Robert Gjerdingen

The Institutionalization of Apprenticeship in the Great Conservatories: A Cognitive Interpretation of a Non-Verbal Praxis

Music, like all the other crafts of pre-industrial Europe, was learned through apprenticeship. When formalized, an apprenticeship often involved a ten-year indenture of a young boy or girl to a master or mistress. Unpaid labor was exchanged for entry into the ‘mystery’ of the craft. The four ‘conservatori’ or foundling homes of Naples were the first to institutionalize this indenture, ultimately aggregating as many as 600 boys for the intense study of music. Just as the four Inns of Court in London raised clerkship to a higher level in English law, so the conservatories of Naples created a critical mass of young talents such as Europe had never seen. By the end of the 19th century almost every industrializing nation had established its own version of a music conservatory.
Perhaps the low social status of foundlings and performing musicians and their hermetic ‘insiders’ praxis (a hold-over from the closed world of craft guilds) led educated writers on music to overlook or to deprecate the ‘mindless’ repetitive exercises of the conservatories. Even when, at the Paris Conservatory, the work of replicating master patterns was raised to a level of finesse comparable to that of the École des Beaux-Arts, it was still not considered of any theoretical significance.
Only from the mid-1990s did a small group of scholars begin to re-examine and rediscover what was being learned in the great conservatories. In modern terms, we can now recognize a systematic praxis aimed at the building up of a huge repertory of schemata or constructions, which collectively operated like what contemporary linguists term a usage-based grammar. The goal of such an undertaking would be to produce ‘native speakers’ of a language, and the many great composers who emerged from this training would seem to support its efficacy.