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.