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Lagoon Tunes

Five Centuries of Music in Venice

by H.C. Robbins Landon, by John Julius Norwich
Schirmer, 200 pp., $29.95

Most of the illustrations in Five Centuries of Music in Venice evoke sonorities, as does the cover showing two of Carpaccio’s clamant trumpeters miraculously walking on water. Many of the pictures, some 175 in black and white and forty pages of them in color, portray musicians playing instruments. What the book lacks is an insert of a tape or compact disc of Gabrieli canzonas, Monteverdi madrigals, and Vivaldi concertos.

And an intelligent text. True, its quoted passages, taken together, would make an attractive anthology, from Tarkington in 1517 to Wotton, Nashe, Coryat, Addison, Mary Wortley, Montague Beckford—oddly not Dr. Burney, which would have improved the chapter on the eighteenth century—down to Howells and James. The Childe Harold canto is here, Wordsworth’s “gorgeous east in fee” sonnet, and Browning’s Galuppi, but only one of these heartthrobs relates to music. Best of all is Cassiodorus, writing from Ravenna: the Venetians live “like sea birds, with their homes dispersed…across the surface of the water, and secured only by osier and wattle against the wildness of the sea.”

John Julius Norwich’s introduction is peculiar in more than one respect. To describe St. Mark’s he borrows a patch of Ruskin’s deepest purple (the “vaulted porches” are “ceiled with fair mosaic”), then turns to the Doge’s Palace on his own. Its color, he says, varies from “the palest apricot in the morning sun to the colour—and apparent texture—of smoked salmon after a rainstorm.” But smoked salmon comes in many shades, rain or shine, and can be grainy and striated as well as smooth. No less odd are Lord Norwich’s composer-painter analogies, in which Titian is the Mozart of Venetian painting, Veronese its Liszt, and Tintoretto, “there can be no doubt,” its Beethoven, this in a book that does not include the one picture that might have been expressly painted for it, Veronese’s Marriage at Cana (in the Louvre), with its portraits of Titian playing the double-bass, Tintoretto the viol, and Veronese himself the viola da braccio.

Remarking on how little Venice has changed in the last two centuries, Viscount Norwich tells us that the acoustic properties of San Marco “swamped complex counterpoint,” and “this is as true today as it was in the time of the Gabrielis” (hardly a surprise, the building being the same). But in comparing Bellotto’s eighteenth-century view of the Scuola di San Marco with a recent photograph from the same perspective, his myopic or occluded eye fails to notice the swamping, or subsidence, of Venice itself, the thirteen steps from canal to terra firma in the Bellotto vs. the three steps today.

Viscount Norwich does not avoid redundancies (“pointing forward to the future”) and the adverb that negates the statement it is intended to modify (Titian’s “almost uncanny sureness of touch” confirms that his touch remains merely canny), and his adjectives show a preference for subjective-emotive expletives over specificity. A Giovanni Bellini altar-piece is “sublime,” Venetian architecture is “exquisite,” and nearly everything about the city is “superb,” from Sansovino’s “superb Marciano Library” to the “superb flowering” of Venetian painting, some unidentified but “superb statuary” (Antonio Rizzo? the Bregno brothers?), and Vivaldi playing the violin “superbly.”

H.C. Robbins Landon is an equally careless writer (“the use of two choirs, placed in different parts of the church, began”), and his presentation is sometimes confusing: Heinrich Schütz’s “nineteen Italian madrigals” were published in Venice in 1611, he tells us, then in the next sentence but one refers to “the twelfth and last of these extremely sophisticated madrigals…” Giovanni Gabrieli, he writes, “sought to be a bright optimistic composer,” though no one can say what Gabrieli “sought to be,” and “optimism” as a concept is anachronistic. We read that his music lacks “sentimentality,” generally, as well as in this case, a good quality to “lack.” But unlike his collaborator, Robbins Landon appears to have only the slightest acquaintance with the city. He refers to the Sestiere (district) of Canareggio as an “unfashionable Venetian suburb”—as if Venice could have a suburb, as distinguished from an archipelago.

The first two pages of the chapter “Monteverdi and the Seventeenth Century” repeat the same information found in Lord Norwich’s introduction to it. Robbins Landon then goes on to quote from Thomas Nashe’s description of a Venetian bordello, “Tabitha the Temptresses.” The pander who conducted Nashe to this establishment, “a notable practitioner in the pollicie of baudrie,” spoke “several languages” and “entertained us in our owne tongue very paraphrastically and eloquently, and maugre all other pretended acquaintance…” Tabitha, the Turkish “wench” who received the English client, “could set as civill a face on it as chastities first martyr Lucrecia…. On her beds there was not a wrinkle of any wallowing to be found…” Less entertaining but more pertinent is the passage offered next from John Evelyn’s diary of the 1640 carnival referring to “three noble Operas which I saw, where was incomparable Voices, & Musique.”

More than half of the Monteverdi essay is devoted to the composer’s pre-Venice years in the service of the Duke of Mantua, where, ill-paid when paid at all, he was “on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” The well-known letter from Monteverdi’s father pleading his son’s cause to the Duchess is quoted at length and said to be “a shame to the Gonzaga name,” which, being synonymous with murder these four hundred years, might be difficult to tarnish any further. But whereas generous extracts are given from Monteverdi’s letters petitioning the duke for promotion and back wages, nothing is said of the two crucial manifestoes of the Venetian period, the letter of 1616 to a patron and the preface to the Madrigali Guerrieri, et Amorosi (1638).

