The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 8, 2009

Vivaldi's Orphans

In the 18th century, one of the greatest composers of the Western world formed a unique collaborative venture with a group of women that would last 36 years. The composer was Father Antonio Vivaldi, and the women were all figlie, or daughters, of an ancient Venetian institution named Ospedali della Pietà, or the Mercy - a home for abandoned children. In 2007, a choir named Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi helped to road-test some of the latest discoveries about La Pietà and its musical history, and recorded some of his great sacred music entirely in female voice. Along the way, they dented the conventional musicological belief of the past two centuries that Vivaldi always meant to have men in his choirs. The BBC programme that portrayed the efforts of SPAV was a television gem, and deservedly won plaudits.

They sing like angels, and I swear there is nothing more diverting than the sight of a young and pretty woman with a pomegranate blossom over her ear conduct an orchestra with all the grace imaginable. (Charles de Brosses)

The brains behind the research is a husky-voiced woman named Micky White, who lives in La Pietà, and has been delving into the records of the institution to uncover hitherto unknown treasures of musicological and historical interest. The women who comprised the choir and the orchestra of La Pietà, she says, were brought up in the institution almost from birth, foundlings taken into care. Vivaldi understood that these women had been unwanted, discarded, and therefore vulnerable, and that sensitivity to their position informed all of his music written for La Pietà.

In the 18th century, wealthy men from all over Europe came to Venice to enjoy the strange combination of high culture, high art, and sex. Venice had a reputation for licentious behaviour in those days, and St. Mark's Square was a pimp's paradise. This sex industry had its consequences - a relentless flood of unwanted babies, many of whom were severely deformed by syphilis. It wasn't unknown for many unfortunate infants to be discreetly dropped into the canals of the city. More happily, however, there was an alternative for any woman unwilling or unable to take care of her child. Since the Middle Ages, four great Ospedali had formed a welfare system for Venice. The oldest of them, Mendicanti, is still Venice's main hospital, and was founded in the 12th century to succour lepers, beggars and the destitute. Another hospital took in famine victims, while a third looked after sufferers from syphilis and other infectious diseases. In 1346, the fourth, La Pietà, was established to take in abandoned children.

The introduction of music into these institutions appears to have occurred almost by accident. It had become quite clear to the Venetians that the foreigners traipsing into their city were interested in good music. During Lent, the opera houses were closed, so the tourists had to seek out other sources of musical entertainment. After heavy debauchery, they would go to church to ease their guilt, and there hear some of the finest music in Europe. To the congregation there was the added frisson in knowing that the women singing in the galleries above them were hidden from view behind metal grills, providing only an opaque silhouette of the choir producing the heavenly sounds.

This afternoon I went again into the Pietà. There was not much company and the girls played a thousand tricks in the singing, particularly in the duets, where there was a trial of skill and natural powers, as to who could go highest and lowest, ... , or run divisions with the greatest rapidity. At the hospitals and churches where it is not permitted to applaud in the same manner as at the opera, they cough, hem, or blow their noses to express admiration. (Charles Burney)

The women who were objects of this veneration were, on the one hand, musicians and vocalists of immaculate skill, and, on the other, deformed by disease, scarred by ringworm, pocked by smallpox, crippled by syphilis. In 1738, at the end of Vivaldi's association with the Pietà, there were a thousand women belonging in this institution. Even today, the Pietà fulfils the role of looking after the children of troubled families. It maintains much of its heritage, modernised to keep up with today's society. In the past, the Pietà educated boys and girls, taught them skills such as shoemaking and embroidery. Some children would be taken out of the city to be adopted; many remained within the Pietà's community all their lives. The Pietà owned large tracts of land, the proceeds of which were used for the upkeep of its wards.

M. le Blond introduced me to one after another of those famous singers whose voices and names were all that were known to me. ‘Come, Sophie,’ – she was horrible. ‘Come, Cattina,’ – she was blind in one eye. ‘Come, Bettina,’ – the smallpox had disfigured her. Scarcely one was without some considerable blemish . . . I was desolate.” However, by the end of the meal he was won over by their charm. “My way of looking at them changed so much that I left nearly in love with all these ugly girls. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

In Vivaldi's time, the musically oriented girls, the Figlie di Choro,  were trained to sing or play instruments, and many achieved renown throughout Europe for their excellence. Maestri wrote music and taught them; Vivaldi was only the greatest of their teachers and supporters.

Pietro d'Assissi, a Franciscan monk, founded La Pietà in 1346. It is not well-known at all, but in the Corte de la Pietà, one can still find the original building which stands to this day, where Pietro, disgusted by the sight of ill and unwanted children lying in the streets, established his hospice. The building is a private dwelling now, where the owner lives with his ten cats. Micky White points out that the symbolism is quite significant: when Pietro established La Pietà, he took in ten little children.

