Once again thanks for your suggestions for our post-Brexit referendum grand musical tour of Europe’s great cities, which this week reaches Venice.
@PositivistDinosaur is surely right that we must begin with Claudio Monteverdi, who lived in the city for the second half of his life and was responsible for the music at St Mark’s Basilica. Monteverdi’s reputation was established before he arrived in Venice in around 1613, thanks mainly to his groundbreaking opera Orfeo and the Vespers, but his two late operatic masterpieces The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea were produced during the three decades he spent in the city. He died in 1643 and is buried in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of the city’s most imposing churches.
The history of opera, as @PositivistDinosaur notes, is virtually inseparable from the history of Venice, which was still a powerful city state when Monteverdi was setting out the possibilities of the art form. Venice’s opera house, La Fenice, gave the premieres of several operas which are now part of the bedrock of the repertoire – La Traviata, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, The Rake’s Progress, The Turn of the Screw.
La Fenice was burned down in 1996 in an arson attack, but was rebuilt in its original form and reopened eight years later (Fenice means phoenix in Italian, and the theatre was so named because it replaced another that had burned down in 1774). Inevitably, when La Fenice reopened in 2004, the first production staged in the restored house was Traviata.
@abkquan, who from his suggestions so far should, I suspect, be writing these musical city guides, makes the point that there are actually two Venices. There is “the opulent Venice celebrated in the music of Monteverdi, Gabrieli and Vivaldi. And then there is the decaying Venice we know from novels and films, for example Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Visconti’s film and inevitably the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony; Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, also made into a film directed by Paul Schrader; Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, etc.”
There are two Venices because the city is the decaying relic of a once-great empire. When Monteverdi was composing, even though that empire was already in decline, the grandeur, the independence and the city’s position as a centre of trade remained. After the conquest by Napoleon in 1797 and absorption into the new Italian state in 1866, it became a museum, the most beautiful and captivating in the world.
No one who visits the city will ever forget it; and many who have fallen in love with it will want to die there, as Aschenbach does in Death in Venice.
The city is a metaphor for life: a brief glory, doomed to ruin. Aschenbach symbolises that ruin, but dies contemplating the possibility of beauty and transcendence.
@abkquan makes some great suggestions for what he (sorry, I am making an assumption here) calls the “unheimlich” Venice – he means strange, but is there also a suggestion of seedy and threatening? He offers Liszt’s La Lugubre Gondola, written in 1882 and seen as prefiguring his son-in-law Richard Wagner’s death in a palazzo on the Grand Canal the following year.
Liszt was overwhelmed by the sight of the funerary gondolas he saw in the city – one was to take the body of Wagner on the beginning of his final journey back to Bayreuth – and sought to capture them in music. Later, as he associated the work more and more with the death of Wagner, he produced a revised version for piano and composed an arrangement for cello and piano.
Benjamin Britten first visited Venice in 1949 and loved the city. Two of his final works were written under its spell – his opera based on Mann’s Death in Venice and his third string quartet, which uses motifs from the opera. In the opera, the libretto (by Myfanwy Piper) refers to “Ambiguous Venice, Where water is married to stone, And passion confuses the senses”. Ambiguous Venice – not a bad summing up of the way it mixes majesty with melancholy.
In a similar vein, @thesecretorganist suggests Thomas Adès’s quartet Arcadiana, the first movement of which, Venezia notturna, also plays on the idea of the decaying city – one of the vanished idylls portrayed in the seven-movement piece. @abkquan says Adès “likens the first movement to ‘the ballad of some lugubrious gondolier’”, and wonders whether he had Liszt’s work in mind while writing it.
Lest we allow the post-decline view of Venice to dominate, @Oldiebutgoodie suggests Tomaso Albinoni’s glorious oboe concertos. Though he travelled widely in Italy, Albinoni was born and died in the city, and always considered Venice his home. We may also want Albinoni’s Adagio (back to melancholy), if only to wonder whether he really wrote this haunting melody, or whether it was the work of Italian musicologist and Albinoni scholar Remo Giazotto, who claimed to have rescued it from the bombed-out Albinoni archive in the state library in Dresden after the second world war.
And, yes, of course we have to have Antonio Vivaldi, who was born in Venice in 1678 and spent many years as music teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, which was then an orphanage. Vivaldi’s output was vast – so vast that he quickly fell from favour after his death in 1741, and even today we struggle to comprehend the scale of his achievement.
Part of the problem, of course, is the Four Seasons, the ubiquity of which crowds out the rest of his huge catalogue (500 concertos, 40-plus operas, numerous choral and chamber works). We will ignore the Four Seasons, which in any case was written while Vivaldi was working as capellmeister at the court of Philip of Hesse-Darmstadt in Mantua, and choose instead his Gloria. Glorious.
Next time, in honour of the great Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara whose death has just been announced, we will visit Helsinki (metaphorically speaking, that is – I hate it when Radio 3 announcers say: “And now maestro X takes us to place Y.” No he doesn’t – we listen to a piece of music). All suggestions gratefully received. Left to my own devices it will be all Sibelius, so please help leaven the mix.
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