Exercitia at Uppsala University

We often see still today that the conductor of the Royal Academic Orchestra, that is, Uppsala University’s own symphony orchestra, is called director musices. Why is such an archaic title used instead of the word ‘conductor’?

To understand this we have to go back more than four hundred years in time. The University, which had been revived in 1595, was still largely characterised by the type of learning that typified it in the Middle Ages. Most of the students would be entering the clergy, and even for those who were not, studies were dominated by theology and the languages associated with Bible study – Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

But during and after the reign of Gustav II Adolf, young men with different ambitions began to find their way to the academy, which is what the University was always called in that day. They were young nobles and belonged to the circles that the king gathered round him. They were not interested in the ancient languages, with the exception of Latin, which was then the lingua franca the way English is in our day. When they traveled on the Continent as diplomats, civil servants, or officers, they wanted to be able to speak the national vernaculars, primarily French, Italian, and Spanish – they generally knew German fairly well from home. They wished to be able to ride, fence, and dance, but also be knowledgeable about modern music and to be reasonably good at drawing, at least for private purposes. Nor was it unimportant to know how to comport oneself in civil society.

En teckning som föreställer en student som rider en häst för första gången
The artist John Arsenius (1818–1903) drew a series of drawings depicting scenes from the University’s riding lessons. This drawing is from 1839 and is named Första trafven (‘First trot’). The person in the drawing says ‘I beseech that I may stop and get off.’

Both Gustav II Adolf and his successors on the throne were keen to have Uppsala University develop the function of providing practical career training to these groups of students. Change was rather slow in coming though, and it wasn’t until February 1663 that anything happened. Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie was the University Chancellor at the time, and Olof Rudbeck was the most influential man in Uppsala. A royal decree was issued, ordering the establishment of regular instruction in the fields mentioned above. These disciplines were termed exercitia, meaning ‘exercises.’ The art of horseback riding was especially important, and to see to it that this was looked after properly, Rudbeck had a magnificent riding academy built on the very site where the University Main Building stands today. It was called the Exercitia Hall and stood until the late 1870s.

Developments in the field of nexercitia have been long and checkered. The language masters, as they were called within the modern languages, disappeared long ago, and instruction has been taken over by the subjects at the Faculty of Languages. Horseback riding is booming as never before and it is no exaggeration to say that the Royal Academic Orchestra fills a major function in Uppsala, which is acclaimed for its choirs and music.

Current masters

Uppsala University still boasts a fencing master, a master of the academic stables, and an inspector equitandi, who oversees horseback riding. Gymnastics and sports instructors are found at Campus 1477, though with no fancy titles. Orchestral activities, as mentioned, are addressed by a director musices and drawing by an artist, called the drawing master in these contexts.

The ancient ‘upper-class education’ from the 17th century is still an important feature of the life of the University and its students. And it continues to develop, in step with the times.

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Last modified: 2022-07-08