By the time La Pietà moved to its present location, the scaffetta was already established - originally a hole in the wall, then a revolving door - through which a child could be deposited safely. [Picture by Joebrent on Flickr.] Today, the scaffetta no longer exists, but there is still a plaque that threatens damnation and excommunication on anyone who abandons a child despite having the means to raise it. Once a baby was posted through the scaffetta, it was registered, with a description of the clothes it was wearing, and the date and time of entry was recorded, and a mark of P branded on its upper left arm. On an average, four children were put in the care of the Pietà every day. Occasionally, a mother might come back to reclaim her child, and in order to be able to identify her own, she would produce a token, maybe half of a coin, or half a playing card, the other half of which she had left with the baby. These details were also recorded in the Pietà's books. And when a death occurred in the hospice, an entry of death would be made in the same register.

Vivaldi was born just up the road from the Pietà. San Giovanni Battista was his parish church. The Red Priest, as he came to be called owing to his vividly blazing hair, was born here on 16 March, 1678. His father, Giovanni, was a violinist in the Doge's Chapel, who also taught at one of the ospedale. Antonio started training for the priesthood at the age of 15. He continued his training for ten years, but three years after being ordained as a priest, found himself unable to continue to offer Mass on account of ill health. His own description was a tightness of the chest, which led many to believe he was severely asthmatic. In 1703, he was hired as violin teacher at the Pietà, where he worked on and off for 36 years, until shortly before his death in 1740.

Vivaldi is best known today for his Four Seasons, and concerti for violin and string orchestra, but these are only four of nearly five hundred that he wrote, many of them for the girls of the Pietà. There's an old joke that Vivaldi wrote one concerto and then rewrote it 500 times, but this is a shame, because he was a highly experimental composer, and introduced many techniques and instruments into his repertoire. Scordatura, a means of retuning the strings to allow different combinations of notes to be played, was one such unusual technique. His sinecure at the Pietà also meant that he had the freedom to experiment with various combinations of instruments too, and he wrote pieces for soloists and orchestra that allowed each of the girls to shine.

For instance, he wrote 27 concerti for the cello, several of which were for one girl, called Theresa, who was obviously a fantastic cellist. He also wrote 9 sonatas for the cello, which are popular today with both amateur and professional players.

People have variously called Vivaldi shallow and flashy, and perhaps his concerti played today faster than he intended do sound over-embellished. But his sacred music, performed in the Pietà, by voices he wrote for, under the acoustics that he understood, has a truly divine character and spiritual depth.

One of Micky's achievements has been to uncover the names and identities of the women who performed in the Figlie di Choro. At any time, there were sixty musicians active. Over 140 of them have now been identified, students of Vivaldi, students such as Apollonia, the singer, and Anna-Maria, the violinist, characters with names such as Chiara and Samaritana and Pelegrina. Pelegrina started her training on the bass, moved onto the violin, and then began on the oboe. Almost all oboe parts that Vivaldi wrote are for Pelegrina; indeed, he recognised the individual talents and abilities of his musicians, and wrote specially to illuminate each one.

I can conceive of nothing as voluptuous or as moving as this music. What grieves me is those iron grills which allow only notes to pass through and conceal those angels of loveliness. As I listen, I feel a tremor of love such as I have never experienced before. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

Many of the women lived to an old age Pelegrina played the oboe till the age of 62, and then the violin till 77. She only stopped the oboe because by then she had no teeth. All the women worked very hard at their music; several were superb at many instruments, such as the mandolin and harp and oboe and violin; others, such as Apollonia, didn't play instruments because they were such brilliant vocalists. Some of the women were superstars all over Europe.

 Look here, leading the way, like the leader of her troops, comes Anna Maria, the incarnation of goodness and beauty... She plays the violin in such a way that anyone hearing her is transported to paradise. She is beautiful. She has fair hair, rosy cheeks, a snow-white breast, fiery eyes and noble features. (anonymous poem c. 1740)

In the Venice Conservatory, one finds the Anna Maria Notebooks, a collection of violin concerti written for her by Vivaldi. When she was sixteen years old, Vivaldi bought her a violin for 20 ducats, which was three months' salary for him. Clearly, he had a high opinion of her ability and potential.

four parts For years, musicologists have wondered how the singers were arranged in the Pietà. In particular, who would sing the tenor and bass parts? Nobody could believe that women could achieve these low registers, although in the Pietà registers, there was even a woman named Anna del Basso. It was long assumed that men were drafted to sing these parts, or that these parts were transposes up an octave, but with the SPAV ensemble that I mentioned above, it is quite clear that women can manage the entire range by themselves. Their bass, Margaret Jackson-Roberts, is that rare woman, a powerful and deep bass. She has, sadly, faced accusations of freakishness, but her voice is puissant and profound, and provides the much needed foundation for the rest of the choir. For example, in the penultimate movement of the Dixit Dominus, the Gloria Patri, three voices, bass, tenor and alto enter in that order, and we hear the sonority of the low voices. This is the closest that we come to solo writing for bass, and the effect, when executed by the women of SPAV, is magnificent.

