Charles Burney on the Singing in the Convent of Santa Maria Maddalena in Milan
Sunday, July 22…
It was by far the best singing, in every respect, that I had heard since my arrival in Italy; where there is so much, that one soon grows fastidious. At my first coming I both hungered and thirsted after music, but I now had had almost my fill; and we are more severe critics upon a full stomach, than with a good appetite. Several of the nuns sung, some but indifferently, but one of them had an excellent voice; full, rich, sweet, and flexible, with a true shake, and exquisite expression; it was delightful, and left nothing to wish, but duration!
There is a general complaint in England against loud accompaniments: and, if an evil there, it is doubly such in Italy. In the opera-house little else but the instruments can be heard, unless when the baritoni or base voices sing, who are able to contend with them; nothing but noise can be heard through noise; a delicate voice is suffocated: it seems to me as if the orchestra not only played too loud, but that it had too much to do.
Besides the organ in this convent for the chorusses, there was an organ and harpsichord together, which was likewise played by one of the nuns; and the accompaniment of that instrument alone with the heavenly voice above mentioned, pleased me beyond description, and not so much by what it did, as by what it did not do; surely one cannot hear too much of such a mellifluous voice. All the jargon of different parts, of laboured contrivance, and difficult execution, is little better than an ugly mask upon a beautiful face; even harmony itself, upon such occasions is an evil, when it becomes a sovereign instead of a subject.
I know this is not speaking like a musician, but I shall always give up the profession, when it inclines to pedantry; and give way to my feelings, when they seem to have reason on their side. If a voice be coarse, or otherwise displeasing, the less it is heard the better, and then tumultuous accompaniments and artful contrivances may have their use; but a single note from such a voice as that I heard this morning, penetrates deeper into the soul, than the same note from the most perfect instrument upon earth can do, which, at best, is but an imitation of the human voice.
The painting below is perhaps my favourite depiction of St Cecilia, painted by by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco at the beginning of the 17th century.