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The Music of the Lagoon

This article was previously published in the special edition, VENICE (July 2019).

"In every home, someone is playing a musical instrument or singing. There is music everywhere." – Anon, Seventeenth Century

It is very hard to walk along the narrow alleys or through the bright, little squares of Venice without hearing, in your mind, the most beautiful music. Be it from the forest of bell towers or the lilting song of the gondoliers, the city in the lagoon seems to sing a thousand melodies, all of which are harmonised by the gentle lapping of the green-blue waters against ancient walls.

Long before Vienna rose to musical capital of Europe, Venice was nurturing a generation of great composers. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Claudio Monteverdi and the uncle/nephew team of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli developed a rich and unique style of church music specifically for services at the spectacular Basilica di San Marco. In fact, it was the architecture itself that helped shape the innovative sound of the Gabrielis’ music: the resonant acoustic of San Marco encouraged them to take standard religious brass and choral music in an intricate and polyphonic new direction by utilising San Marco’s unusual arrangement of two opposing choir lofts to create phrases that hung in the air and mixed to create a new and wholly Venetian sound.

Dirk Bogarde in Viscounti's 'Death in Venice' (1971), Illustration by Rhiannon Powell

Giovanni Gabrieli is also credited with a number of practical innovations, such as the development of notated dynamics to help direct players and singers as to the volume required at different times. It is also thought that some of Gabrieli’s works are among the first to be published and performed throughout Europe. Venice had always been a trading city and now music was added to its rich portfolio of commodities, as its influence in the musical culture of Europe was secured.

However, when it comes to innovation, no one can rival Monteverdi. Maestro di Capella at San Marco for most of his life, he composed great choral and orchestral works such as his 1610 Vespers – still often performed today. However, it is in his secular works that he made the longest lasting impact. Often credited as one of the founding fathers of opera, he was one of its earliest adopters and developed its identity separately to the traditional masques from which it grew. His early work L’Orfeo (1607) is one of the earliest operas still regularly performed.

In 1637 the Teatro San Cassiano opened as the world’s first commercial, public opera house – Venice was once again at forefront of musical development. It was Monteverdi who rose to the challenge of writing some of the very first opera for public consumption, a particular success was his L'incoronazione di Poppea, a tale of the life and loves of the Emperor Nero, the high point of which is the exquisitely beautiful duet ‘Pur ti miro’.

It would be remiss to talk of the music of Venice without mentioning Antonio Vivaldi. The whole city seems to reverberate to the sound of his magnificent oeuvre of concerti and religious music, and it is often hard to find a chapel that is not advertising nightly tourist performances of his famed Four Seasons for exorbitant prices. Bridging the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Vivaldi developed a far more energetic and impassioned style than any of his Baroque contemporaries. Taking religious orders, his severe asthma prevented him from performing the daily work of a priest and allowed him to spend more time on his music. Composing and teaching at the Conservatorio dell’Ospedale della Pietà, a school and home for orphaned and foundling girls, Vivaldi gave the hospital a great reputation for its quality of music and people would travel from far around to hear the girls perform. For modesty, the young girls would perform from balconies hidden behind metal grates so as not to be seen by the audience. Many visitors found this added an extra magic to the performances, as the source of the sound was invisible to them.

Vivaldi’s four concerti for violin and orchestra known as the Four Seasons is the most recorded piece of all classical music and it is ubiquitous in today’s society – be it in television advertising or repeated on loop while you sit on hold to some company or other. Meanwhile, his most popular choral work, his Gloria, is sung by professional and amateur choirs the world over.

Venice’s appeal to composers continued through the centuries and with the growth of the railways many more came to be inspired by the city’s great musical heritage. Felix Mendelssohn stopped off on his tour of Italy in the early 1830s and, whilst the rest of the country inspired his joyful Fourth Symphony, the songs of the Venetian gondoliers prompted a series of wistful works of solo piano known as ‘songs without words’. These quiet and mournful pieces reflect a more haunting and mystical side to the Venice that is often lost today amongst the hordes of tourists but can still be captured in the early mornings or in the quietest streets far from the Piazza San Marco.

Another German to make the pilgrimage was Richard Wagner. Making several long visits to Venice towards the end of his life, he wrote that it was there that he found peace from the noisy carriages of the cities of Germany, possibly identifying yet another reason that Venice attracts so many musicians and composers. After completing the score of what was to be his final opera, Parsifal, Wagner returned once again to Venice for the winter of 1882/3 and it was there that he died in the February. His body was carried back to the mainland by a funeral gondola, an echo of the grand Teutonic legends that he loved so dearly.

Although none of Wagner’s music directly references Venice, there is no doubt that the spirit of the place seeped into his consciousness. The overture of Parsifal could almost have been written to accompany the funeral gondola’s slow, silent progress across the morning mists of the lagoon. The Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote this epitaph on the memorial plaque on Wagner’s apartment:

“In this palace, the souls hear the last breath of Richard Wagner perpetuating itself like the tide which washes the marble beneath.”

One of the most famous evocations of Venice in film is Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaption of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Competing for the starring role in this film are Dirk Bogarde and Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s music is used throughout to evoke a soul-wrenching ambience around Bogarde’s character. Music from his Third and Fifth Symphonies is used, both works with no original connection to Venice, however, the transformative effect of the film has meant that one movement, in particular, will forever be linked with the city. Whenever I have arrived or departed from Venice by boat, I cannot help but hear in my head the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Through a combination of the music itself and Visconti’s use of it in his film, it now conjures up the image of that picturesque jumble of buildings sitting low on the water which one gradually approaches over the waves.

Although eventually losing its musical crown to other European capitals, Venice has always had and still maintains a pride in its musical heritage and exhibits it proudly alongside some of its greatest painters and architects. In a world full of loud, polluted cities packed with cars, buses and lorries, Venice stands alone as a place where, without the intrusive background noise, one can still hear the music of the years floating along the canals.

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