Dr Nicholas Baragwanath, University of Nottingham

 

Solfeggi, or studies in melody, were central to the training of European musicians c.1670-1850. The method originated in Italian conservatoires for disadvantaged children, especially at Naples and Bologna. The presence of large ms. collections in European archives (almost 300 in Italy alone) testifies to the importance of this kind of exercise for composition and performance in the 18th and 19th centuries, including for the ‘Classical Style’ of Haydn and Mozart, which continues to underpin modern notions of art-music as an academic discipline and creative industry.

Despite its historical significance and its potential to enliven current debates, the tradition has featured fleetingly, if at all, in modern scholarship. The reasons for this are complex, but can be explained in part by a prevailing Germanocentric bias and a continuing reliance on 19th-century theories.

 

In mapping out a significant new direction for musicology, this project challenges ingrained attitudes founded on a dominant national(ist) meta-narrative, framed in 19th-century Germany. It demonstrates the importance of music as a mechanism of transnational cultural exchange, which in many ways transcends linguistic barriers. It explores a vanished network of cultural relations – a shared understanding of melody – that once brought together the poorest and richest on (almost) equal terms. Although the conservatoires that pioneered solfeggi produced musicians for the super-rich, to provide entertainment at courts and chapels, they were at the same time charitable institutions that offered vocational training for the poor and dispossessed. Many great musicians of the western tradition (including Haydn) rose to exalted status from humble backgrounds, primarily through the spread of these training methods.

 

This Fellowship will produce the first monograph on the solfeggio tradition, supported by a free online database, public engagement and networking activities. It will reconstruct a forgotten art of melody, drawing on primary source material not available elsewhere, to provide scholars with a framework for further studies and performers, teachers, and learners with new insights (by e.g. informing the development of curricula and music education software, facilitating collaboration through an international network, offering workshops at schools and conservatoires, preparing an international conference and exhibition, attracting PhD students, and mentoring a research assistant).

 

To focus its scope, the study investigates Haydn’s operas and string quartets in light of the teachings of Neapolitan maestro Nicola Porpora, from whom he claimed to have learned ‘the true fundamentals of composition’. This involves the construction of a new theory, which inverts the conventional modern understanding of western ‘common practice’ music by identifying the main compositional determinant not in the bass, as bearer of harmony, but in the melody, as bearer of form (or discourse). Solfeggi taught melodic writing and ‘conduct’, or what would now be called musical form.

 

The solfeggio tradition embodies the meritocratic spirit of the Enlightenment. It testifies to a shared European heritage of melody as a cultural practice (or a kind of language) that crossed national boundaries. Meaningful parallels can be drawn with contemporary popular music culture, which can similarly unite people across linguistic and social barriers. Haydn learned his craft busking on the streets and backing singers. His music was founded on the elaboration of simple well-known formulas, like modern pop music. Its aim was to entertain.

With appropriate leadership, this seminal study of the solfeggio tradition will contribute to an increased understanding of inter-cultural relations in terms of the influence of a transnational diaspora (primarily of Italian musicians, transmitting their practices across Europe through oral teachings) and the power of music as a common language of popular culture.

 

 

Dr Nicholas Baragwanath

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