Women Musicians of Venice and The Red Priest

Not a single evening goes by without a concert somewhere. The people run along the canal to hear it…you cannot imagine how crazy the city is about this art…The transcendent music is that of the ospedali. There are four of them, made up of illegitimate and orphaned girls and those whose parents are not in a position to raise them. They are brought up at the expense of the state and trained solely to excel in music. They sing like angels and play the violin, the flute, the organ, the oboe, the cello, and the bassoon…They are cloistered like nuns…about forty girls take part in each concert.”

—Charles de Brosses,
from Le Président de Brosses en Italie: Lettres familières
écrites d’Italie en 1739 et 1740 (1858)

During the century and a half before the center of musical activities relocated in Vienna, the orchestras and choruses of the ospedali grandi, Venice’s female charitable institutionscum-conservatories of music, were the most highly esteemed in all Europe. A Russian visitor, Count P. A. Tolstoy, noted in 1698 that “in Venice there are convents where the women play the organ and other instruments, and sing so wonderfully that…people come to Venice from all parts of the world to refresh themselves with these angelic songs….” Henry III of France, Gustavus III of Sweden, Frederick IV of Norway and Denmark, the future Tsar Nicholas heard and admired them, as did Rousseau and Goethe, who described an oratorio in one of them as “infinitely beautiful,” the “voices, behind a grille”—“a delicate cage,” he called it—“were magnificent.” In the summer of 1771, Charles Burney, the music historian and father of Fanny, wrote that a Salve Regina performed in an ospedale was

new, spirited, and full of ingenious contrivances for the instruments …there seemed to be as much genius in this composition as in any that I had heard since my arrival in Italy…. The Venetian is a good school for Counterpoint.

Dr. Baldauf-Berdes disarmingly describes her account of Baroque music’s most curious phenomenon as a barely adequate introduction to the subject. But whatever the size of the dent, her book is a major contribution to our knowledge of Venetian culture. The late John Hale’s recently published The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance discusses them as social but not musical institutions. Dr. Baldauf-Berdes’s extramusical, religious, social, political, civic, economic scope—Venice, she writes, was a “salvation-based social welfare economy” with “an ellipsoidal church and state form of government”—far exceeds the promise of its name. It must also be admitted, however, that the title Women Musicians of Venice: Musical Foundations, 1525–1855 is misleading, since Baldauf-Berdes touches only in passing on secular female musicians, the female madrigal singers and the prima donnas of the opera houses that flourished contemporaneously with the ospedali.

The four …

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Letters

Correction November 16, 1995