Vivaldi and La Pieta

Composer and  maestro di violino  of the   Ospedale della Pietà,   Antonio Vivaldi.

Composer and maestro di violino of the Ospedale della Pietà, Antonio Vivaldi.

There was a time and place when the hot ticket in classical music was an all-female orchestra led by female conductors and featuring female soloists. Its members lived together and studied with the leading international composers of the day. The government provided financial support, as did private donors.

This was 18th-century Venice, and the institution in question was the Ospedale della Pietà, a foundation that cared for abandoned and orphaned children. Because there is nothing else quite like in the history of music, the Pietà has been the subject of considerable fascination, chronicled in movies, novels, and on recordings.

Its fame is largely connected to its illustrious resident composer and violin teacher: Antonio Vivaldi. The ‘Red Priest’ was affiliated with the Pietà for much of his adult life, and though his tenure had its troubles — he could be strong-willed, flighty and perhaps a bit suspect — the fruits of his legacy are numerous and include oratorios, sonatas and concertos for violin, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon and mandolin.

Who Were the Pietà Students?

In 1703, a 25-year-old Vivaldi was ordained as a priest and joined the Pietà as maestro di violino. Fits of coughing, likely due to asthma, had forced him to give up celebrating Mass, but the Pietà held a liturgical function through its performances.

The Pietà was one of four ospedali grandi in Venice, and home to nearly a thousand students. The boys lived separately in the home and learned a trade. The girls studied music, and the most accomplished were placed in a special class — the figlie di coro, (daughters of the choir) — where they could attain a certain celebrity and, if lucky, marriage offers from the nobility.

Eyewitness Reports

There were between 40 and 60 students in a coro. Public performances took place in chapels and drew travelers from around Europe. Some of the (male) interest was clearly voyeuristic, as the girls performed in galleries, cloaked behind metal grills.

Commemorative plaque beside the Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice.

Commemorative plaque beside the Ospedale della Pietà (Devout Hospital of Mercy) in Venice.

“The chapel is always full of music lovers,” reported the writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Even the singers from the Venetian opera come so as to develop genuine taste in singing based on these excellent models. What grieved me was those accursed grills, which allowed only tones to go through and concealed the angels of loveliness of whom they were worthy.”

Another visitor, the French politician Charles de Brosses, claimed to steal glimpses of the girls through the latticework during or after a performance.

“There is no instrument, however unwieldy, that can frighten them,” he wrote. “They are cloistered like nuns. It is they alone who perform, and about 40 girls take part in each concert. I vow to you that there is nothing so diverting as the sight of a young and pretty nun in a white habit, with a bunch of pomegranate blossoms over her ear, conducting the orchestra and beating time with all the grace and precision imaginable.”

Palace Intrigue

The complete duration of Vivaldi’s affiliation with the Pietà lasted until around 1735, but it was not without strains. The board of directors voted every year on whether to keep a teacher and, in 1709, it ruled against him in a 7 to 6 verdict.

“No one really knows how this extraordinary state of affairs came about,” writes H.C. Robbins Landon in Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque. “Obviously Vivaldi, now a prominent figure in the artistic society of Venice, was making not only friends and admirers but enemies.” But the board evidently realized how much they needed Vivaldi, and in 1711 he was reinstated and eventually promoted to the top post of music director.

Despite his frequent travels, Vivaldi led rehearsals and wrote two concertos a month for the Pietà’s orchestra. Several dozen were tailored for Anna Maria Della Pietà, a violinist and mandolin player whose gifts once inspired an anonymous poet to write that when she played, “countless angels dare to hover near.”

Since spotting Anna Maria’s talent as a child, Vivaldi went on to compose for her the Violin Concerto in D minor (RV 248), the Violin Concerto in B-flat (RV 363), and the Mandolin Concerto in C (RV 425), among other works. By 1737 Anna Maria attained two leadership posts: maestra di violino and maestra di coro.

Yet eyebrows were raised when Vivaldi began carrying on an ambiguous relationship with another student, the gifted mezzo-soprano Anna Girò. The gossip mill especially began to churn in 1724, when Anna and her elder half-sister, Paulina, moved in with him. Vivaldi insisted that their relationship was platonic and, indeed, priests in the 18th century often cohabited with women who provided meals, housework and companionship. Still, Anna had a special place in Vivaldi’s heart, and he wrote many roles for her, including Alcina in his opera Orlando Furioso.

Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot takes a measured view of the composer’s sex life in an essay collection published in 2011. “The consensual view among scholars today,” he writes, “is that Vivaldi, although not lacking in such human faults as vanity, self-righteousness and paranoia, was in formal terms, a perfectly orthodox, correctly observant and not necessarily licentious (albeit perhaps rather indiscreet) priest.”

An Expansive Catalog

More essential to our understanding of the Pietà is the breadth of music it inspired, and certainly not all by Vivaldi. The late historian Jane Baldauf-Berdes estimated that over three centuries, there were more than 4,000 original works composed for the Ospedali by at least 300 composers, including Francesco Gasparini and Giuseppe Sarti.

But for the Vivaldi enthusiast, the Ospedale della Pietà left a sizable imprint on his catalog, whether it’s the Oboe Concerto in C Major RV 450 (likely written for an orphan named Pelegrina), the shimmering psalm setting Nisi Dominus (written for Girò), or his only surviving oratorio, Juditha triumphans (Judith Triumphs), with its affecting arias and glorious choruses.

- Written by Brian Wise

Brian Wise writes about classical music for BBC Music Magazine, Musical America, and is the producer of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio broadcasts.

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