Wheel of the Innocents: 17th-Century Composers of the Venetian Ospedale
When reference is made to the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, most music lovers think immediately (if not exclusively) of Antonio Vivaldi, and the vast trove of concerti that he composed for the young women who lived and studied within its walls. Although Vivaldi is perhaps the most celebrated composer to have worked at the Pietà, the history of this venerable institution, and its sister Ospedali in Venice, dates back to the fourteenth century, and the Ospedali played an important role in the musical life of the Venetian Republic long before Vivaldi’s arrival as maestro di violino in 1703, at the age of twenty-five.
The Ospedale della Pietà was one of four ospedali grandi established by an order of nuns known as the Consorelle di Santa Maria dell’Umiltà. Founded as charitable institutions that were part hospice, part convent, and part orphanage, their remit continued to evolve and expand throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The excellent education provided to their young charges made the Ospedali, particularly the Ospedale della Pietà, desirable destinations not only for orphans, but for tuition paying students, and to “inconvenient” daughters fathered out of wedlock by gentlemen of wealth and standing, whose generous donations made it possible for the Ospedali to recruit the finest scholars and artists to join their faculty. Many of the girls grew up to become not only respectable members of Venetian society, but celebrated performers and composers in their own right, as well as desirable brides for young gentlemen; all the more so for the generous dowries provided by the Doge. Many of the Pietà’s accomplished musicians left by their mid-twenties, to be married, while others remained throughout their lives, and continued to perform in the celebrated concerts, often with fifty or sixty performers, that drew audiences from throughout Europe. One celebrated oboist known as La Pelegrina was the first soloist in many of Vivaldi’s oboe concerti. She continued to live and perform at the Pietà well into her seventies, remaining in the orchestra as a violinist after losing her teeth.
The Pietà’s most accomplished musicians were placed in a special class known as the figlie di coro (daughters of the choir), who presented concerts on a regular basis. The chapel was always packed for these concerts, which were often attended by visiting dignitaries and foreign royalty. For the sake of modesty, the performers remained behind a brass grille, as in a convent; a source of frustration to the writer and philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
“The chapel is always full of music lovers. Even the singers from the Venetian opera come so as to develop genuine taste in singing based on these excellent models. What grieved me was those accursed grills, which allowed only tones to go through and concealed the angels of loveliness of whom they were worthy.”
Vivaldi’s association with the Pietà lasted until about 1735, but the board of directors was not always pleased with his behavior. The board voted annually on the renewal of faculty contracts, and had fired Vivaldi on a seven to six vote in 1709. After realizing how valuable he had become to them, the board unanimously rehired him in 1711. Vivaldi's Opus 3, a set of twelve concerti titled L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration) was published that same year, and dedicated to Ferdinando de’ Medici, a supporter of the Pietà. Within a few years , Vivaldi was promoted to the position of music director. In the nineteenth century, the Ospedali would serve as a template for music education throughout Europe. In 1822, London's Royal Academy of Music was established as the first institution in Britain to provide professional music education to both men and women. Felix Mendelssohn's teacher, Carl Zelter, founded a school modeled after the Ospedali, and Mendelssohn himself furthered Zelter's work by founding the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843. The historian Jane Baldauf-Berdes has estimated that over three centuries, 4,000 original works were composed for the Ospedali by at least 300 composers. Today's program is focused around the composers and music of Venice and the Ospedali in the century before Vivaldi's arrival.
Giovanni Bassano was a virtuoso cornetto player and composer born in Venice around 1561, born to a storied musical family of performers, composers, and instrument builders. His grandfather, Jacomo Bassano, was the only one of Jeronimo Bassano’s six sons not to permanently relocate to London in 1540, as part of a newly formed recorder consort to King Henry VIII. Giovanni Bassano was appointed to the instrumental ensemble at St. Mark's Basilica as a teenager, and he quickly rose through the ranks to lead that ensemble from 1601 until his death. It can be assumed that Bassano performed these Ricercata himself, as the range extends to the cornetto's lowest note, A, but never to the violin's, the G just one step lower. They are, however, equally well suited to the violin or recorder. The Ricercata, published in 1585 with other instructional content, are models for ornamentation and diminution on vocal melodies, and were likely a key factor in securing him an academic appointment at the Seminary of St. Mark’s. Far from mere etudes, they are remarkable compositions in their own right; longer, more intricate, and more carefully constructed than any other contemporary pieces of this type, they use the immediate repetition of figures at twice (or occasionally half) the speed, and perfidie (the repetition of figures of irregular length (e.g. three and a half beats) at a different pitch, obscuring the beat. Bassano ingeniously follows the rules of polyphonic composition in works for a solo instrument, mimicking an accompanied melody within a single line. His compositions are regarded as an important influence on Giovanni Gabrieli, whose more florid instrumental lines were surely written with Bassano in mind.
Alvise Grani was a sackbut (trombone) player at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, a student of Giovanni Gabrieli, and the editor of Gabrieli 's 1615 Symphoniae Sacrae. He taught at the Ospedale della Pietà in the 1620s. Grani's motet, Beata es, for two sopranos, two basses, and basso continuo, was included in a collection of twenty, five-voice motets by Alessandro Grandi that was published in Venice in 1620. Grandi was a prolific and innovative North-Italian composer who has recently begun to receive the esteem he deserves, after languishing for centuries in the shadow of Claudio Monteverdi.
