An 18th century lesson for the budding musicians of today

23 Apr 2014 13:14:41.827


A fascinating documentary on how musicians were trained in the 18th century and how their methods might help children learning music today is being aired on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday.

Dr Nicholas Baragwanath from The University of Nottingham’s Department of Music presents this week’s ‘Sunday Feature’ on Radio 3 at 6.45pm. He investigates the 18th century Italian phenomenon of ‘orphanage-conservatories’ which produced most of the stars of the golden age of European music.

The programme will paint a picture of 18th century Naples where poverty, disease and prostitution were rife, resulting in a large number of abandoned children. Many of the children were taken in by conservatories that trained them as musicians and composers, a lucrative trade at the time.

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Lessons from history

Nicholas Baragwanath is an experienced broadcaster who regularly writes and presents programmes for BBC Radio 3. This Sunday’s programme is based on his Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project on ‘solfeggi’, or studies in melody which were central to the training of musicians in Europe between 1670 and 1850.

Dr Baragwanath explores this unusual but effective music education system which enabled disadvantaged children to compose immaculate operas and symphonies by their early teens. Some, like Pergolesi and Scarlatti, became famous artists and composers who were welcomed into rich and royal circles and whose works are still performed today. 

Recently uncovered by scholars, 18th century music training methods are gaining currency in a modern system which is often criticised for stifling individualism. The methods are based on giving children simple musical games and puzzles to play with, rather than teaching them how to read a score ‘correctly’.

Timetravelling to the 'Golden Age' 

The programme travels to Naples to uncover the forgotten story of the musicians who were truly famous during the 18th century and to find out how they became so skilled in such a short time. The journey leads our musical detective to the normally inaccessible historical archive of the Naples conservatory with documents dating back to the Middle Ages. He also visits the sites of the original conservatories in Naples, now abandoned or converted to new uses, the Royal Academy of Music in London, Scola Cantorum in Basel, Northwestern University in Chicago, USA, and meets Alma Deutscher, a 9-year-old British girl who has been trained the Neapolitan way and who has already composed many accomplished works, including an opera.

Dr Baragwanath said: “I’m sure there are plenty of parents out there who find it hard to motivate their kids to practice their instruments. I don’t think I’m alone in finding modern music teaching a little lacking in creativity. I want my 3-year-old son, Isaac, to grow up with the pure joy of music and a lot less of the pain that I went through, what with graded exams and the drudgery of daily practice. In my search to find an alternative, I discovered a story that changes everything, that blows the lid off the whole accepted history of music. Much of the great classical music we know and love stemmed from a single place, Naples, where they developed an incredible system for training disadvantaged children to become musicians. Given the tools to develop their own creativity, these kids had skills that modern musicians can only dream of. I know which way I’ll be educating Isaac!”


Nicholas Baragwanath studied as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music before completing postgraduate degrees at the University of Sussex. From 1998 he was Lecturer in Music at the University of Wellington, New Zealand, moving in 2001 to the Royal Northern College of Music, where he was Head of Postgraduate Studies and subsequently Dean of Research and Enterprise, overseeing the establishment of a new Graduate School. He joined The University of Nottingham in 2010. He has published widely on music from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, and often appears as a keynote speaker at conferences in the UK and abroad. He received the international Westrup Prize in musicology in 2006. 

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Story credits

More information is available from Dr Nicholas Baragwanath, School of Music, on +44 (0)115 95 14755 

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