The Dark Side of Musical Enlightenment

The music of the 18th-century is marked by its optimism—sunny major keys, buoyant melodies with predictable turns of phrase. Contemporaries called it galant, like a refined courtier. Above all this highly mannered music was to seem easy and unconstrained. In contrast to what was seen as the artful and overworked counterpoint of previous generations, this new style would be elegant, accessible, and above all “natural,” as galant apologists liked to put it.

The engine of the galant style was Naples, along with London and Paris, one of the biggest cities in Europe in the 18th century, its population numbering nearly half-a-million. It was in Naples that the new “natural” music was drummed into thousands of children in a system of forced labor meant to produce musicians not only to fill posts at the city’s court and ecclesiastical institutions, but also for export across Europe, from London to St. Petersburg.

The city was teeming with orphans, many of them sired by the sailors from the many ships docking at port. By the 17th century, the Neapolitan orphanages, called conservatories, began emphasizing music as a way of providing male orphans a skill that would sustain them without any supporting family resources. As Daniel Heartz shows in his magisterial book Music in European Capitals: the Galant Style, 1720-1780 , the results were impressive, even if the system that produced them was often cruel. There was huge international demand for the fashionable Neapolitan style, and the conservatories fed it.

Students were typically admitted to one of the four conservatories at the age of eight, and indentured for eight years. The musical traveler and diarist, Charles Burney, who visited Naples in 1770, described the “terrific Babel” of the famous Conservatorio of St. Onofrio, with its nearly 200 inmates jammed into rooms, practicing their instruments all at the same time. Like Pakistani child rug-makers chained to their looms, the Neapolitan boys used their beds as seats, practicing their instruments where they had slept—harpsichords in one room, violins in another, and woodwinds in still another.  The trumpets and horns were, as Burney put it, “obliged to fag … on the stairs.”  No two students seemed to be playing the same music at the same time, but instead pursued their own practice into the teeth of the din.

As for the potentially most valuable residents of these institutions, the castrati, these would-be superstars of the European stage, who in the fewest of cases (Farinelli and many other famed singers were products of St. Onofrio) rose to great celebrity and fortune: “these lye upstairs, by themselves, in warmer apartments … for fear of colds, which might not only render their delicate voices unfit for exercise but hazard the entire loss of them for ever.” These mutilated children were long-time investments worth protecting and pampering.

For eight to ten years the musical orphans worked relentlessly till they had mastered their craft. Burney described their schedule: “The only vacation in these schools in the whole year, is in autumn, and that for a few days only; during the winter, the boys rise two hours before it is light, from which time they continue their exercise, an hour and a half at dinner excepted, till eight o’clock at night.”

Burney had himself once been an indentured musical apprentice to the ill-tempered boozer—and fine composer—Thomas Arne in London. But Burney had never had to endure such intense toil, and he was probably disgusted at the ruthless regimen faced by these children even if, as a devotee of the galant style, he could sometimes admire the result. His biggest criticism was that the orphans’ performances lacked polish, this roughness a product of having to practice a minimum of ten hours a day over the mighty ruckus of the conservatory dormitories. Hearing oneself at all over that sonic tumult demanded power not nuance.

In the later 18th-century many of the conservatories faced financial difficulties, not least because of labor unrest among the students, and dissension between the orphans and other students, whose families paid tuition. The orphans had to perform at funerals, parades and other civic functions from which the paying students were exempted. As for board, Heartz reports that the paying students at one of the conservatories got a loaf of bread and a carafe of wine each day; the orphans had to make due with six rolls and no wine. By the early 19th century the conservatories had been disbanded or amalgamated, until the last of them was made into an all-professional music school, the Real Collegio di Musica, by the decree of Joseph Bonaparte.

At the height of their productive capacity these music mills stamped out extremely well-trained performers (in spite of Burney’s reservations) and composers capable of supplying courts, theaters, and churches with music whose “naturalness” belied the inexorable regime of study, discipline, and punishment that lay behind it.

What were the wheels and cogs in this factory?  In 2007, Robert Gjerdingen published a fascinating and hugely useful study that lays bare the pedagogical approach of the Neapolitan conservatory masters, entitled Music in the Galant Style. Gjerdingen demonstrates that the natural style was built on formulae, drummed into these youngsters through the many long hours and years. Gjerdingen’s book, in effect an analytical and practical companion to Heartz’s cultural and aesthetic history of this repertoire, isolates these stock harmonic progressions and melodic figures, and shows how so many pieces of 18th-century music amount to a catalog of these elements, learned by rote.  The training taught these children how to connect the schemata stored in their brains and fingers, and then to decorate them, to treat them with fluency and, in the best cases, to be enlivened by the individual’s spontaneous wit.

