Monday, March 10, 2014

Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick


When I was high school my choir performed Vivaldi's “Gloria.” It was my introduction to a composer I knew little of until I was in my twenties. Gary and I were living in Philadelphia, which held an Avenue of the Arts celebration each year. Our first attendance of the event I heard an orchestra playing outdoors. They were playing Vivaldi's “The Four Seasons” and I fell in love with the piece.

Vivaldi's Virgins, a novel by Barbara Quick, is based on current research into Vivaldi's role as a music teacher and composer for the girls orchestra and choir associated with an orphanage in Venice.  For a link to the author go to:
http://vivaldisvirgins.com

The Ospedale della Pieta, or Hospital of Mercy, was one of four hospitals in Venice that provided care for the indigent, elderly, ill and orphaned. The Pieta was founded in 1346 as a way to provide for the multitude of unwanted infants who were discarded in the canals and streets of the city. Venice was a city with an active 'sex industry', and the resultant babies were often born with syphilis which caused deformities. Ringworm and smallpox were other common diseases that left children deformed.

The Pieta was founded in a tiny house starting with ten children. It grew to accommodate 800 orphans. By the 18th c. babies could be left int a small opening in the wall of the Pieta. The orphans were branded and documented. If they came with tokens for identification, so parents could later claim them, they were noted and preserved. The children were taught trades and crafts. Some children were sent out for adoption. Well off parents also left girls for 'safe keeping' until they reached marriageable age.

Those girls identified with musical skill became musicians and singers for the church choir and orchestra. People would flock to hear the music, especially during Lent when the opera houses were closed.

The girls performed from a gallery, hidden behind openwork metal screens. Although many were not lovely, the music they created transported their audience, who imagined the girls to be beautiful angels. Once grown, the girls taught for two years to repay their keep while growing up. Then some entered the convent. Some were married off. And some remained at the Pieta for life, often playing into their 70s.

Vivaldi was one of a series of musicians employed by the Pieta to teach the students and to write music for performance. Vivaldi was called The Red Priest because of his fiery red hair. He seems to have had little calling for the priesthood, expending his energies in teaching music and writing, including over 500 concertos, many for specific girl musicians. Vivaldi was associated with the Pieta, which was not far from his birth place in Venice, from 1703 until his death in 1741.

The Pieta created mega stars of their time. “Anyone hearing her is transported to Paradise” was written about one of the star violinists, Anna Maria della Violin.  Anna Maria was born in 1696 and died at the Pieta in 1697. Vivaldi bought her violin, costing three month's salary, and wrote 37 concertos specifically for Anna Maria. Research by Mickey White shows that Anna Maria played many instruments over her 86 years at the Pieta, including oboe, violin, tiorba, harpsichord, viola d amore, cello and mandolin.

Anna Maria was described as beautiful, with blonde hair, rosy cheeks, fiery eyes and noble features. Barbara Quick's book makes this fiery girl come to life. She does a wonderful job of recreating Venice in 1709 to 1711, incorporating many 'facts' into her narrative in a seamless way. Like the real girls of the Pieta, Anna and her friends rebel, sneak out of the Pieta, and get into trouble. Quick's Anna is flesh and blood.

Everything was so overheated for me then,” Anna writes looking back to her pre-pubescent years. “I saw signs and portends in the simplest events of every day life, imagining that they all referred to me. I felt barbs where none was meant, and I heard criticism ten times louder than any praise. I felt a sense of closeness to my friends so intense that I couldn't imagine that life would ever have the temerity to part me from them. I understood nothing then.”

I loved the scene where the girls have performed for the King of Denmark and he invites four to attend a ball with him. The girls are dressed in finery and Carnival masks. At the ball Anna sees Scarlatti and Handel, the mega stars of their day. The two musicians face off in a musical duel. Scarlatti is declared King of the harpsichord, and Handel as King of the organ. The women in the audience go wild. Think “Frankie.” Think Elvis. Think Beatlemania. I had never considered Baroque musicians had inspired the same kind of mania as we have in our modern world.

I was shocked to learn that after his death Vivaldi faded into the background for several hundred years. He was considered 'flashy'. His experimentation was unappreciated. His music is very hard to play, not just because of the quickness required but also because his music requires playing with two voices, chords, retuning the strings, and playing simultaneously two notes on two strings.

Time has a very poor memory. We each of us do what we can to be remembered—but most of us are forgotten.”

Thankfully, researchers like Micky White and writers like Barbara Quick have resurrected the forgotten girl musicians of the Pieta.

For a very nice documentary about the Pieta see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=153WVp8QJQ0