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37

While the Music Lasts

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in Ecce Homo, that “when I seek another word for music, I always find only the word Venice.” One evening in the city, in the late nineteenth century, Richard Wagner was being carried home on a gondola across the dark waters; his gondolier plied the oar when suddenly “from his mighty breast came a mournful sound not unlike the howl of an animal, swelling up from a deep, low note, and after a long-sustained ‘Oh!’ it culminated in the simple musical phrase, ‘Venezia’ …” So Venice is the music, while the music lasts.

In a guidebook to Venice, published in 1581, the city is celebrated as the seat of music, la sede di musica. It was the harmonious community, with an unrivalled tradition of sacred and secular music. The ducal orchestra played every day for an hour in Saint Mark’s Square; throughout the centuries, that central space has always been filled with music. There were other street bands, as well as concert halls and choirs. All of the sestieri echoed with the sound of voices and of instruments. On Good Friday the members of each parish—the wine-sellers, the fishermen, the gondoliers—would sing out the long chant of the Twenty-Four Hours. This was nothing to do with church observance. It was the choice of the people themselves. Each guild had its own songs and melodies. There were popular choral societies. There were many accademie, or private societies, where amateur musicians performed. The inventories of middle-class Venetian households reveal the presence of string or keyboard instruments in most of them.

All the public festivities of the city were conducted to the sound of music. There were concert barges, moored in the Grand Canal and elsewhere, performing for the Venetian public and for visitors. An engraving of 1609 shows a host of musical entertainments upon the canal. Concerts were also given by virtuosi in private houses. Musicians were even employed in the gambling houses of the city. And there were always comic ballets at the time of the Carnival. One English traveller noted, in 1770, that “the people are so musical here, that all day long the houses send forth the most melodious sounds, which die off charmingly along the water.” The presence of water invites song and music; there is something about its flow, and the sound of its flow, that elicits other melodies. So we read of “the solemn flow” of Venetian church music.

In the late eighteenth century Charles Burney remarked that the Venetian people seemed to converse in song. The gondoliers were notorious, if that is the word, for singing recitatives taken from the sixteenth-century poetry of Torquato Tasso. Yet these were laments, because the sadness of Venice entered its songs. Goethe has described how the women of the other islands of the lagoon, sitting on the seashore, would sing Tasso to their husbands fishing in the waters; the men would then reply in song, setting up a domestic conversation in music. Tasso was one of Venice’s favourite sons, having lived in the city during his early youth; his father was a member of the Aldine circle.

There were also popular songs, known as vilote, sung by the women as they sat sewing or preparing food. These were often laments of love, concerning hopes and dreams and desires. The vilote were also danced out in the campi to the music of harpsichords. And of course there were the famous Venetian serenades, sung beneath the ubiquitous balconies to the accompaniment of the mandolin or the guitar. It could be said that the Venetians were infatuated with music. They loved love and they loved melody. It is reported that when the Byzantine exarch, Longinus, visited the city of the lagoons in 567 he was almost deafened by the sound of bells and musical instruments waiting to greet him.

So there are records of Venetian music from the earliest periods of its history. In 815 “Priest Giorgio of Venice” became so expert in the art of organ-building that he was said to be guided by “mirifica arte.” Subsequently the organ-builders of Venice became famous throughout Europe. There are records of a singers’ guild in the basilica of Saint Mark’s from the beginning of the fourteenth century. A singing school for males was established there in 1403. Yet essentially the beginning of the sixteenth century initiated the long period when Venetian music took the palm. After the great expansion of its empire had ended, it aspired to other forms of supremacy. Venice was the home of the madrigal, invented in the city. It was the centre of church music. It was the capital of opera. There was scarcely a European composer of note who did not make his way to Venice—Scarlatti, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Handel, Mendelssohn, Monteverdi, Stravinsky, all visited the most serene city. Wagner and Monteverdi died there.

The masses in the churches, sustained by music and choir, lasted for many hours. Some passages of that sacred rite, particularly at the gradual and at the elevation of the host, were sustained by instrumental music so that people attended church as if they were visiting the concert hall. Instrumental music was also employed to suggest wordless prayer. What might be private, and intimate, becomes in Venice public and theatrical. The words of the songs for the heroes and heroines of the opera were altered to celebrate the male and female saints of the day; arias could be transformed into oratorios. Churches were in fact designed to be zones of sound. The church of the Incurabili, for example, was constructed as an oval space.

On one occasion in the 1750s five orchestras were deployed in the basilica of Saint Mark’s under the direction of Baldassare Galuppi. In that church, too, there was a tradition of polyphony taken up by two or more choirs singing antiphonally or simultaneously to the accompaniment (if they were needed) of four organs. It was a divine machinery of sound, amplified by the labyrinthine acoustics of the space. It is not at all extraordinary that musical events were held there, on the afternoons of Sundays and of holidays. The nature of these “polychoral” events, in which opposing forces eventually achieve harmony, was uniquely suited to the bias of the Venetian state. The “echo” effects of polychoral music were not inimical, either, to a city of reflections upon water.

