Angèle Dubeau founded La Pietà in 1997, an all-female string ensemble featuring some of Canada’s best musicians. What she could not have known at the time was that this experiment, originally [...]
They spoke about it
For 40 years in Venice, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) led the female musicians of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, and wrote for them an untold number of works for every genre and instrument of the time. No doubt their spirit and total involvement had a powerful influence on Vivaldi’s art, and in return, the leadership of the Red Priest harnessed the enthusiasm of these young people and made their performances the pride of the Venetian Republic.
Vivaldi at the Ospedale della Pietà
For centuries, Venice had been home to four charitable institutions, initially intended as hospitals, which at the time offered health care as well as asylum. They were: Ospedale dei Derelitti, an orphanage also called Ospedaletto; San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti , initially a lazaret and later a refuge for beggars; Ospedale degli Incurabli, a hospital for the chronically ill—the first public hospital in history, founded in 1485—and Ospedale della Pietà. These institutions, in addition to their original missions, gradually saw their functions grow to include education and musical training, becoming in a sense conservatories. The State conferred on them the duty to raise illegitimate girls and occasionally repentant or Dio conventite prostitutes. As for the boys, undoubtedly more easily placed in adoptive homes or in shipyards and artisans’ workshops, they were admitted only at the Incurabili. For these young girls daily life was very similar to that in a convent, and while many travelers returned with tales of frivolities and courtesies, the rules were strict and punishment severe.
The monastic regime specified hours for sleep and prayer, silence and reading during meals, daily mass, frequent confession, all alongside various jobs such as sewing sails for the ships of the Republic. A breach of the rules brought garnished wages, fines, solitary confinement or cutting of the hair. The uniform worn by the girls in each institution was different: blue, the colour of faith, at the Incurabili; white, the colour of virginity, at the Derelitti; purple, the colour of mourning, at the Mendicanti, and red, the colour of charity, at La Pietà. Few of the boarders went on to take religious vows as they were intended for marriage. As Marcel Marnat observed: “It was an established custom among the middle class and the lesser nobility to choose a wife who has not experienced the world” as well as the occasional mistress from among these girls, who were only permitted visitors once a month while chaperoned by an elder and the occasional group outing accompanied by a prioress.
The figlie di commun were more numerous. They received a general education including latin, arithmetic and religion; the musicians were the figlie di coro, who also learned to sing or play musical instruments and whose jobs included copying music. The most talented of this group became the privileggiate di coro; they taught the beginners instrumental technique, musical theory and led the exercises and practices. Tasks beyond their abilities were the responsibility of teachers “of good education and good morals”.
In Vivaldi’s time, of the 1,000 boarders at the Pietà only some 50 were privileggiate. They gave vocal and instrumental concerts, sometimes for a fee, sometimes free, generating significant revenues. The orchestra and chorus were the darlings of the Venetian nobility and visitors from abroad. They were, however, hidden from view during performances by grills, and many became famous without anyone seeing their faces! The concerts at the Pietà were universally praised. In 1726, Joachim Quantz rated them in the top position, and in 1739, the president of Brosses wrote in: “Of the four hospitals, the place I go the most often and where I enjoy myself the most is La Pietà: it also ranks first for the perfection of its symphonies. What tightness of execution! Only here do we discern this first stroke of the bow, so wrongly praised at the Opéra de Paris”. Some of the musicians went down in history, their names inexorably linked to their instruments. There was Anna-Maria del violino—of whom traveler Christoph Nemeitz declared, in 1721, that few male virtuosos could equal her—, Lucietta dalla viola, Catharina dal cornetto, Bianca Maria organista and others. In 1715 Marietta sang in Handel’s Agrippina at the San Angelo Theatre, it was with a violinist trained at the Pietà a generation after Vivaldi, Regina Strinasacchi, that Mozart premiered his Violin Sonata K. 454 in 1784. Just after his ordination as a priest, Vivaldi entered the Pietà in September 1703, as maestro di violino. His contract, renewed yearly, called for him to teach, the violin and all sizes of the viole all’inglese, a sweet sounding instrument much like the viola d’amore, and oversee the purchase and maintenance of the instruments.
He worked under the direction of the maestro di coro, Francesco Gasparini, who gradually increased his responsibilities to include leading ensembles and composition. Thus, it was in 1716 that Vivaldi was named maestro di concerti, even though he had prided himself on this title for several years. In 1713, after the departure of Gasparini, he received an additional stipend to compose religious works of all types, motets, masses and oratorios. Even when his contract was not renewed in 1709, the working relationship was never completely severed, and his works continued to be played. Vivaldi occasionally took a leave of absence from the institution, mainly to organize productions of his opera outside Venice and Italy, but even then, he was obliged to produce several concertos each month. This collaboration ceased in 1740 when Vivaldi traveled to Vienna at the invitation of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. He died a year later from “internal inflammation”.
Vivaldi’s Concertos for String Orchestra
Vivaldi’s first compositions coincide with his arrival at the Pietà. Dedicated to Count Annibale Gambara, the twelve sonatas of opus I were published in Venice in 1705. These were the obligatory trio sonatas, a form established by Corelli and favoured by young composers for their first forays. Vivaldi paid tribute to the master, but also showed himself his equal: the last sonata in the collection is made up of perilous variations on La Folia, a theme Corelli used in the final sonata of his opus V.
Vivaldi’s early concertos are those of opus III, a collection entitled L’Estro armonico (The Musical Inspiration), published in Amsterdam in 1711—as Dutch printers used more advanced techniques—and dedicated to Prince Ferdinand de Medicis III. Written for one, two, three and four solo violins, they are the bridge between Corelli’s concerto grosso and the modern concerto. With the virtuosity of his writing and the constant interest of his musical dialogue, the fundamental genius of the composer fully manifested itself and the 12 concertos resounded all over Europe.
Vivaldi published only a small fraction of his concertos for different instruments, mainly strings. The bulk of the works, written for the students of the Pietà, were kept in manuscript form. His sources of inspiration were numerous and embraced descriptive subjects. In addition to the Seasons, the violin concerto entitled L’Amoroso, composed in about 1725, evokes, with its E major key associated with peace and joy, the happiness of lovers. As for the Alla rustica concerto, it bears the mark of Venice’s popular music, and takes its place among Vivaldi’s concertos without soloist in which the composer spotlights the strings. Sometimes called concerto ripieno, sometimes sinfonia, and frequently mistaken for an overture to an opera, this type of concerto is written in four parts. Particular to Vivaldi, we find homophonic writing, often brilliant and occasionally in minor keys, fugue-like.
Through their development and quest for sonorities, on a mass scale and in minute detail, these concertos, described by Walter Kolneder as “orchestral studies” laid the foundations for the classical symphony. There are composers who fit precisely into their surroundings and their inspiration corresponds exactly to the resources at their disposal. With the students at the Pietà, of whom the most talented had only one distraction, the pleasure of making music, Vivaldi was able to reach the best; this exceptional instrument, this laboratory, allowed the blossoming, in the words of Marcel Marnat, “of the immense and complex work of one of the most discussed and yet inscrutable musical geniuses”.
The novelty, vigour, freshness and immediacy of Vivaldi’s art, qualities which touch us today, could not have flourished without the youth and compliance of his students. The work he imposed on them demonstrates the power of combining discipline and artistic freedom.
© François Filiatrault, 1998
Translated by Janet Sandor