Giovanni Legrenzi was an organist who became one of the most celebrated composers in the second half of the seventeenth century. He composed in nearly every vocal and instrumental genre and played an important role in the development and expansion of the high-baroque Italian style associated with Vivaldi, Torelli, and even J.S. Bach, whose BWV 574 is a large-scale organ fugue on a theme of Legrenzi’s. Born in a small town north of Bergamo, 250 kilometers west of Venice but still part of the Venetian Republic, Legenzi’s early training likely came from his father, a violinist. His first post as organist and chaplain in Bergamo was complicated by circumstance; after just one year his position was not renewed, likely due to a minor scandal involving his gambling habits. Though Legrenzi was reinstated, left shortly thereafter of his own accord. For over a decade, he applied for several highly prominent positions throughout Northern Italy, but was apparently unsuccessful for most, and declined any offers extended, including maestro di capella at the Cathedral in Modena. The destruction of local records during World War II makes it difficult to reconstruct a complete timeline, but in 1665 Legrenzi used a personal connection to Carlo II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, to petition, unsuccessfully, for a very prominent position at the Habsburg Court in Vienna. He also wrote that he had been offered a position in France, at the Court of Louis XIV, which he had been forced to decline due to a lengthy illness. Remaining in Italy, he accepted a role as maestro di cappella at the Academy of the Holy Spirit in Ferrara, a role which left him enough free time to compose eight volumes of sacred music in the early 1660s, and to break into the elite circle of opera, with performances in Venice in 1664. Although he is known today primarily as an instrumental composer, Legrenzi composed nearly twenty complete operas, most of which are lost or incomplete.
By 1670, Legrenzi was well-established in Venice, where he taught at Santa Maria dei Derelitti (commonly called the Ospedaletto), and actively composed both for his own publication and for commissions; chiefly oratorios and music for special occasions. In 1676, the death of Francesco Cavalli, maestro di capella at St. Mark's Basilica, created a job opening for which Legrenzi was a finalist, losing out by a single vote. Later that year, however, he became maestro di coro of the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, remaining there until 1682, when he accepted the role of vice-maestro at St. Mark’s. By this time, Legrenzi was one of the most successful opera composers in Italy, and in high demand. In 1685, the maestro di cappella who had beaten out Legrenzi just three years earlier died, and Legrenzi was at long last promoted to the prestige position that had eluded him for his entire career. Sadly, by this time Legrenzi's own health was failing, and in his final years most of his duties at St. Mark’s were performed by an assistant. Although he was fluent in nearly every genre in use at the time, his trio sonatas are perhaps his most forward-looking works; bridging the gap between the earlier multi-section works of Marini and Merula, and the high baroque Sonata da Camera and Sonata da Chiesa of Corelli and Vivaldi.
Johann Rosenmüller, the only non-Italian composer on this program, held positions at both St. Mark’s Basilica and at the Ospedale della Pietà, but his career in Italy was borne of a scandal more serious than Legrenzi’s gambling habits. After completing a degree in Theology from the University of Leipzig in 1640, Rosenmüller remained in Leipzig to study with the Kapellmeister of the Thomaskirche, and to teach the younger students of the Thomasschule (sixty years before Bach’s arrival). In the early 1650s, Rosenmüller was promoted to first assistant Kapellmeister and organist in the Nikolaikirche. with every expectation of further advancement to Kantor and Kapellmeister. In 1655, however, Rosenmüller’s career trajectory was cut short when he and several school boys were imprisoned on suspicion of homosexual conduct. Historians disagree on the specific nature of the charges, but Rosenmüller escaped from prison, and may have fled to Hamburg. By 1658, he had established himself in Venice, where he was hired as a sackbut player at St. Mark’s. Within a few years, he was renowned for his compositions, and was appointed as composer to the Ospedale della Pietà, for which he composed numerous works between 1678 and 1682. He returned to Germany to spend his final years in Wolfenbüttel, in his native Saxony, as choirmaster to Duke Anton-Ulrich. Rosenmüller is regarded as a vital figure in the migration and fusion of Italian and German musical styles, and as such, an important catalyst toward a more unified European high-baroque style. Typical of his instrumental output, the sonatas performed today convey a wide range of contrasting emotions—from exuberant outbursts of virtuosity to poignant and expressive chromaticism—often in quick succession. The later publications show the influence of Legrenzi.
Alessandro Piccinini was a lutenist, writer on music, and composer of two volumes of music for instruments of the lute family. Born into a musical family in Bologna, Alessandro and his brothers were taught to play the lute by their father, Leonardo Maria Piccinini. Duke Gonzaga of Mantua called the sixteen year old Alessandro to his court, but the family moved instead to Ferrara, due to commitments Leonardo had made to Duke Alfonso of the Este Court. Fifteen years later, after the death of Alfonso, Alessandro entered the service of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, where he remained for another twenty years. Piccinini is best known for his two volumes of lute music: Intavolatura di Liuto et di Chitarrone, libro primo (Bologna, 1623) and Intavolaturo di Liuto (Bologna, 1639). The 1623 collection, from which the Toccata VI is taken, is of great importance to lute players due to Piccinini’s lengthy and detailed preface, which includes a treatise on performance, and Piccinini’s claim to have invented the archlute nearly thirty years earlier. While this claim is still debated by scholars, it is accepted that Piccinini was responsible for significant modifications to the Chitarrone, another type of extended lute. The second volume was published posthumously by his son, Leonardo Maria Piccinini, who was also a lutenist.