The orphan girls in the charitable institutions of the state were given an extensive and elaborate musical training, so that their concerts became the wonder of the age. These institutions, known as ospedali, became in essence musical conservatories where young girls learned how to sing, to play, and to compose new works. They also attracted the maestri of Venice as their instructors. Antonio Vivaldi, for example, was for four decades the musical master of the Ospedale della Pietà. The girls were situated in singing galleries, enclosed by wrought-iron grilles so that their voices and melodies might have come from unseen angelic powers. Charles Burney reported, in the summer of 1770, that “the girls played a thousand tricks in singing, particularly in the duets, where there was a trial of skill and natural powers, as to who could go highest, lowest, swell a note the longest, or run divisions with the greatest rapidity.” Individual girls had their own cabals of admirers. The fact that they were orphaned only contributed to their power. But they were not nuns. Young men came to the ospedali with offers of marriage to those whose voices pleased them best. There was no sound of applause, in the churches of these institutions, but instead the audiences wept and prayed. There are reports of men and women fainting at the intensity of sound. Gondolas were moored in the adjacent canal, or rio, with their passengers straining to hear the sounds from within. Diverse observers, Rousseau and Goethe among them, have testified that these girls ravished and stupefied the senses. “I cannot imagine anything,” Rousseau wrote, “so voluptuous, so touching as this music.” This sensuousness strikes the right Venetian note.

The harmonies of Venice had another aspect. The ancients believed music to be the token of the ordered cosmos. Since Venice was the preeminent exponent of ordered governance in the world, it was only natural that music should emanate from it. It contained the music of the spheres. It partook of heaven and of earth. The gates of paradise had opened in the city. All the various forms of constitution—monarchy, oligarchy and republic—were moulded and mingled together. These were celestial harmonies, imparted by God. Even the merchants of Venice were educated in the rules of proportion, in mercantile textbooks such as The Rule of Three also known as The Golden Rule or The Merchants’ Key. Pythagorean mathematics was an important feature of commerce. The architecture, or architexture, of the city was conceived harmoniously. If it is indeed true that buildings have been raised by the power of music, then the churches and noble houses of Venice have assuredly embodied the melody of the world. The architects of the day studied theories of harmony. In foreign policy the doge and senate strove to maintain a “balance” of powers; they strove for peace, it was said, because peace reflected harmony in every sense.

Just as in a sonata or concerto no one instrument must dominate the others, so in the Venetian state no one interest or authority could be allowed to influence the rest; all was of a piece. No one may rise too high, or fall too low. Nothing was out of proportion. The aim was perfect order. And that, to a large extent, and to the amazement of the rest of the world, was achieved. When the figure of Apollo was carved in a niche of the loggetta at the base of the campanile of Saint Mark’s its sculptor, Jacopo Sansovino, declared that “it is known that this nation takes natural delight in music, and therefore Apollo is represented to signify music … extraordinary harmony perpetuates this admirable government.”

The dances of the city, therefore, have some significance. The diaries of Venetians suggest that there was almost uninterrupted public dancing in the squares and courtyards of the city. In the noble houses, dancing in the ballroom was a favoured means of expression. There were “dances for women,” events in which more than a hundred females might participate. There were scores of dancing schools, teaching “the Hat dance,” “the Torch dance” and “the Hunt.” Dances were performed on barges. They were an important aspect of the ubiquitous street theatre. So the movement of the spheres was reproduced in the streets of the city. In one painting by Gabriele Bella, “Festo dà Soldo in Campiello,” a group of Venetians, male and female, are to be seen dancing in formal measures to the accompaniment of two violins and a cello. Their fellow citizens watch from the balconies, or from the neighbouring tavern, as the women twirl their aprons and the men raise their arms in the air. And of course the popular performances of the commedia dell’arte had their own frenzied dances, together with a litany of vulgar and satirical songs.

And then there is the nature of music as an expression of political life. Thus we may say that humankind comes into the world to maintain and to celebrate the structure into which it is born; there is a joy in formal order and display. There is a joy in the endless echoes and repetitions, so much like the governance of Venice. There is deep solace to be found in the experience of harmony where is heard the voice of tens of thousands rather than that of one. The music of Saint Mark’s was under the direct control of the state procurators, an expression of the evident fact that Roman Catholicism had been transformed into a state Church. There was, or was supposed to be, a profound concord between faith and the city and the harmony of song. To put it more crudely, music became a form of political propaganda. The paintings and engravings of the various civic processions always depict the drums, the cymbals and the silver trumpets. Music then became a method of maintaining social order. Many Venetian operas used allegory to comment upon contemporary events, with Venice as the heroine of all encounters. Venice then became Venetia, the unassailable virgin holding sword and scales—“ecco Venezia bella”! In one production, Il Bellerofonte, an exact and elaborate model of the city arose from the sea to the accompaniment of music.

The painters of Venice were also devotees of music. Vasari seems to consider Tintoretto’s musical skills, for example, as more worthy of praise than his painterly achievement. Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana” shows a quartet playing to the invited guests; the members of that musical group have been identified as Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese himself. Thus when Walter Pater, in his study of the Venetian artist Giorgione, suggested that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” he was identifying one of the central tendencies of Venetian art. Pater adds that in the Venetian school following Giorgione “the perfect moments of music itself, the making or hearing of music, song or its accompaniment, are themselves prominent as subjects.” Oil paint can be liquid music. So we read of Titian’s “tonic harmonies” and “rhythmic movements,” and of the “eager, quick tempo” of Lorenzo Lotto. The language of Tintoretto’s composition seems invariably to be also the language of music. When we gaze upon the architectonic harmonies of Tiepolo, we hear the music of Vivaldi’s violins energetic and triumphant. On the other side, there are references to Vivaldi’s “delight in orchestral colour.” In the language of the Venetian arts, music and painting seem to be twinned. In his painting known as “The Vision of Saint Augustine” Vittore Carpaccio, the great designator of Venetian scenes, depicts the saint in a musical universe; Augustine has written on sheets of music the notes for tenor and contralto, while at his feet lie works of music sacred and secular. The vision, then, is one of transcendent harmony.

