Skip to main content

Mozart Magnified
October 3-7, 2018

By Bruce Lamott


André Campra

Venice in the eighteenth century was the Las Vegas of Europe. But unlike Vegas, what happened in Venice most certainly did not stay in Venice. The city known as “La Serenissima” was anything but serene during the three months of Carnival when residents and visitors alike took part in incognito revelry and licentiousness cloaked in the anonymity of mask and costume. An obligatory stop on the Grand Tour, Venice was a city whose style and artisans were taken home by the gentry of Europe just as its music was taken to England and Saxony by the musicians represented on this program.

In some respects, the city was in decline. It no longer ruled the seas, having lost the Aegean to the Turks along with its corner on trade with the Far East, and its famed ship-building Arsenal had become obsolete. Instead it was known as the pleasure capital of Europe, a magnet for luxury and indulgence, with seven opera houses in a city of 160,000. Its international appeal is represented in this program by an opèra-ballet written for Paris in 1699 by André Campra, Le Carnaval de Venise, with characters drawn from Venetian commedia dell’arte.

Johann Georg Pisendel

The great churches of Venice resounded with operatic vocalism and instrumental virtuosity. Flamboyant multi-movement concertos (such as the Concerto da Chiesa by Johann Georg Pisendel on this program) were played instead of the Gradual or Offertory during the Mass. Only in Venice were the clergy enjoined from interrupting the improvisations of the organist. Dancing, revelry, and late-night assignations were even carried on within the walls of convents, and a frustrated Pope Gregory XIII said resignedly, “I am Pope everywhere except in Venice.”

Venice was also the nexus between the manufacture, pedagogy, and music of stringed instruments. This evening you will be hearing Elizabeth Blumenstock perform on a 1660 Andrea Guarneri violin from the PBO Period Instrument Trust. What Cremona–home of Stradivari and the Guarneri family–was for the violin, Venice was for the cello. While the names Goffriller and Montagnana may not have the same cachet, their Venetian cellos became the gold standard for cello-building. The best practices of Cremona and Venice were then joined together when Pietro Guarneri moved to Venice in 1717.

Conservatories were to be found in the four female “orphanages” of Venice–the Pietà, Mendicanti, Incurabili, and Ospedaletto–whose students were taught by notable musicians. At the Pietå, for example, Vivaldi was only one of a staff that included a choir director, organist, and teachers of violin, viola, oboe, psaltery, transverse flute, cello, clarinets, horn, and timpani. Housing many of the illegitimate offspring of nobility and clergy (it’s been estimated that at this time up to 66% of Venetian nobility remained unmarried) these institutions were well-endowed, and their weekly concerts were must-see tourist attractions.

Antonio Vivaldi

The relationship of the composers in tonight’s concert to Venice is of two kinds: resident and itinerant.  Foremost of the residents was Antonio Vivaldi, whose influence was spread not only directly by students such as Pisendel, the greatest German violinist of his time, but also through his widely circulated published works printed both in Venice and Amsterdam. Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, “studied with Vivaldi” by copying and transcribing his concertos from a print of L’Estro Armonico, Op. 3. Vivaldi’s now-ubiquitous Four Seasons  (I quattro stagioni) were but four concertos of the twelve published in Amsterdam as Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (“The Contest Between Harmony and Invention”), Op. 8. Unusual for the period, his Seasons are program music, musically representing the imagery of sonnets he wrote to accompany each of them. The sonnet for “Autumn” can be found on page 15 of this program.

Tommaso Albinoni was another native Venetian, but, unlike most of his contemporaries, not dependent on a musical career for a livelihood. (Sadly, his present-day reputation is based largely on a single dubious work, heavily schmaltzed and orchestrated.) Albinoni’s instrumental publications, like Vivaldi’s, circulated widely, also coming to the attention of Bach in Weimar.

The other resident Venetian virtuoso, Giuseppe Tartini, founded a violin school in nearby Padua, a part of the Venetian Republic. His admiration of Veracini’s playing led him to sequester himself until he could develop a new bowing technique, which he then exported all over Europe through his many students.

