A Baroque Perspective on Teaching Music

This is the second in our series of posts
on music education through the ages. Comments and contributions are most welcome.

Church schools continued to be the principal training ground for professional musicians in many cities through the end of the eighteenth century. By that time, the musical curriculum included not only singing, but organ, harpsichord and the instruments necessary to run a professional church music establishment. After their voices broke, the boy sopranos and altos at Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1695-1750) St. Thomas School in Leipzig, for example, were expected to take up an instrument in the Sunday morning cantata orchestra or perform chamber music in the university Collegium Musicum. In cities with active opera houses, young men very often studied instruments with their fathers and followed them into their profession in the same way as the sons of bakers, cobblers, tailors and other professionals.

Perhaps the most interesting development in music education during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurred outside mainstream professional music circles. In addition to being able to sew, carry on a conversation and ride properly, young women of wealthy families were expected to sing pleasantly, play an instrument and dance in order to enter society and be suitable brides. An entire repertoire of madrigals and instrumental chamber music, not to mention studies for various instruments, was published to feed this burgeoning market. We still hear madrigals and chamber music by Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes, Frescobaldi and Gabrielli, for example, on Simon Carrington’s choral program in August or in the brass and woodwind selections on the Young Artists’ Performance Series.

Itinerant music and dance teachers, some of dubious character, made their living travelling from house to house preparing the young ladies for their entry into society. Hundreds of theater pieces and genre paintings portray their activities, often questioning whether the teachers were as interested in their pupils’ musical progress as in their other attractions. Shakespeare’s characterization of music as “the food of love” served as a sort of Leitmotiv and drinking wine or Champaign was very much part of the tableau. Molière’s hilarious Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a wonderful illustration of how ubiquitous such teachers must have been and how susceptible they were to satire. Not all depictions were so funny, and many were accompanied by moral warnings that music could lead the young lady astray.

An unusual chapter in the education of young women occurred in Italian ospedali in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous example is the Ospedale de la Pietà in Venice where Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) taught and composed most of his sacred music and concertos. The ospedali were state run homes for orphaned girls who were deposited through the scaffetta, a window just large enough to admit infants. Most but not all were female. Learning to sing and play an instrument was an essential part of their upbringing. The ospedali gained increasing attention through performances of concertos and sacred music by the girls’ choirs and orchestras.

Concerts were given for select audiences of important visitors. As the institution became famous, it sometimes received the illegitimate children of the nobility. Later they accepted music students sponsored by foreign courts or dignitaries. Girls who were especially good performers received lavish gifts from admirers. Some even contracted advantageous marriages, though most remained at the ospedale their entire lives. No less a figure than Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote of their music making: “I have not an idea of anything so voluptuous and affecting as this music…..everything in these delightful concerts concurs to produce an impression which certainly is not the mode, but from which I am of opinion no heart is secure.”

Paul Hawkshaw, Director

Jan Steen (1626-1679):The Music Lesson , Wallace Collection, London. The music teacher’s head is partially framed by the painting of cupids — perhaps a reference to what is on his mind. Music and love are never far apart.

Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667): The Music Lesson, Windsor Castle. Here the association between music, wine and women is clear. The musical purpose of the champaign glass in the teacher’s hand is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps, since she is no longer playing, we are to assume the lesson is over and things have moved on. Or is he in fact only a teacher? The Latin on the virginal translates “In You Lord I place my trust; don’t condemn me to eternal damnation,” and “Everything for the glory of God.” During the 17th century, these or similar moral warnings were commonly painted on the lids of Flemish keyboard instruments that were played principally by young ladies.

Anonymous ca. 1720. A choral concert at one of the four ospedali in Venice at the time. Girls were kept separate from the wealthy patrons on the floor below.

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