The painting of music is a thoroughly Venetian art. There are many hundreds of paintings that show men and women holding musical instruments. The angels of Venetian religious painting are generally musicians; angel choruses are replaced by angel orchestras, but no other artistic tradition places so much emphasis on these images of celestial harmony. There are drawings of girls and boys singing; there are paintings of music being played by pools and by wells, as if the Venetian consonance between music and water was being endlessly celebrated. Titian was entranced by the spectacle of music-making and of concert scenes. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Yet the music of Venice is the music of performance and of display. It is never the music of meditation or of sorrowful introspection. It relies upon improvisation and dramatic interpretation. Once more it is the love of surface, and the rich deployment of the effects of the surface, that define the Venetian sensibility. It is what is known as coloratura.

Yet Venice would not be Venice without the smell of trade as well as the sound of music. The city became the capital of music-publishing, and of instrument-making. There were many collections of instruments, designed for investment as much as display. The great Venetian composers can in another light be seen as very successful men of business. We may take the case of that quintessentially Venetian artist and violinist, Antonio Vivaldi. No one was more eager for commission and more avaricious for gain. He had the trading instinct in his blood. At one point he called himself “un franco intraprenditore” or candid businessman.

He was born a Venetian in 1678, and baptised at the parish church of S. Giovanni in Bragora. His father, Giambattista Vivaldi, was a musician in the basilica of Saint Mark’s. It was here that Vivaldi himself began his training as a violinist. His father taught him the rudiments of the family profession. This was the Venetian tradition. At the age of fifteen he was received into the minor orders of the Church, and ten years later he was ordained as a priest. He became known as the prete rosso or red-haired priest, the red hair perhaps being an expression or indication of his fiery temperament. He had a prominent arched nose, pointed chin and large expressive eyes.

Vivaldi had a congenitally weak constitution, having been close to death as a premature baby, and he always needed assistants to help him travel. As he explained in a letter, written towards the end of his life:

When I had just been ordained a priest, I still said mass for rather more than a year and then gave it up, because three times I was forced to leave the altar without finishing mass on account of my illness. For this reason I spend my life almost entirely at home, leaving my house only in a gondola or carriage, because with my chest complaint, known as heart seizure, I cannot walk. No nobleman invites me to his house, not even our doge, because they all know of my ailment. I can usually leave the house immediately after breakfast but never on foot.

Yet this was the man who plunged himself into a relentless round of composition, administration and direction. He was quixotic and impulsive, by all accounts surrendering himself to the moods of the moment. Like his music he seems to have acquired some extraordinary internal energy from an unknown source of power. He was said by one English musician of the time, William Hayes, to have “too much mercury in his disposition”—which meant that he was impulsive and quixotic. He was, perhaps, a little eccentric. In 1704, at the age of twenty-six, he was appointed to the music school of the orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, and was music master there for most of his life. When he joined that institution he became a thorough master of all its music. He became teacher, director, and player. Nine years later he was appointed as the official composer of the ospedale. During those years his fame as a composer had increased, and spread throughout Europe. The king of Denmark, Frederick IV, made an especial visit to the ospedale to hear one of Vivaldi’s oratorios.

Yet already his energy and determination were driving him in another direction. In the same year that he was appointed official composer, his first opera was staged in the city of Vicenza on the mainland of the Veneto. This was a prelude to the performance of his operas in Venice itself, where he quickly earned both popularity and income. For the rest of his life he divided his compositions between operatic and sacred work. The pursuit of profit was part of his purpose. He was in the habit of offering his works to foreign musicians, demanding very high prices. He marketed Venetian music in the same way that his contemporary, Canaletto, marketed Venetian views on commission to visiting tourists. He haggled over prices and costs. He decided not to publish his works, on the supposition that he could earn more money by selling the manuscripts. He discussed his finances with an English traveller, Edward Holdsworth, who reported that “he finds a good market because he expects a guinea for every piece.”

In his operatic works he was an entrepreneur as well as a musician. He rented the theatre. He engaged the singers and the musicians. He chose the libretti. He conducted the orchestra and provided solo accompaniments on the violin. He had to respond to the demands of the public. If an opera were unsuccessful he found a replacement within a matter of days. Yet this supreme impresario was also a man of the cloth. The Venetian dramatist, Goldoni, recorded a visit to Vivaldi. “I found him surrounded by scores,” he wrote, “his breviary in his hand. He rose, made the sign of the cross with broad gestures, put his breviary down …” This conflation of piety and business, of the sacred and the secular, seems so thoroughly Venetian as to need no further comment.

Yet all things in Venice were dependent upon fashion. A close friend of Vivaldi, Charles de Brosses, wrote in 1740 that “to my great surprise I found that he is not so highly regarded as he deserves to be in this country, where everything follows the trend of the moment.” It was for this, and other reasons, that Vivaldi looked for patrons abroad. He journeyed to Vienna, and was about to travel on to Dresden when in 1741, at the age of sixty-three, he died. It was reported that after a life of excessive prodigality he died a pauper. Yet this may be the usual pious epilogue for a career of extravagant genius.

