- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Authors of historical novels are like card players. History deals them the facts and actors - a hand full of painted cards of kings, queens and knaves conniving in the corridors of power. The eagle-eyed novelist must play out the dealer’s dole, scouting all the while for latent possibilities. There are risks of course. Authors can fall so in love with their heroes and heroines that they sentimentalize them, drifting into rosy anesthetic dreams of the past.

In “The Four Seasons A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice,” Laurel Corona falls into the trap of sentimentality, and while the early chapters of her novel are not without fascinating illuminations, it eventually trails off because she cossets her two imagined heroines rather than fully explore their extraordinary lives.

Maddalena and Chiaretta are the daughters of a Venetian courtesan who abandons them at the Ospedale della Pieta when her lover leaves her. The Ospedale takes in foundlings, training the boys in a trade and sending them out into the world, but teaching the girls music. The mediocre enter convents, but the most talented join its choir of instruments and voices.

Rich Venetians come to hear their glorious music, and though the girls live nun-like lives, they are allowed to receive visitors and to give concerts in wealthy homes. This exposure gives some the chance to marry into Venice’s ruling aristocracy.

The story of Maddalena, who becomes one of the Pieta’s best violinists, and Chiaretta, an angelic singer, is extraordinary enough, revealing the musical life of early 18th-century Venice and the important part played by its many female musicians. What makes it the more intriguing is that the Prioress and governors of the Pieta hired the best teachers and composers to create music for their female musicians. In Maddalena’s and Chiaretta’s day, this was Antonio Vivaldi, known as the “red priest” because he was indeed ordained and he had unusually red hair.

Vivaldi suffered from asthma, and because of this and perhaps also because he was so clearly a brilliant musician, he was excused from priestly duties, and spent his time teaching and writing music - not just for the Pieta, but also for many European monarchs. Much of his work was religious music, but he also wrote violin concertos and operas, eventually becoming the manager of the Venice’s Sant’Angelo opera house.

Historical records show Vivaldi’s contracts with the Pieta were not always renewed, which suggests some disaffection among the authorities. Using these records as well as the surviving documents about life inside the Pieta’s walls, Ms. Corona has created a novel that focuses on the fates of Maddalena and Chiaretta. She imagines Maddalena in love with Vivaldi, and he with her. Their love is physically unconsummated except by the music he wrote and she played, but perhaps the suggestion of impropriety explains the lapses in his contracts.

For the beautiful Chiaretta, Ms. Corona imagines a marriage to one of Venice’s wealthiest young men. The Pieta’s rules demanded that a woman who married must train two girls to take her place in the choir. For this, she received a dowry and a negotiated marriage arrangement that protected her interests. She was not, however, allowed to perform in public again.

Poor Chiaretta! She loved performing before an audience. So, after having recorded the strictness of the Pieta’s rules at great length, Ms. Corona comes up with a story line that whisks the disguised Chiaretta onto the stage of the opera house. Historically unlikely, this turn of events springs more from Ms. Corona’s desire to shower Chiaretta with blessings. Chiaretta’s scolding mother-in-law quickly disappears from the novel, while her lover, scarcely sketched, provides her with emotional support.

In loading Chiaretta with good fortune, Ms. Corona creates her into a storybook heroine with everything - talent, a good husband, a lover, riches, children. Ms. Corona thus misses the chance to explore the interesting question of why Chiaretta abandons music in favor of marriage.

As for Maddalena, she never marries but remains in the Pieta first as a star performer and eventually as a teacher, the likely fate of many of the foundlings. As the novel progresses and focuses more on Chiaretta, Maddalena becomes a shadowy figure. Thus, after a strong beginning in which Ms. Corona not only explains how the Pieta operated but explores the camaraderie and competitiveness of its musicians, the novel drifts into a vagueness and fancifulness that often makes the second half tedious.

Interestingly, “The Four Seasons” is not the only recent historical novel that takes us into the lives of the girls and women of the Pieta when Vivaldi was their maestro. Barbara Quick’s “Vivaldi’s Virgins” published by HarperCollins in 2007 is set in the same time and place. Ms. Quick’s heroine in Anna Maria del Violin. Like Maddalena, she is based on an actual woman, well-known in her day as mistress of the violin and also of several other instruments.

Though Anna Maria pours energy into her music, her aim in life is to discover the identity of her mother. To this end, she is willing to break all sorts of rules, including leaving the Pieta at night. Anna Maria’s adventures enable Ms. Quick to paint a more rounded picture of early-18th-century Venice, and indeed the Pieta itself, which seems to have been no soft option for any of its wards.

With its tale of the search for the mother, a fixation more modern than historically informed, “Vivaldi’s Virgins” is a quest novel, and like many such has a surprise ending that is no surprise to the alert reader.

In contrast, Ms. Corona’s book is a coming-of-age novel, generically destined to lead to an ending in which self-knowledge leads to happiness. Its fundamental weakness is that Chiaretta’s choices, ambition and work get lost as the author follows her into a golden world.

Vivaldi gets lost too. He rarely appears after the first half of the book, and while Maddalena’s feelings for him are explored, his for her are left vague, as are his for Anna Giro, the opera singer who was a close companion, though not necessarily his lover, for much of his life.

Vivaldi’s role in Ms. Quick’s novel is not much different, though she does a better job of capturing his virtuoso performances on the violin and his transformative effect on the music of his day.

The way Vivaldi fades into the background of these novels mirrors his historical fate. Though much lauded in his days in Venice and Mantua, he ended up penniless in Vienna, where the young Haydn was one of the choirboys who sang at his funeral.

Like Mozart, he was buried in one of the city’s paupers’ graves, and though J.S. Bach was tremendously influenced by his music and was instrumental in the survival of some of it, Vivaldi’s work was virtually forgotten in the 19th century. Only strenuous efforts by 20th-century scholars brought it back to the concert stage. Large stashes of his enormous oeuvre were discovered in the 1930s and ‘40s, and as recently as 2003 and 2005 new works were still being found in the libraries where they had lain hidden.

As for the Ospedale della Pieta, Ms. Corona and Ms. Quick explain that it was broken up when Napoleon marched into Venice in the 1790s. Its tradition of music was forgotten until its old records were discovered, and with them accounts of the lives of the foundlings - among them Ms. Corona’s Maddalena and Ms. Quick’s Anna Maria del Violin - who became renowned for their extraordinary skills.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide