The cultural heritage of Venice is not limited to beautiful palazzos, glassmaking or gondoliers. Venice has also a very long history in music. Many composers who lived in Venice played an important role particularly in the development of baroque music, but also in other styles of music. This history is still alive in the city. When wandering around, you always catch fragments of Vivaldi’s music through the open doors of churches or palazzos.
In this post, I will first give you some background on baroque music and the role Venice played in this respect. Afterwards, I will share with you how you can go back in time to the era when Venice was a musical center of international prestige by attending a concert of Venice Music Project. Finally, I will also give you some other ideas to dabble in the musical side of Venice.
An introduction to Venetian baroque music
Derived from the Portuguese barroco (‘oddly shaped pearl’), the term ‘baroque’ has been widely used since the 19th century to describe the period in Western European art music from about 1600 to 1750.
Many famous composers from the first part of the baroque period came from Italy and have a link with Venice, including Claudio Monteverdi and Antonio Vivaldi. Monteverdi was born in Cremona, but moved to Venice where he was ‘maestro di capella’ at the San Marco basilica. Vivaldi was born in Venice and was one of the greatest baroque composers. He composed many instrumental concertos, for the violin and a variety of other instruments, as well as sacred choral works and more than forty operas. His best-known work is the Four Seasons.
La Serenissima was a rich city with a great interest in the arts, particularly music and painting. This made it a fertile ground for musicians and their music. The large churches were willing to pay for religious music, whereas wealthy aristocrats employed and patronized musicians. However, the reputation of baroque Venice as one of the top musical centers in Europe was by virtue of its ‘ospedali’. These charitable foundations housed young children (illegitimate or orphaned) whose parents couldn’t support them. While the boys had to learn a trade, the girls were trained in music. The ospedali gradually developed into conservatories of music. By the early 1700s, their excellence was unrivalled.
DID YOU KNOW? The Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was employed for most of his working life as violin teacher and composer, is now Hotel Metropole. You can see a commemorative sign at number 4148 along the Riva degli Schiavone.
It is thanks to these strong musical traditions of Venice that we have today’s music. Without Venetian church music and Monteverdi’s advances with polyphony, the great traditions of choral music in England, France, and Germany would never have developed. Without the operas written by Monteverdi, Cavalli and Vivaldi, not only would the later styles of opera never have been invented. There would be no basis for the American Musical or the German and Viennese Operetta, the Spanish Zarzuela, and even rock, pop, and contemporary music as we know it.
Musical archaeology by Venice Music Project
Another important source of income for composers was the music publishing business. As this started in Venice, musicians and composers gravitated to the city to compete for assignments. The Marciana Library is now a real treasure trove of these music manuscripts, including 17th-century opera scores by Francesco Cavalli (more info in my post ‘7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice’).
DID YOU KNOW? The father of modern music printing was Ottaviano Petrucci. This printer and publisher dominated the market in the 16th century thanks to his 20-year monopoly on printed music in Venice.
These manuscripts of music are at the basis of the ‘musical archaeology’ of Venice Music Project. This non-profit association is dedicated to preserving and restoring the wonderful tradition of Venetian baroque music. Their mission is to transcribe and start to perform these forgotten masterpieces, which were hidden in archives and libraries, for the first time in 200-300 years.
The first step is to find hidden manuscripts. The team of Venice Music Project is fortunate to consist of dedicated ‘library rats’ and musicologists, who collected copies of manuscripts that no one else even knew existed. Finding these manuscripts happens in different ways. Whenever Carlo Rossi travels to another city, he heads to the library to see what he can find by Venetian composers. Liesl Odenweller looks for pieces that were composed for singers whose voices must have been similar to hers. And sometimes, someone else hands them a stack of music and says ‘You should play this’. This was for instance the case with the great musicologist Alan Curtis.
The second step is the transcription of the old manuscript in a modern version. When a non-specialist looks at a manuscript, it is hard to understand how it will sound. What is written on the page is only the skeleton, and you have to know how to fill that in and flesh it out. It is creative and challenging, and – according to Liesl – really a lot of fun.
Finally, it’s time to sit down and play the manuscripts to see how they sounded. The discoveries Venice Music Project has made have been remarkable. And the best part (for us) is that they love to play them for an audience and share these with the world. This is an important step in the preservation of the great tradition of Venice’s musical heritage.
Venice Music Project: an internationally recognized team
Venice Music Project specializes in concerts with historic instruments in the exact style of Vivaldi’s time. This enables them to bring the music exactly as the composer intended. The fact that the performance is set in a historical location makes the whole experience even more original.
Venice Music Project consists of a core group of 9 musicians, accompanied by Liesl Odenweller as soprano. Many of them have been touring internationally and earned a high reputation. In baroque tradition, there is no conductor, but the instruments are led either by the first violin or the harpsichord.