In his rapidity of execution, Vivaldi is thoroughly Venetian. He wrote more than five hundred instrumental works, and almost one hundred operas. He boasted that he could compose a concerto with all its parts “faster than a copyist could copy it.” His playing, too, had the fire and energy of lightning. The German scholar, Zacharias von Uffenbach, attending one of Vivaldi’s concerts, noted that he “quite confounded me, for such playing has not been heard before and can never be equalled. He placed his finger but a hair’s breadth from the bridge so that there was hardly room for the bow. He played thus on all four strings, with imitations, and at an unbelievable speed.” Von Uffenbach then commissioned Vivaldi to write for him some concerti grossi. Three days later, Vivaldi delivered ten of them. On the manuscript score of his opera, Tito Manlio, there is the inscription “Musica del Vivaldi fatta in 5 giorni”—music by Vivaldi, completed in five days.

In his manuscripts there is evidence of a tremendous force of conception and execution outstripping the ability of the hand to register it. There is such animation and rhythmic drive that the momentum is irresistible. The coloristic effects, the vivid impressionism, the shimmering harmonies, the fantastic ingenuity of Venetian music find their acme in Vivaldi. Any imitated pattern creates excitement. Agitation creates excitement. Vivaldi is vivacity. Speed, of composition and of execution, is the key. The words used by his contemporaries were “fierezza,” fiery energy, and “prestezza” or rapidity. The melodic force is overwhelming. The impression is one of inexhaustibility.

He was also a man of the theatre, creating an environment of insistent and unrelenting sound for the expression of extravagant and violent feeling. His most famous work, The Four Seasons, is intensely expressive. It was a way of translating a pictorial and operatic genre into music. There is in fact in his art a thoroughly Venetian tendency to combine display with melody, so that he introduces operatic effects within his instrumental music and sustains his operas with the techniques of his concerti. The first page of the solo violin part of the “Spring” concerto resembles a composition by Mondrian; the notes seem to dance together. They arch and leap and soar in serried ranks. On his scores Vivaldi will scrawl down hurriedly “spiritoso” or “allegro.”

Sometimes he will continue the notation for three or four pages; then pause; then cross it all out; then with the same vigour and rapidity begin all over again from the first notes. On occasions he would write out two movements for the same place, and then leave it to the interpreter or musicians to make their preference. He worked sometimes so quickly that he forgot his original key. His writing became more abrupt and elliptical in the course of composition.

The same rush of genius, the same facility and prolixity, are evident through the history of Venetian culture. Tintoretto was well known for the ferocious energy of his artistic practice. He could paint the walls of a church, or the hall of a guild, within a week. In a later century Tiepolo was known for being able to finish a large canvas in ten hours. So in the music of Vivaldi there is a tremendous quickness and pressure, guided by a driving force and rhythmic impulse that astonished his contemporaries. It is as inexorable as fate. It rushes forward like the tides of the lagoon. What is the secret of this exuberance in the artists of Venice? It is joy. Joy in creation. It has to do with the fact of living in an harmonious city. Yet it is also the joy of living in unity with the culture and society that surrounded them. They were at home. The ground of their being was Venice itself.

Is it then possible to interpret the nature of Venetian music as an organic whole? It is marked by exuberance and spontaneity, a ferocious gaiety that is manifest in other forms of Venetian art. The most used and favoured word is brilliance. It has associations with the glitter of Venetian glass, and the glittering light upon the water. Yet Venetian music also has associations with the richness of colour and texture in Venetian art. We read of the brilliant “tone colours” and “chromatic phrases” associated with the musicians of Venice, as opposed to those of Naples or of Florence. The Venetian manuals of music written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rely largely upon expounding the arts of improvisation and ornamentation. Venetian music, therefore, is predominantly expressive. The temperamental affinities, to put it perhaps too crudely, are with show over substance. One German musicologist of the eighteenth century, contrasting Venetian melodies with Roman harmonies, remarked that “the Venetian makes its way to the ear more quickly, but its spell continues for a shorter time.” The art of echo, already noticed in sacred polychoral music, was also an aspect of secular music. The Venetian sonata, for example, has been noticed for its marked contrapuntal effects.

The music of Venice has a certain sweetness. It was often light and clear. In that sense it could be suggested that it contains little interior life. There could be no Beethoven in Venice. It has an irresistible flow. It has the rhythm of the sea, not of the wheel. It provokes astonishment and admiration rather than contemplation. Yet it could also be unruly and abrupt, with sudden and unexpected turns both in melody and in harmony. It is often eccentric or extravagant. It sometimes relishes strangeness, or what were known as bizzarria. It has an eastern flavour. It can even be claimed that, through the agency of Venice, the music of the East entered the classical European tradition. Venetian music is sustained by constant and subtle variation. It favours contrast and intricacy; it can be fast, and florid. It perfectly suits the genius of the virtuoso. It has been suggested that the solo concerto was first heard in Venice. It may be possible, then, to define the nature of this music as an expression of the Venetian temperament; Stendhal remarked that “the glittering reflection of the Venetian character falls across the texture of Venetian music.” The process of transmission and inheritance has never properly been understood, except in the evident relish of a language that describes art and character in identical terms. And so we have the words—vivacity, gaiety, radiance, extravagance, energy, buoyancy, spontaneity, urgency, facility, exuberance, impetuosity. Oh! Venezia!