Of the itinerants, Venice was an obligatory stop on concert tours of virtuosos such as Pisendel and Francesco Maria Veracini, both of whom arrived from the Dresden court orchestra of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich Augustus. Veracini claimed that the resentment of his high salary, exceeding that even of Kapellmeister Johann David Heinichen, caused him to jump out of a third-story window in fear for his life. (Whether or not that threat came from his colleague Pisendel we don’t know.)

Pietro Locatelli

Another visitor, Pietro Locatelli, called “the father of modern violin virtuosity,” may also have performed in Venice, though he more preferred playing in private salons than public concerts. He did dedicate the twelve concertos in Arte de violino, Op. 3 to a Venetian nobleman, but other than the fact that he must have been in Venice at some time between 1723 and 1727, the details are lacking.

Georg Frideric Handel

The brief visit of George Frideric Handel to Venice was to have life-changing ramifications. According to his first and not always reliable biographer, John Mainwaring (prounounced “manner-ing,” btw), Handel “was first discovered there at a Masquerade, while he was playing on a harpsichord in his visor {perhaps a bauta, the Venetian Carnival mask]. [Domenico] Scarlatti happened to be there, and affirmed that it could be no one but the famous Saxon, or the devil.” Most likely an apocryphal anecdote which has been retold about many virtuosos, it nonetheless shows that two more famous musicians were drawn to the pleasures of Venice. Handel was commissioned to write the opera Agrippina for the 1709 Carnival season, and it was a great success. According to Mainwaring, “The theatre, at almost every pause, resounded with shouts and acclamations of ‘viva il caro Sassone!'” Even its overture is quirky, with two false endings and a fugue subject that shimmers

Handel’s success in Venice underscores another of the city’s attractions as an unofficial job fair. The nobles and impresarios who came from the far corners of Europe not only took home Venetian decor and pricey souvenirs, they also negotiated with the talent which accumulated there. It was in Venice that Handel made contact with the British ambassador as well as Prince Ernst, the younger brother of the Elector of Hanover, Georg Ludwig, who hired him as court Kapellmeister. That Elector’s accession to the British throne as King George I both assured Handel of a lifetime of favor with the English court and gave London a ravenous appetite for Italian opera.

The delights of this program are there for the listening. These works speak for themselves, requiring no play-by-play analysis, but just attention to these stylistic traits which they share in common:

 Animated homophony. Underlying the vigorous rhythmic drive of the Allegro movements (perfect for commute-hour listening) is a slow-moving chord progression, animated by repetitions, scales, and broken chords (arpeggios). Because these underlying chords are indeed “progressing” towards resolution, the energy of the surface decoration teases our expectation of the chord changes by prolonging our anticipation.

 Sequence. The most common structural element in this Italian style is repetitions of a melodic segment on different notes of the scale, called sequences. These sequential units become “melodic Legos” that allow a composer to move between keys (modulate), first moving away from the original key (tonic) to related keys and then returning to it.

Affect. The fundamental aesthetic principle that unites Baroque composers is the belief in the power of music to stir the emotions, not just psychologically but physiologically. Believing that music had the power to stimulate bodily fluids (the humors), composers organized pieces into movements that could transport the listener from anger to melancholy to joy, for example, by using a combination of major/minor keys, melodic contours, and tempos. This lies at the heart of the three-movement concerto, where a lyrical slow movement is framed by contrasting outer movements.

Virtuosity. This conspicuous display of technique is as characteristic of a Vivaldi concerto as it is of a Tiepolo ceiling. As this program demonstrates, Venice was ground zero for the development of violin virtuosity, displayed in fiery passagework (scales and runs), dazzling bow-strokes, and ever-higher extensions of range. Locatelli in particular pressed the limits of the fingerboard to nearly unreachable high notes (in 22nd position). At the same time, however, the Baroque soloist is also a team player, joining with the rest of the orchestra (tutti) in opening and closing passages. Double- and triple-stops (using two or three strings simultaneously), bariolage (in which a melody oscillates against an open string), compound melody (in which two melodies coexist in two different ranges), and a variety of bow-strokes facilitated by the lighter, slimmer Baroque bow, are all techniques explored by the Venetians and still enjoyed by listeners today.