In Venice's Central Archives, there are 78 kilometres of shelving storing documents from the hoary past of the city. This is one of the most important archives in Italy, and Micky White conducts her research into the Pietà and Vivaldi here. There are more than a thousand busta, or files, on the Pietà alone, researching all of which is surely the work of a lifetime. Micky is planning to publish a book about her archival discoveries, and there's some talk of an Italian researcher who is trying either to beat her to it, or usurp her story. Her claim that Vivaldi was cherished and appreciated by everyone in the Pietà, the governors, the figlie, the maestri, too, is not exactly in tune with the current view of the academy, which holds that his relationship with the Pietà was fractious.

In the grand church of the Pietà that replaced the little pink one that existed during Vivaldi's tenure there is a fresco by Tiepolo. In it, to the left of a trumpeter, a red-headed face appears, half hidden by figures looking up at the heavens. The face is looking into the nave of the church, at all the singers who would have performed there. Micky White thinks that that is Vivaldi's face, portrayed with respect and affection at the behest of the authorities of the Pietà.

Part of Micky's research is to determine exactly how the choir was organised in the cantoria, the singing galleries high up around the church's interior. The women, arrayed along all the sides of the church, would have produced a marvellous acoustic effect, quadraphonia in effect. The first sopranos were put in the northeast quarter gallery, the second sopranos in the southeast quarter gallery, the band split into two in the organ galleries with the basses and the bass instruments, and altos in the northwest, and tenors in the southwest. Vivaldi never came into this building, but he saw plans of it, and was involved in its design. The sound produced from the galleries is extraordinary, but very difficult to organise, in view of the acoustic effects - echoes of almost eight or nine seconds.

Vivaldi [Caricature by P.L.Ghezzi, Rome (1723)], meanwhile, had recognised that the sales of his concerti and his salary from the Pietà would never amount to much of a living. Opera at the time was the real moneyspinner, so in his thirties, he began to write for this brutal and incredibly popular genre. He rapidly became a star in the Venetian operatic firmament. The Pietà women were forbidden going anywhere near the Opera Sant' Angelo, which was barely twenty minutes' walk from them, but they were not the only women in Vivaldi's life. In 1718, he met a young opera singer half his own age, named Anna Giró, who became his travelling companion, and the favoured soprano for his operas. Their relationship was the subject of much speculation, although there was no evidence that they were lovers. In a letter to an accusing cardinal, Vivaldi furiously denied any impropriety (with reason, for otherwise he would have been in serious trouble).

The musicians of the Pietà would have been quite curious about Vivaldi's operatic life; partly to satisfy this curiosity, he wrote oratorios, music dramas, which were likely performed (and even enacted) by the women of the Pietà. The only that survives, Juditha Triumphans, bears a strong similarity to the pieces he had written for the popular theatre.

In 1740, Vivaldi, under financial pressure, left Venice for the last time. He headed to Vienna, perhaps to supervise the production of one of his latest operas. Soon after he died of an internal inflammation on the 28th July, 1741. He was given a simple burial in the hospital grounds. The Pietà music tradition continued after his death. But in 1760, Charles Burney was observing that the music of the Pietà was not as it had once been. By 1820, the music was over.


  1. Amanda Holloway, The Red Priest Unfrocked, The Times, October 19, 2007.
  2. Michael White, The Vivaldi Hunters, The New York Times, November 21, 2004.


Ruth Davis said...

Just like to say that although she is most splendid Margaret is one of 3-4 Basses who sing with the choir, 2 of whom, myself and Margaret sing the full Bass range in our performances and others who jump up an octave below the 'C' below middle 'C'. Glad you enjoyed the programme. We are recording for Sky next week so look out for that, will no doubt be advertised on our website.

Fëanor said...

Ruth: thank you for your comments. I shall indeed look out for the Sky programme; also, I hear you are releasing a disc, which would be very welcome as well. All the best!

The Goddess' Rant said...

Hi "M" and Ruth - yes, indeed the DVD should be out in the Fall, and the documentary should be on Sky Arts in September. And although I am also one of the Basses, Ruth and Margaret go even lower than me!

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