37

While the Music Lasts

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in Ecce Homo, that “when I seek another word for music, I always find only the word Venice.” One evening in the city, in the late nineteenth century, Richard Wagner was being carried home on a gondola across the dark waters; his gondolier plied the oar when suddenly “from his mighty breast came a mournful sound not unlike the howl of an animal, swelling up from a deep, low note, and after a long-sustained ‘Oh!’ it culminated in the simple musical phrase, ‘Venezia’ …” So Venice is the music, while the music lasts.

In a guidebook to Venice, published in 1581, the city is celebrated as the seat of music, la sede di musica. It was the harmonious community, with an unrivalled tradition of sacred and secular music. The ducal orchestra played every day for an hour in Saint Mark’s Square; throughout the centuries, that central space has always been filled with music. There were other street bands, as well as concert halls and choirs. All of the sestieri echoed with the sound of voices and of instruments. On Good Friday the members of each parish—the wine-sellers, the fishermen, the gondoliers—would sing out the long chant of the Twenty-Four Hours. This was nothing to do with church observance. It was the choice of the people themselves. Each guild had its own songs and melodies. There were popular choral societies. There were many accademie, or private societies, where amateur musicians performed. The inventories of middle-class Venetian households reveal the presence of string or keyboard instruments in most of them.

All the public festivities of the city were conducted to the sound of music. There were concert barges, moored in the Grand Canal and elsewhere, performing for the Venetian public and for visitors. An engraving of 1609 shows a host of musical entertainments upon the canal. Concerts were also given by virtuosi in private houses. Musicians were even employed in the gambling houses of the city. And there were always comic ballets at the time of the Carnival. One English traveller noted, in 1770, that “the people are so musical here, that all day long the houses send forth the most melodious sounds, which die off charmingly along the water.” The presence of water invites song and music; there is something about its flow, and the sound of its flow, that elicits other melodies. So we read of “the solemn flow” of Venetian church music.

In the late eighteenth century Charles Burney remarked that the Venetian people seemed to converse in song. The gondoliers were notorious, if that is the word, for singing recitatives taken from the sixteenth-century poetry of Torquato Tasso. Yet these were laments, because the sadness of Venice entered its songs. Goethe has described how the women of the other islands of the lagoon, sitting on the seashore, would sing Tasso to their husbands fishing in the waters; the men would then reply in song, setting up a domestic conversation in music. Tasso was one of Venice’s favourite sons, having lived in the city during his early youth; his father was a member of the Aldine circle.

There were also popular songs, known as vilote, sung by the women as they sat sewing or preparing food. These were often laments of love, concerning hopes and dreams and desires. The vilote were also danced out in the campi to the music of harpsichords. And of course there were the famous Venetian serenades, sung beneath the ubiquitous balconies to the accompaniment of the mandolin or the guitar. It could be said that the Venetians were infatuated with music. They loved love and they loved melody. It is reported that when the Byzantine exarch, Longinus, visited the city of the lagoons in 567 he was almost deafened by the sound of bells and musical instruments waiting to greet him.

So there are records of Venetian music from the earliest periods of its history. In 815 “Priest Giorgio of Venice” became so expert in the art of organ-building that he was said to be guided by “mirifica arte.” Subsequently the organ-builders of Venice became famous throughout Europe. There are records of a singers’ guild in the basilica of Saint Mark’s from the beginning of the fourteenth century. A singing school for males was established there in 1403. Yet essentially the beginning of the sixteenth century initiated the long period when Venetian music took the palm. After the great expansion of its empire had ended, it aspired to other forms of supremacy. Venice was the home of the madrigal, invented in the city. It was the centre of church music. It was the capital of opera. There was scarcely a European composer of note who did not make his way to Venice—Scarlatti, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Handel, Mendelssohn, Monteverdi, Stravinsky, all visited the most serene city. Wagner and Monteverdi died there.

The masses in the churches, sustained by music and choir, lasted for many hours. Some passages of that sacred rite, particularly at the gradual and at the elevation of the host, were sustained by instrumental music so that people attended church as if they were visiting the concert hall. Instrumental music was also employed to suggest wordless prayer. What might be private, and intimate, becomes in Venice public and theatrical. The words of the songs for the heroes and heroines of the opera were altered to celebrate the male and female saints of the day; arias could be transformed into oratorios. Churches were in fact designed to be zones of sound. The church of the Incurabili, for example, was constructed as an oval space.

On one occasion in the 1750s five orchestras were deployed in the basilica of Saint Mark’s under the direction of Baldassare Galuppi. In that church, too, there was a tradition of polyphony taken up by two or more choirs singing antiphonally or simultaneously to the accompaniment (if they were needed) of four organs. It was a divine machinery of sound, amplified by the labyrinthine acoustics of the space. It is not at all extraordinary that musical events were held there, on the afternoons of Sundays and of holidays. The nature of these “polychoral” events, in which opposing forces eventually achieve harmony, was uniquely suited to the bias of the Venetian state. The “echo” effects of polychoral music were not inimical, either, to a city of reflections upon water.

