When one thinks of opera in Italy, one automatically thinks of the famous La Scala opera house in Milan. But, in an article published in The Guardian in 2013, John Julius Norwich sets out the case for Venice as the city that created opera. Although initially occupying a position of political and maritime power (Shakespeare’s Othello was the commander of the garrison at Venice, where he met Desdemona, before setting out to defend Cyprus against the Turks), the spread of the Ottoman empire, the discovery of the New World and the Cape Route to the Indies had all combined by the late 15th Century to make the Mediterranean little more than a backwater. However, as Venice’s political fortunes declined, argues Norwich, so her culture flourished.

This was initially in the area of painting, but music started to gain the ascendency. The combined effects of the death of Pope Leo X in 1521 and the Sack of Rome in 1527 had caused the eclipse of the long- dominant musical establishment in Rome, as a consequence of which many musicians either moved elsewhere or chose not to go to Rome. Venice was seen as one of several places to have an environment conducive to creativity.
In music history, the “Venetian School” was the body and work of composers working in Venice from about 1550 to around 1610. The Venetian polychoral compositions of the late sixteenth century were among the most famous musical events in Europe, and their influence on musical practice in other countries was enormous. The innovations introduced by the Venetian School, along with the contemporary development of monody and opera in Florence, together define the end of the musical Renaissance and the beginning of the musical Baroque.
To begin with, the music of Venice was firmly centred in the Basilica of St Mark, which possessed not one but two organs. Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew Giovanni, the two greatest Venetian musicians of their time, evolved the practice of using two choirs, placed in different parts of the building. While this may seem like a recipe for chaos, somehow it worked marvellously well!
In August 1619, Claudio Monteverdi arrived in Venice, after 30 years at the court in Mantua, and music came into its own even as painting took a rest. Already well known as a composer of religious works – his Vespers of 1610 have stood the test of time – he spent over 20 years as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s. But he also became popular for his secular music, and, as Norwich says, his 1607 work, “La Favola d’Orfeo” must have a good claim to be the first example of opera as we know it. When Monteverdi died, on the 29th November 1643, it was said that all Venice went into mourning.

However, even before the death of Monteverdi, his musical legacy had borne fruit. The first public opera house was in Venice. The Teatro San Cassiano was a stone building owned by the Venetian Tron family, and took its name from the neighbourhood where it was located, the parish of San Cassiano near the Rialto. It was considered ‘public’ because it was directed by an “impresario”, or general manager, for the paying public rather than for nobles exclusively. The first operas to be performed were “L’Andromeda” by Francesco Manelli (1637) and “La Maga Fulminata” by Bendetto Ferrari (1638). And if those names do not seem to slip off the tongue like (for instance) Verdi or Wagner, it must be remembered that, in the 17th Century, opera as an art form was in its infancy.
Imagine a Shakespearean play, with the plot-building dialogue interspersed by set speeches such as “To be or not to be….”. Early operas could sometimes be little more than a series of songs (arias) joined together by the loosest of narratives and reams of “Recitative” – sung dialogue where the singer appeared to have forgotten the music altogether! The position was complicated even further by the arrival of the Castrati, men whose beautiful boy soprano voices had been preserved at puberty by a surgical operation, and who could then sing with all the power of a fully-grown man, but could reach the highest notes on the register. The proliferation of Castrati was designed to compensation for the fact that women were banned from performing on stage. The best of them were treated like latter-day film stars, adulated and spoilt. The problem was they were so much in demand that they were allowed to sing their own favourite songs – indeed, pretty well anything they liked – whether or not it fitted into the plot of the opera in which they were performing! They could perform cart-wheels (literally and figuratively), and the crowds adored them!
However, it was a good start. Venice became the opera capital of the world. After the 1650s, the Teatro San Cassiano was surpassed by others, and its number of performances declined, but another ten opera houses opened. At this point, the Teatro San Cassiano could count first performances of 37 operas. By the beginning of the 18th Century, a city of some 160,000 inhabitants – roughly equivalent to the size of Reading – could boast no fewer than seven full-time opera houses.
Unfortunately, as Norwich relates, it was about that time that Venice found a new occupation. She became “the pleasure capital of Europe, the Las Vegas of her time. Here the gambling was for higher stakes, the courtesans more skilful and obliging, than anywhere else on the continent. Carnival – during which the wearing of masks dissolved all inhibitions – went on for three months a year, and the arts flourished. Painting rose up again from its 17th-century nadir: the city was celebrated as never before by the Vedutisti Canaletto and the Guardis, while the old Venetian fascination with light and colour reached its apogee in the work of Giambattista Tiepolo.”


The art of music was not forgotten, by any means, although perhaps it started to be second best to hedonism. Oddly – and one cannot help wondering at the coincidence! – the best music in Venice could be heard among illegitimate children, in the four orphanages for foundling girls: the Ospedaletto, the Incurabili, the Mendicanti and, most famous of them all, the Pietà. In these institutions, music occupied the most important place in the curriculum. By the beginning of the century, the standards were so high that the nobility regularly sought places for their daughters as paying students. There was, of course, an obvious logical objection. The orphanages were for illegitimate children. On the south side of the Pietà there still exists a long inscription, threatening with fulminazione – being struck by lightning! – anyone who tried to pass off his legitimate daughter as an illegitimate one in order to gain her admission. History does not recall how many nobles managed to get round the rules, and what subterfuges they used, nor how many were incinerated by bolts from the sky!


The Director at the Pietà was Antonio Vivaldi. Perhaps best known for his “Four Seasons” series of violin concertos, he also wrote 45 operas. With his death – in 1741 – Venice lost her last great composer. The final hammer-blow came in 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte brought the Venetian Republic to an end. For the next 70 years, the city was under foreign domination – sometimes Austrian, sometimes French – until in 1866 it finally became part of a united Italy.

As is well known, the rise of Italian nationalism (Risorgimento) was in no small part influenced by the composer Guiseppe Verdi, but his operas were being staged at La Scala in Milan – over 170 miles away. And it seemed that, when Venice lost her independence, she also lost her creative genius. There were no more Canalettos or Tiepolos, Monteverdis or Vivaldis. New operas – and for the average 19th-century Italian, no other type of music existed – continued to be produced at the Fenice and other theatres. Rossini and Verdi were regular visitors. In 1858, Richard Wagner completed the second Act of “Tristan” in one of the palaces, and he died in the Palazo Vendramin-Calergi in 1883. But none of these worthies were Venetians. With all this, it is hardly surprising that the baton should have been passed so completely to La Scala.

The last truly great composer to be associated with Venice was Igor Stravinsky, who even brought his own grand piano with him. It had to be hoisted by crane through his hotel window. The first night of his “Rake’s Progress”, at the Fenice theatre on 11 September 1951, marked the apogee of musical life in 20th-century Venice. Stravinsky did not die in the city as he had hoped to do, but was buried, after a magnificent funeral, next to his friend Diaghilev on the cemetery island of San Michele.

However, at least the Venice Carnival has been preserved, albeit less prolonged than in former days. This year, we will have the pleasure of hearing the voice of a prominent dramatic soprano, Anna Sanachina, trained and resident in Venice, who will be singing for us at the Glass Slipper Ball on the 9th February. We will have the reassurance that, however diminished it may be, the musical heritage of Venice is alive and in safe hands.

Written by Robert Wade



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