We speak of ‘social empowerment through music education’ as if it were a modern construct. El Sistema, the music education program that began in the 1970s ‘that rescues children from the depredations of poverty through music’ is justly called a revolution, almost a miracle in achieving this objective.
But the ‘Red Priest’ (Il Prete Rosso), the flame-haired Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher and cleric Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was steeped in exactly such philanthropic work over three centuries ago, when barely in his twenties.
The church of Santa Maria della Visitazione is an imposing Venetian waterfront edifice even today, a few hundred yards from the city’s famed landmark, Piazza San Marco. It is better known as Ospedale della Pietà, or La Pietà, or even more simply, as ‘Vivaldi’s church.’
The Pietà was a convent, orphanage and a famed music school in Venice. It was a haven for orphans and abandoned, mostly illegitimate girls, especially those left in their care as babies. Like other Venetian ospedali or Foundling Hospitals, it gained renown for performances of sacred music by its figlie di coro. La Pietà also had a formidable orchestra of up to sixty players, all female. Inevitably, it became a hub of creativity, with composers writing music specifically for them.
Venice’s Ospedali played a pivotal role in the Republic’s musical life. Choirs and orchestras, made up exclusively of girls, were formed from those orphans that showed musical talent. They were trained by the finest musicians and composers, whose salaries were paid by the governors, sometimes out of their own pockets. The girls’ regular performances of sacred and secular music were packed with Venetians, including the nobility (some of whom sent their daughters to train with the orphan girls), and were an indispensable venue for foreign grand tourists (tourists undertaking the Grand Tour of Europe), who waxed lyrical about the foundlings’ virtuosity and angelic singing. Some soloists attracted enthusiastic followings, and the girls’ marriage prospects – most left the Hospitals by the age of 25 – were greatly enhanced by the admiration they enjoyed, as well as the attractive dowries given them by the Doge.
The Ospedali became the templates for future music institutions in Italy and beyond. The Royal Academy of Music London (1822) was the first English music school that solely trained both boys and girls to be professional musicians. Felix Mendelssohn who in 1843 founded the Leipzig Conservatory was influenced by his teacher Carl Zelter who had begun a school modelled upon the Ospedali.
The Ospedale della Pietà alone produced at least five composers that we know of, all female, and three of them foundlings. They wrote in a distinctive ‘Pietà style’ of composition.
Those among the other foundlings who went on to become musicians and singers attained a degree of respectability that society might perhaps not have accorded them had they not been brought here. It is worthwhile noting that only girls in the orphanage were taught music, as boys could be trained for livelihoods in commerce and shipping. This was unusual in a society that generally frowned upon professional female musicians.
Vivaldi who had been ordained as a Catholic priest in 1703 (it is said that his mother dedicated him to the priesthood soon after his birth in gratitude for his deliverance from an earthquake that shook Venice the day he was born; others believe that he chose the profession to further his musical career), the same year he began work at the Pietà, wrote much of his sacred vocal and instrumental music for the forces available to him there during his thirty years of service to the institution.
It appears that he had his differences with the Ospedale’s board of directors from time to time. The board, which had to vote each year on whether a teacher stayed on or not, was seldom unanimous in their vote on Vivaldi. In 1709, he was voted out, 7 to 6, and he spent that year as a freelance musician outside the Pietà. But the same board voted him back, unanimously, in 1711. His absence had made them realize just how important Vivaldi was to them.
L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration) is a set of 12 concertos for stringed instruments, published in 1711, probably initially composed for performance by the girls of the Ospedale della Pietà.
Performances of these concertos would have allowed advanced pupils to develop their skills as soloists, and given the chance to others to learn how to play in an ensemble. The dedicatee of the collection, Ferdinando de’ Medici, frequently visited Venice from his native Florence and supported the Pietà.
The publication of these concertos disseminated them far and wide, far beyond the walls of the Pietà. One particular concerto from the set, concerto no. 8 in A minor for two violins, cello and strings RV 522, caught the attention of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was so impressed by it that he transcribed the whole work into an organ concerto (also in A minor, BWV 593).
The evolution of music, the pursuit of musical excellence, music education and pedagogy, and charity, philanthropy and social empowerment have been closely intertwined through history. Long may this continue!
At Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), this intertwining is central to our DNA. The music of Vivaldi has been performed by Camerata Child’s Play India to much public acclaim, on several occasions.
The RV 522 A minor concerto for two violins has a special place in our history. It was performed by Camerata Child’s Play India three years ago, in 2014, at the Goa State Museum. At that time our string project was in its very early years, so the solo parts were performed by two young musicians from the community.
Our children have progressed a lot since then, and so it gives me great pleasure and pride to state that Camerata Child’s Play India will perform the first movement of this beautiful, energetic, youthful concerto, this time featuring two of our more advanced students, Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio as soloists.
The work will be part of our annual Christmas concert today 17 December 2017, at Institute Menezes Braganza hall, 6 pm. Come along to experience a live manifestation of this confluence of music education and pursuit of excellence, charity, philanthropy and social empowerment. Share in our joy and Christmas cheer!
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)