The orphan girls in the charitable institutions of the state were given an extensive and elaborate musical training, so that their concerts became the wonder of the age. These institutions, known as ospedali, became in essence musical conservatories where young girls learned how to sing, to play, and to compose new works. They also attracted the maestri of Venice as their instructors. Antonio Vivaldi, for example, was for four decades the musical master of the Ospedale della Pietà. The girls were situated in singing galleries, enclosed by wrought-iron grilles so that their voices and melodies might have come from unseen angelic powers. Charles Burney reported, in the summer of 1770, that “the girls played a thousand tricks in singing, particularly in the duets, where there was a trial of skill and natural powers, as to who could go highest, lowest, swell a note the longest, or run divisions with the greatest rapidity.” Individual girls had their own cabals of admirers. The fact that they were orphaned only contributed to their power. But they were not nuns. Young men came to the ospedali with offers of marriage to those whose voices pleased them best. There was no sound of applause, in the churches of these institutions, but instead the audiences wept and prayed. There are reports of men and women fainting at the intensity of sound. Gondolas were moored in the adjacent canal, or rio, with their passengers straining to hear the sounds from within. Diverse observers, Rousseau and Goethe among them, have testified that these girls ravished and stupefied the senses. “I cannot imagine anything,” Rousseau wrote, “so voluptuous, so touching as this music.” This sensuousness strikes the right Venetian note.

The harmonies of Venice had another aspect. The ancients believed music to be the token of the ordered cosmos. Since Venice was the preeminent exponent of ordered governance in the world, it was only natural that music should emanate from it. It contained the music of the spheres. It partook of heaven and of earth. The gates of paradise had opened in the city. All the various forms of constitution—monarchy, oligarchy and republic—were moulded and mingled together. These were celestial harmonies, imparted by God. Even the merchants of Venice were educated in the rules of proportion, in mercantile textbooks such as The Rule of Three also known as The Golden Rule or The Merchants’ Key. Pythagorean mathematics was an important feature of commerce. The architecture, or architexture, of the city was conceived harmoniously. If it is indeed true that buildings have been raised by the power of music, then the churches and noble houses of Venice have assuredly embodied the melody of the world. The architects of the day studied theories of harmony. In foreign policy the doge and senate strove to maintain a “balance” of powers; they strove for peace, it was said, because peace reflected harmony in every sense.

Just as in a sonata or concerto no one instrument must dominate the others, so in the Venetian state no one interest or authority could be allowed to influence the rest; all was of a piece. No one may rise too high, or fall too low. Nothing was out of proportion. The aim was perfect order. And that, to a large extent, and to the amazement of the rest of the world, was achieved. When the figure of Apollo was carved in a niche of the loggetta at the base of the campanile of Saint Mark’s its sculptor, Jacopo Sansovino, declared that “it is known that this nation takes natural delight in music, and therefore Apollo is represented to signify music … extraordinary harmony perpetuates this admirable government.”

The dances of the city, therefore, have some significance. The diaries of Venetians suggest that there was almost uninterrupted public dancing in the squares and courtyards of the city. In the noble houses, dancing in the ballroom was a favoured means of expression. There were “dances for women,” events in which more than a hundred females might participate. There were scores of dancing schools, teaching “the Hat dance,” “the Torch dance” and “the Hunt.” Dances were performed on barges. They were an important aspect of the ubiquitous street theatre. So the movement of the spheres was reproduced in the streets of the city. In one painting by Gabriele Bella, “Festo dà Soldo in Campiello,” a group of Venetians, male and female, are to be seen dancing in formal measures to the accompaniment of two violins and a cello. Their fellow citizens watch from the balconies, or from the neighbouring tavern, as the women twirl their aprons and the men raise their arms in the air. And of course the popular performances of the commedia dell’arte had their own frenzied dances, together with a litany of vulgar and satirical songs.

And then there is the nature of music as an expression of political life. Thus we may say that humankind comes into the world to maintain and to celebrate the structure into which it is born; there is a joy in formal order and display. There is a joy in the endless echoes and repetitions, so much like the governance of Venice. There is deep solace to be found in the experience of harmony where is heard the voice of tens of thousands rather than that of one. The music of Saint Mark’s was under the direct control of the state procurators, an expression of the evident fact that Roman Catholicism had been transformed into a state Church. There was, or was supposed to be, a profound concord between faith and the city and the harmony of song. To put it more crudely, music became a form of political propaganda. The paintings and engravings of the various civic processions always depict the drums, the cymbals and the silver trumpets. Music then became a method of maintaining social order. Many Venetian operas used allegory to comment upon contemporary events, with Venice as the heroine of all encounters. Venice then became Venetia, the unassailable virgin holding sword and scales—“ecco Venezia bella”! In one production, Il Bellerofonte, an exact and elaborate model of the city arose from the sea to the accompaniment of music.

The painters of Venice were also devotees of music. Vasari seems to consider Tintoretto’s musical skills, for example, as more worthy of praise than his painterly achievement. Veronese’s “Wedding at Cana” shows a quartet playing to the invited guests; the members of that musical group have been identified as Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano and Veronese himself. Thus when Walter Pater, in his study of the Venetian artist Giorgione, suggested that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” he was identifying one of the central tendencies of Venetian art. Pater adds that in the Venetian school following Giorgione “the perfect moments of music itself, the making or hearing of music, song or its accompaniment, are themselves prominent as subjects.” Oil paint can be liquid music. So we read of Titian’s “tonic harmonies” and “rhythmic movements,” and of the “eager, quick tempo” of Lorenzo Lotto. The language of Tintoretto’s composition seems invariably to be also the language of music. When we gaze upon the architectonic harmonies of Tiepolo, we hear the music of Vivaldi’s violins energetic and triumphant. On the other side, there are references to Vivaldi’s “delight in orchestral colour.” In the language of the Venetian arts, music and painting seem to be twinned. In his painting known as “The Vision of Saint Augustine” Vittore Carpaccio, the great designator of Venetian scenes, depicts the saint in a musical universe; Augustine has written on sheets of music the notes for tenor and contralto, while at his feet lie works of music sacred and secular. The vision, then, is one of transcendent harmony.