Stacks of these Neapolitans exercises, called Partimenti, survive in archives and libraries, and Gjerdingen has set about editing hundreds of these pages and making them accessible on-line. If you have some time on your hands and a good internet connection, you can shut yourself in your basement with Gjerdingen’s book, your computer, and a keyboard and transform yourself in the short space of a decade into a master of the Neapolitan-style.

Gjerdingen, a professor of music at Northwestern, was recently in Ithaca to give a hugely entertaining and illuminating lecture, one that wore its erudition as lightly as did the galants hommes of the 18th-century, even while he spoke with the down-to-earth diction of his native region, what he called “the muddy farm-fields of Minnesota.”

One of the most useful, and therefore most common, of the formulae, by no means specific to the Neapolitans, is what Gjerdingen calls the Romanesca; the first chapter of his book is dedicated to this chord sequence, now most famously heard in the Pachelbel canon. So great is its utility that countless are the number of retreads of its basic harmonic progression. To demonstrate that utility, Gjerdingen showed his audience a popular YouTube clip in which the guitar-playing comedian Rob Paravonian grafts together a vast array of songs elaborating this scheme. Pachelbel himself had taken it off the rack and kitted it out with interlocking strings moving in elegant imitation of one another over the repeating pattern in the bass. Gjerdingen then segued from this to Salieri’s rapture over the genius of Mozart on his first encounter with his music in the movie Amadeus. What Salieri hears when he picks up the score off of a music stand is the 3rd movement of the Gran Partita. The opening of the Adagio of this serenade that so captivates Salieri and fills him with envy,  is in fact hardly genius, in the sense of being an expression of an original idea, but is simply an elaboration of the tried-and-true Romanesca pattern, inculcated into Mozart as it had been to thousands of Neapolitan orphans, all of whom used it countless times themselves.

The conservatory tuition made it possible for Neapolitan composers to crank out sonatas, masses, operas in short order, letting their memory and imagination mingle as they artfully deployed their schemata and elaborated them with their native ingenuity trained in the endless possibilities of the formulae and their combinations. Visited by Mozart in 1770, Naples didn’t produce anyone of his caliber, but it churned out Pergolesi, Sacchini, Paisiello, Cimarosa, and so many others—all excellent composers.

Gjerdingen provided a slightly surreal reenactment of this musical past, again courtesy of the eye of YouTube.  A Swiss couple named Deutscher read Gjerdingen’s book and decided to begin to teach their young daughter Alma some of these Neapolitan scheme.  One doubts that they put her on-task ten hours a day, but then again, the rabid dedication of some home-schoolers and Suzuki-parents might in some cases rival that of the taskmasters of the Neapolitan conservatories of yore. The results of the Deutscher experiment are fascinating, as we see in a joint improvisation between the fine keyboard  player, Tobias Cramm, schooled in Partimenti and the young girl. ) Cramm plays a galant musical phrase, which could have been taken directly from the Neapolitan partimenti, and then listens as young Alma comes up, sometimes haltingly (she’s only four in the video), with her response. One could be looking back into a lesson in the Mozart household, but for the décor, the costumes and crappy electric keyboard. Armed with the galant formulae and her native musical talent, Alma is composing galant music, one of the songs sung by her proud and eager mother on another clip.  Like the young Mozart she also improvises on the violin above partimenti bass-lines. While Alma is hardly a Mozart, she seems to be well on her way to being at least an elegant purveyor of galant music. The music training she’s getting seems superior to what our present conservatories provide in music theory classes. As Gjerdingen put it, probably not one of the 600 current students at Northwestern’s School of Music could do what this four-year-old can. “Give me 10,000 kids and plenty of time, and I’ll produce you another Mozart,” said Gjerdingen with an ironically diabolical twinkle in his eye.

As I listened to Gjerdingen describe the culture and methods of the galant style, I contemplated the dialectic of musical enlightenment: on one side of the split screen was the musical workhouse of the poor orphans, on the other, the courtly chamber filled by the most elegant music played by bewigged and fully-trained instrumentalists. Control and exploitation had created the music of lightness and supposed naturalness.

And how was it that the love of music had not been drubbed out of these orphans? Perhaps students suffered from a form of Stockholm syndrome; or maybe the power of music is so inextinguishable that it can remain intact even after the bedlam of the Neapolitan conservatory.

I imagined another scene: after five or six years of training a Neapolitan orphan is taken for a day from the madness of the conservatory room and is sat down at an organ in an empty church. He improvises, spinning out one elegant phrase after the next.  A new sonata—built from the modular musical elements now hardwired into his mind and hands—is born and vanishes into the echo of the church. Is the kid transported by the music he makes, or does he feel nothing, having been re-purposed from human into musical robot?

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at