Giacomo Catana, first violin – Chiara Arzenton, second violin – Alessandra di Vincenzo, viola – Marta Traversi, viola – Cristina Vidoni, cello – Gioele Gusberti, cello – Marjia Jovanovic, harpsichord – Carlo Rossi, harpsichord – Fabio Conte, violone
Carlo Steno Rossi, one of the harpsichordists, acts as musical director of the group, and is also the transcriber of the manuscripts uncovered through his research. Finally, and most important, Liesl Odenweller is the co-founder of this project. She has sung operatic roles and concerts in some of the world’s most prestigious theaters, including Carnegie Hall, Teatro La Fenice, Teatro San Carlo, Auditorium di Milano and the Teatro Piccolo di Milano, collaborating with conductors like Sir Jeffrey Tate, Andrea Marcon, Riccardo Chailly, and Raymond Hughes.
INSIDER TIP: Liesl’s beautiful gowns and jewels are designed by Gualti of Venice. You can find his workshop in Dorsoduro (more info on this area in my post ‘Dorsoduro: An amazing tour of intriguing architecture’).
Attend a unique concert
Even if you think you don’t love baroque music, then attending one of these concerts of Venice Music Project is the perfect choice for an exciting evening in Venice. The fact that the team finds and restores old music distinguishes them from other groups, not only in Venice but also internationally. Many locals, such as Luisella Romeo of SeeVenice Guided Tours, have become loyal followers and enjoy this wonderful music every week. It’s therefore best not to wait too long if you don’t want to miss this opportunity.
This year, Venice Music Project is presenting its most ambitious and exciting program ever. While annual favorites like the Pergolesi ‘Stabat Mater’ and Couperin’s ‘Leçons de Ténèbres’ are brought back every year, the variety of programs (which change every week) is extraordinary. This year, there will be more premieres of ‘Hidden Treasures’ for their first performance in modern day. They have also decided to dedicate a program to each of their wonderful musicians, to highlight their virtuosic talents and give them a chance to shine.
The concerts are organized on Saturday and Sunday from March until June and from September until November. You can find the calendar of the new ‘Hidden Treasures’ series on their website. Tickets cost 30 euros but if you mention ‘The Venice Insider’, you will receive a 5 euros discount. Alternatively, you can use one of the other discounts available on the website, for instance for couples or families.
The concerts take place in the St. George’s Anglican Church in Dorsoduro. Inspired by the work of Save Venice, for whom they regularly perform, and other organizations that preserve and restore Venice’s art and monuments, Venice Music Project donates part of the proceeds to the restoration of this historical venue. (You can find more information on this type of support in my post ‘Discover how Venice finances its cultural heritage’.)
“When I arrived at the Anglican church, I immediately had the impression not to attend something only tourists go to… and yet it was baroque music with pieces by Antonio Vivaldi! Residents were also sitting in their warm coats, waiting for the performance. Children, too. It was a wonderful feeling. But when the musicians started tuning the ancient string instruments and the concert began, it felt pretty special. What a great way to celebrate Vivaldi’s birthday!”
Luisella Romeo – SeeVenice
A Venetian Affair
Together with Andrea di Robilant, Liesl Odenweller created the musical performance ‘A Venetian Affair’. It is based on the true 18th-century Venetian love story as recounted in Robilant’s book, which happens to be one of my favourite books (more info in my post ‘My 10 favourite novels in Venice’). The performance is played with music by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Adolf Hasse and Benedetto Marcello. Unfortunately, I missed the most recent performances in Venice, so I hope they will add it again to the calendar in the near future. However, the production, with music by Venetia Antiqua and narrated by Andrea di Robilant himself, will tour in the USA and Canada in 2019. In the meantime, you can already watch a video of the performance.
More music history in Venice
If you can’t get enough of baroque music in Venice, there are several opportunities all over the city.
Many of Antonio Vivaldi’s manuscripts are preserved by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in the premises of the Antonio Vivaldi Foundation on San Giorgio Maggiore. The island is also an important site for classical concerts in the beautiful ‘squero’ auditorium with a view on the lagoon, as you can read in my post ‘Why San Giorgio Maggiore is worth your visit’.
The Benedetto Marcello music conservatory stems from the 1870s. It is based in Palazzo Pisani, a prominent palazzo from the 17th century near Campo Santo Stefano. It also houses a museum of old music instruments.
INSIDER TIP: Step into the courtyard and watch the strange setting of busts all looking sideways.
Another opportunity to see old music instruments (mainly Italian violins) and listen to Vivaldi’s music is the Museo della Musica in the San Maurizio church. Entrance is free, so you can easily pop in when you walk from San Marco to Accademia.
Now it’s time to sit down and listen to Venetian baroque music. Log in to your Amazon Music Unlimited account (or take a free one-month trial if you don’t have one yet) or iTunes. Both will give you plenty of options to discover a wide variety of music.
Enjoy your concert!
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