The painting of music is a thoroughly Venetian art. There are many hundreds of paintings that show men and women holding musical instruments. The angels of Venetian religious painting are generally musicians; angel choruses are replaced by angel orchestras, but no other artistic tradition places so much emphasis on these images of celestial harmony. There are drawings of girls and boys singing; there are paintings of music being played by pools and by wells, as if the Venetian consonance between music and water was being endlessly celebrated. Titian was entranced by the spectacle of music-making and of concert scenes. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. Yet the music of Venice is the music of performance and of display. It is never the music of meditation or of sorrowful introspection. It relies upon improvisation and dramatic interpretation. Once more it is the love of surface, and the rich deployment of the effects of the surface, that define the Venetian sensibility. It is what is known as coloratura.

Yet Venice would not be Venice without the smell of trade as well as the sound of music. The city became the capital of music-publishing, and of instrument-making. There were many collections of instruments, designed for investment as much as display. The great Venetian composers can in another light be seen as very successful men of business. We may take the case of that quintessentially Venetian artist and violinist, Antonio Vivaldi. No one was more eager for commission and more avaricious for gain. He had the trading instinct in his blood. At one point he called himself “un franco intraprenditore” or candid businessman.

He was born a Venetian in 1678, and baptised at the parish church of S. Giovanni in Bragora. His father, Giambattista Vivaldi, was a musician in the basilica of Saint Mark’s. It was here that Vivaldi himself began his training as a violinist. His father taught him the rudiments of the family profession. This was the Venetian tradition. At the age of fifteen he was received into the minor orders of the Church, and ten years later he was ordained as a priest. He became known as the prete rosso or red-haired priest, the red hair perhaps being an expression or indication of his fiery temperament. He had a prominent arched nose, pointed chin and large expressive eyes.

Vivaldi had a congenitally weak constitution, having been close to death as a premature baby, and he always needed assistants to help him travel. As he explained in a letter, written towards the end of his life:

When I had just been ordained a priest, I still said mass for rather more than a year and then gave it up, because three times I was forced to leave the altar without finishing mass on account of my illness. For this reason I spend my life almost entirely at home, leaving my house only in a gondola or carriage, because with my chest complaint, known as heart seizure, I cannot walk. No nobleman invites me to his house, not even our doge, because they all know of my ailment. I can usually leave the house immediately after breakfast but never on foot.

Yet this was the man who plunged himself into a relentless round of composition, administration and direction. He was quixotic and impulsive, by all accounts surrendering himself to the moods of the moment. Like his music he seems to have acquired some extraordinary internal energy from an unknown source of power. He was said by one English musician of the time, William Hayes, to have “too much mercury in his disposition”—which meant that he was impulsive and quixotic. He was, perhaps, a little eccentric. In 1704, at the age of twenty-six, he was appointed to the music school of the orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà, and was music master there for most of his life. When he joined that institution he became a thorough master of all its music. He became teacher, director, and player. Nine years later he was appointed as the official composer of the ospedale. During those years his fame as a composer had increased, and spread throughout Europe. The king of Denmark, Frederick IV, made an especial visit to the ospedale to hear one of Vivaldi’s oratorios.

Yet already his energy and determination were driving him in another direction. In the same year that he was appointed official composer, his first opera was staged in the city of Vicenza on the mainland of the Veneto. This was a prelude to the performance of his operas in Venice itself, where he quickly earned both popularity and income. For the rest of his life he divided his compositions between operatic and sacred work. The pursuit of profit was part of his purpose. He was in the habit of offering his works to foreign musicians, demanding very high prices. He marketed Venetian music in the same way that his contemporary, Canaletto, marketed Venetian views on commission to visiting tourists. He haggled over prices and costs. He decided not to publish his works, on the supposition that he could earn more money by selling the manuscripts. He discussed his finances with an English traveller, Edward Holdsworth, who reported that “he finds a good market because he expects a guinea for every piece.”

In his operatic works he was an entrepreneur as well as a musician. He rented the theatre. He engaged the singers and the musicians. He chose the libretti. He conducted the orchestra and provided solo accompaniments on the violin. He had to respond to the demands of the public. If an opera were unsuccessful he found a replacement within a matter of days. Yet this supreme impresario was also a man of the cloth. The Venetian dramatist, Goldoni, recorded a visit to Vivaldi. “I found him surrounded by scores,” he wrote, “his breviary in his hand. He rose, made the sign of the cross with broad gestures, put his breviary down …” This conflation of piety and business, of the sacred and the secular, seems so thoroughly Venetian as to need no further comment.

Yet all things in Venice were dependent upon fashion. A close friend of Vivaldi, Charles de Brosses, wrote in 1740 that “to my great surprise I found that he is not so highly regarded as he deserves to be in this country, where everything follows the trend of the moment.” It was for this, and other reasons, that Vivaldi looked for patrons abroad. He journeyed to Vienna, and was about to travel on to Dresden when in 1741, at the age of sixty-three, he died. It was reported that after a life of excessive prodigality he died a pauper. Yet this may be the usual pious epilogue for a career of extravagant genius.

