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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

Charles Burney on the Students at the Conservatorio of S. Onofrio: Wednesday 31st October 1770

This morning I went with young Oliver to his conservatorio of S. Onofrio, and visited all the rooms, where the boys practice, sleep and eat. On the 1st flight of stairs was a trumpeter screaming upon his instrument till he was ready to burst - on the 2nd a French horn bellowing in the same manner - in the common practicing room was a dutch concert, consisting of 7 or 8 harpsichords, more than as many fiddles, and several voices all performing different things in different keys - other boys were writing in the same room, but it being holiday time not near all were there who study and practice in the same room. This method of jumbling them all together may be convenient for the house and may teach the boys to stand fire, by obliging them to attend their own parts with firmness whatever else may be going forward at the same time. It may likewise give them force, in obliging them to play loud in order to hear themselves, for nothing but noise can pervade noise, but in the midst of such jargon and continued dissonance it is wholly impossible to acquire taste, expression or delicacy - there can be no polish or finishing given to their performance and that seems to account for the slovenliness and coarseness remarkable in their public exhibitions, and for the total want of taste, neatness and expression in these young performers till they have acquired it elsewhere.

The beds, which are in the same room, serve for seats to the harpsichords and other instruments. Out of thirty or forty boys who were practising, I could discover but two that were playing the same piece: Some of those who were practising on the violin seemed to have a great deal of hand. The violoncellos practise in another room; and the flutes, hautbois, and other wind instruments, in a third, except the trumpets and horns, which are obliged to fag, either on the stairs, or on the top of the house.

There are in this college sixteen young castrati, and these lye up stairs, by themselves, in warmer apartments than the other boys, for fear of colds, which might not only render their delicate voices unfit for exercise at present, but hazard the entire loss of them for ever.

The only vacation in these schools, in the whole year, is in autumn, and that for a few days only: during the winter, the boys rise two hours before it is light, from which time they continue their exercise, an hour and a half at dinner excepted, till eight o’clock at night; and this constant perseverance, for a number of years, with genius and good teaching, must produce great musicians.


Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (London: Becket, 1771).

The painting below is Edward Francis Burney’s ‘Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music’ (‘Musicians of the Old School’) completed c.1820.

’This is a version of the third-named painting, the only one, apparently, which Burney reworked as an oil painting. Its theme is the battle between 'modern' and 'traditional' taste in the music world. The modern is represented by references to Beethoven, Mozart and others in the foreground, while traditional taste is epitomised by Handel, whose bust looks down upon a group of musicians, appropriately dressed, who are playing (discordantly) music by his great contemporary Arcangelo Corelli. The concert takes place in a room whose decorations are predominantly Gothick in style, a further indication of the revival of ancient tastes. Burney includes many apparent and traditional amusing details such as the howling dog, noisy children, striking clocks, a careless servant, and a sneezing, coughing, snoring and throat-clearing audience.’

Tate, “‘Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music (“Musicians of the Old School”)’, Edward Francis Burney, C.1820,” Tate, accessed April 8, 2021,

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