The first of these, defining the goal of opera as “touching the emotions,” protests against an allegorical libretto’s “dialogue of the winds,” the Zephyrs and the Boreals: “Ariadne moved us because she was a woman, and similarly Orpheus because he was a man and not a wind.” The second identifies wrath (Ira), moderation (Temperanza), and entreaty (Humilità o Supplicatione) as the three predominant emotions that animate musical drama. The wrath that Monteverdi means is of the Achilles kind, lost since the Greeks. He believed he had found and could express it musically through contrasts: “It is only opposites (gli contrari) which powerfully move (movono) our souls.” In musical terms “Ira” is rendered by “concitato” and entreaty by “molle,” while the resolution of dramatic conflict is achieved with the middle emotion, temperato, moderation.

All of which, of course, is the substance of Monteverdi’s Second Practice, not named in the book and hence not distinguished from the First Practice, whose masterpiece, though it fuses both genres, the Vespers of 1610, receives less than its due in Robbins Landon’s language: “one of” Monteverdi’s “loveliest works, in its Magnificat, the searingly beautiful old plainchant floats through and over the rich tapestry of orchestral sound,” which invokes Mahler rather than the six instruments of Monteverdi’s score.

A dozen or so lines are allotted to Barbara Strozzi, history’s only renowned female composer and a bravura performer on the viola da gamba, whose presumed father had written the librettos for two lost Monteverdi operas. Nothing is said of her music, cantatas and arias displaying distinctive melodic and rhythmic gifts, but this oversight may be blamed on the distracting portrait of her with charms undraped. Feminists outraged by the foregoing phallogocentric remark should in fairness consider the sexist aspect of the female orchestras, a Venetian phenomenon famed, by the early eighteenth century, throughout Europe. The city’s foundling hospitals “were established to receive orphaned (and largely illegitimate) girls,” Robbins Landon writes, though in fact boys were sheltered as well, but trained only in trades. The most musically gifted of the gender were taught to sing and play instruments, and since the art of music cannot be learned by the tone-deaf and the untalented, we must conclude that it is as much an aptitude of the female half of the human race as of the male.

Written accounts of the musical waifs tell us that they performed behind grilles and led sequestered lives, but J.-J. Rousseau was permitted to dine with them in their quarters, and a painting by Longhi shows twenty of them, in two tiers of an unenclosed balcony, playing string instruments, and a third tier of singers. When Vivaldi was maestro di cappello of the Pietà, composing a minimum of two concertos a month for the church, the resident orphan population numbered several hundred. This was at a time when some three hundred Venetian instrumentalists, singers, and composers had formed the world’s first musicians’ union, in a building next to San Martino.

Lord Norwich remarks that the printer Aldus Manutius came to Venice in 1490, and that when he died there twenty-five years later the city had sixty-five presses, three times as many as Rome. Nothing is said of music printing, however, until the Monteverdi period, yet Ottaviano Petrucci was printing polyphonic music from movable type in Venice by the first decade of the sixteenth century. In 1502 Petrucci published part-books of several masses by Josquin Desprez, and two years later a volume of the same composer’s motets, as well as works by Isaac, Agricola, Compère, and many more.

Other omissions must be noted. Robbins Landon describes the silver trumpets of the Doge’s processions, but does not mention the Biblical origin of the musical side of the ceremony (Psalms, Apocalypse), and his roster of great composers who resided in Venice, Orlando di Lasso, Handel, the younger Scarlatti, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, does not include the fifteen-year-old Mozart, who gave a public “academy” during which, and before the eyes of the audience, he composed a fugue on a subject proposed by a local maestro. (The house in which the Mozarts stayed, a two-minute walk from the Teatro alla Fenice, across the bridge behind San Fantin, has finally acquired a plaque.) The book acknowledges that Stravinsky, in death as well as life, provided Venice with its only significant twentieth-century musical history, but does not say that his Canticum Sacrum mirrors the architecture of St. Mark’s in some of the same ways as Guillaume Dufay’s most famous motet mirrors the structure of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence.

The most astonishing absence, however, is a discussion of bell music, the only kind that has perdured in Venice throughout the five centuries of the book’s title. Unlike the stationary Buddhist bell, struck from the outside with a mallet or ramrod, the oscillating, corybantic clapper bells of Venice ring at different speeds according to size, the smaller, higher-pitched, overtaking and surpassing the larger ones. When three or four bells of different sizes tintinnabulate from a single campanile, the fluctuating relationships among them can mesmerize the mathematical as well as the musical mind. In Venice, bells still announce epithalamiums and deaths—the transitory sound of a bell is a memento mori in itself—and Venetians still live by bells, called to work by the marangona, to prayer by the tolling of the canonic hours (nones, complines), to bed by the midnight bells, five of them, uniquely, of St. Mark’s.

The illustrations include color reproductions of musicians’ portraits—Lasso giving the beat to his Munich orchestra, Giovanni Gabrieli playing a lute, Domenico Fetti’s Monteverdi as an old man, and Rembrandt’s Heinrich Schütz, the greatest of the composers schooled in the early seventeenth-century Venetian tradition. The paintings, drawings, woodcuts of the interiors of opera houses and ridotti long since disappeared, of organ and orchestra lofts—Canaletto’s picture of a choir in a balcony in St. Mark’s reading from one large score—of musical instruments, of concerts and musical balls, make this a book to treasure. Buy it for the pictures, or for the pittoresco period pin-up of Barbara Strozzi. But read it only for the borrowed texts: “Musicke,” Castiglione wrote, makes “sweet the mindes of men…and who so savoureth it not, a man may assuredly thinke him to be not well in his wits.”

Letters

What’s a Girl to Do? July 16, 1992

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