In his rapidity of execution, Vivaldi is thoroughly Venetian. He wrote more than five hundred instrumental works, and almost one hundred operas. He boasted that he could compose a concerto with all its parts “faster than a copyist could copy it.” His playing, too, had the fire and energy of lightning. The German scholar, Zacharias von Uffenbach, attending one of Vivaldi’s concerts, noted that he “quite confounded me, for such playing has not been heard before and can never be equalled. He placed his finger but a hair’s breadth from the bridge so that there was hardly room for the bow. He played thus on all four strings, with imitations, and at an unbelievable speed.” Von Uffenbach then commissioned Vivaldi to write for him some concerti grossi. Three days later, Vivaldi delivered ten of them. On the manuscript score of his opera, Tito Manlio, there is the inscription “Musica del Vivaldi fatta in 5 giorni”—music by Vivaldi, completed in five days.

In his manuscripts there is evidence of a tremendous force of conception and execution outstripping the ability of the hand to register it. There is such animation and rhythmic drive that the momentum is irresistible. The coloristic effects, the vivid impressionism, the shimmering harmonies, the fantastic ingenuity of Venetian music find their acme in Vivaldi. Any imitated pattern creates excitement. Agitation creates excitement. Vivaldi is vivacity. Speed, of composition and of execution, is the key. The words used by his contemporaries were “fierezza,” fiery energy, and “prestezza” or rapidity. The melodic force is overwhelming. The impression is one of inexhaustibility.

He was also a man of the theatre, creating an environment of insistent and unrelenting sound for the expression of extravagant and violent feeling. His most famous work, The Four Seasons, is intensely expressive. It was a way of translating a pictorial and operatic genre into music. There is in fact in his art a thoroughly Venetian tendency to combine display with melody, so that he introduces operatic effects within his instrumental music and sustains his operas with the techniques of his concerti. The first page of the solo violin part of the “Spring” concerto resembles a composition by Mondrian; the notes seem to dance together. They arch and leap and soar in serried ranks. On his scores Vivaldi will scrawl down hurriedly “spiritoso” or “allegro.”

Sometimes he will continue the notation for three or four pages; then pause; then cross it all out; then with the same vigour and rapidity begin all over again from the first notes. On occasions he would write out two movements for the same place, and then leave it to the interpreter or musicians to make their preference. He worked sometimes so quickly that he forgot his original key. His writing became more abrupt and elliptical in the course of composition.

The same rush of genius, the same facility and prolixity, are evident through the history of Venetian culture. Tintoretto was well known for the ferocious energy of his artistic practice. He could paint the walls of a church, or the hall of a guild, within a week. In a later century Tiepolo was known for being able to finish a large canvas in ten hours. So in the music of Vivaldi there is a tremendous quickness and pressure, guided by a driving force and rhythmic impulse that astonished his contemporaries. It is as inexorable as fate. It rushes forward like the tides of the lagoon. What is the secret of this exuberance in the artists of Venice? It is joy. Joy in creation. It has to do with the fact of living in an harmonious city. Yet it is also the joy of living in unity with the culture and society that surrounded them. They were at home. The ground of their being was Venice itself.

Is it then possible to interpret the nature of Venetian music as an organic whole? It is marked by exuberance and spontaneity, a ferocious gaiety that is manifest in other forms of Venetian art. The most used and favoured word is brilliance. It has associations with the glitter of Venetian glass, and the glittering light upon the water. Yet Venetian music also has associations with the richness of colour and texture in Venetian art. We read of the brilliant “tone colours” and “chromatic phrases” associated with the musicians of Venice, as opposed to those of Naples or of Florence. The Venetian manuals of music written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rely largely upon expounding the arts of improvisation and ornamentation. Venetian music, therefore, is predominantly expressive. The temperamental affinities, to put it perhaps too crudely, are with show over substance. One German musicologist of the eighteenth century, contrasting Venetian melodies with Roman harmonies, remarked that “the Venetian makes its way to the ear more quickly, but its spell continues for a shorter time.” The art of echo, already noticed in sacred polychoral music, was also an aspect of secular music. The Venetian sonata, for example, has been noticed for its marked contrapuntal effects.

The music of Venice has a certain sweetness. It was often light and clear. In that sense it could be suggested that it contains little interior life. There could be no Beethoven in Venice. It has an irresistible flow. It has the rhythm of the sea, not of the wheel. It provokes astonishment and admiration rather than contemplation. Yet it could also be unruly and abrupt, with sudden and unexpected turns both in melody and in harmony. It is often eccentric or extravagant. It sometimes relishes strangeness, or what were known as bizzarria. It has an eastern flavour. It can even be claimed that, through the agency of Venice, the music of the East entered the classical European tradition. Venetian music is sustained by constant and subtle variation. It favours contrast and intricacy; it can be fast, and florid. It perfectly suits the genius of the virtuoso. It has been suggested that the solo concerto was first heard in Venice. It may be possible, then, to define the nature of this music as an expression of the Venetian temperament; Stendhal remarked that “the glittering reflection of the Venetian character falls across the texture of Venetian music.” The process of transmission and inheritance has never properly been understood, except in the evident relish of a language that describes art and character in identical terms. And so we have the words—vivacity, gaiety, radiance, extravagance, energy, buoyancy, spontaneity, urgency, facility, exuberance, impetuosity. Oh! Venezia!

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