The 'Piffari' in St. Mark's square procession. Gentile Bellini, Venice, 1496, Gallerie dell'Accademia.

Adrian Willaert portrait .

Gioseffo Zarlino portrait.

Claudio Monteverdi portrait. Bernardo Strozzi, 1640, Innsbruck, Landesmuseum Fernandeum.

Claudio Monteverdi, conductor of the St. Marks chorus.

Antonio Vivaldi. François Morellon de la Cave, 1725.

Concert. Pietro Longhi, Venezia, Gallerie dellAccademia.

Richard Wagner, photo.

Igor Stravinskij. Marino Marini, bronze , 1951.

Luigi Nono in Venice.
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The 'Piffari' in St. Mark's square procession. Gentile Bellini, Venice, 1496, Gallerie dell'Accademia.


immagine didascalia

Adrian Willaert portrait .


immagine didascalia

Gioseffo Zarlino portrait.


immagine didascalia

Claudio Monteverdi portrait. Bernardo Strozzi, 1640, Innsbruck, Landesmuseum Fernandeum.


immagine didascalia

Claudio Monteverdi, conductor of the St. Marks chorus.


immagine didascalia

Antonio Vivaldi. François Morellon de la Cave, 1725.


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Concert. Pietro Longhi, Venezia, Gallerie dellAccademia.


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Richard Wagner, photo.


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Igor Stravinskij. Marino Marini, bronze , 1951.


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Luigi Nono in Venice.


Venice and music

Music in Venice until 1560

Although the oldest sources, documents and codes concerning musical activities in Venice all date from the 14th  and 15th Centuries, there is an earlier document - the Vita Lodovici Imperatoris by Eginhard von Fulda - that mentions a water organ and a certain organist called Giorgio di Venezia in the year 1200 or so, indicating that there must have already been an established tradition for organ music at the time. It is also believed that music was played in St. Mark’s Basilica and the cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore in that period, but this is only a theory, since we have no direct confirmation from historical sources.
We do, however, have certain proof that music, including polyphonic music, was played in Venice on numerous occasions in the 14th Century, during both religious and secular events. Several composers, such as Marchettus di Padua, Francesco Landini and Marcantonio Romano, composed several appreciated motets (music for several voices) dedicated to the Doges of the time and probably commissioned by the same.

Musical activities grew as the Venetian Republic extended its power across the mainland in the early 1400s. A Scuola of eight singers conducted by the magister cantus Antonio Romano was set up at St. Mark’s (1403). The established figure of the maestro di cappella (choir master) only appeared at the end of the century (the first being Pietro de Fossis in 1491), along with that of the second organist. Leonardo Giustiniani was most important representative of profane (or "secular") music in Venice in the first half of the 16th Century. His polyphonic works for two or three voices were so characteristic of the tastes and the artistic life of Venice that his style was still popular in the next century as a genre known as Venetian or even Justinian music. Indeed, even in 1571 Andrea Gabrieli published a volume of Greghesche et Iustiniane for three voices.

Nevertheless, when compared to its political status and wealth of the time, Venice’s music was still relatively insignificant and there were no virtuoso musicians or composers. However, the Marine Republic of Venice played a very important role in the printing of musical scores and treatises from the late 15th Century onwards: many publishers produced large numbers of these, especially Ottaviano Petrucci.
In 1527 a certain Adrian Willaert was summoned to St. Mark’s Basilica. Thanks to his work, instrumental music finally started to flourish, gradually breaking away from the trend for purely vocal music. During the same period the Venetian technique known as “cori spezzati” appeared and grew rapidly, later also adopted elsewhere in Italy. By taking advantage of the special architecture of St. Mark’s Basilica, two separate choirs faced each other in the two side chapels, singing whole sections in several voices, creating the effect of two separate "tracks" that, when combined, allowed composers to experiment with special polyphonic sound effects in space.


From 1560 until the Fall of the Serenissima in 1797

After the death of Willaert, there was a serious fire in St. Mark’s Basilica in 1574, followed by another in the Doge’s Palace in 1577, thus destroying most of the organs and Venice’s musical archive. Nevertheless, the musical body at St. Mark's was expanded under Gioseffo Zarlino (1565-1590) , who also wrote a famous treaty on the theory of music.
Although composers wrote a lot of profane music for public festivals and for various civic events, most of the music was still written for performance in churches. Other Venetian churches besides St. Mark’s had stable organists and choirs (San Salvatore, San Geremia, Madonna dell'Orto, Santi Giovanni e Paolo), while the wealthy confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco had several great organists, such as Bellavere (1568 onwards), Giovanni Gabrieli (1585 onwards) and Alessandro Grandi (1619, 1624). Claudio Monteverdi, director of St. Mark’s choir at the time, was repeatedly instructed to conduct the festivities in honour of San Rocco.

Thanks to the patronage of the Doge Marino Grimani (1595-1605) , music became an increasingly important feature of many civic feasts, with a marked integration of music and theatre. Hence the pastoral tales performed in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace. Music concerts usually consisted of madrigals and other pieces from the profane tradition (both instrumental and for voice). These were all printed in Venice. The most important figure of the time was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Monteverdi moved to Venice in 1613, when he was appointed as the choir master at St. Mark’s. Here he wrote the last three of his nine published books of madrigals. Some of his best masterpieces were composed for performance at Palazzo Mocenigo: "Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" (1624) and "Il rapimento di Proserpina" (1630).
As a natural development of this emerging practice of musical theatre, the world’s first opera theatre, San Cassiano, opened in Venice a few years later (1637) with the performance of Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Mannelli’s "Andromeda".
The theatre was a great success and led to many others opening in Venice over the space of just a few years: Santi Giovanni e Paolo (1639), San Moisè (1640), Teatro Novissime (1641), Santi Apostoli (1649), Sant’Apollinare (1651), Sant’Angelo (1677) and San Giovanni Chrisostomo (1678).
By the end of the 17th Century there were no fewer than twenty theatres in Venice, nine major concerns and eleven smaller ones.

The profitability of these theatres and the money paid to composers for operas was the major reason why sacred music was gradually replaced by profane music. In fact, the commission for just one opera could sometimes be equivalent to the annual salary of a maestro di capella. The most important operas were undoubtedly those by Monteverdi: his "Arianna" and "Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria" (1640), "Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia" (1641) and "L’incoronazione di Poppea" (1643) are masterpieces that, according to Nicolaus Harnoncourt, are the only operas that stand comparison with Mozart’s. There was, however, no immediate successor to Monteverdi.

In the 17th Century, several Venetian organisations known as Spitali and later Ospitali (charitable institutions of hospitality) were responsible for the playing and teaching of music. These included the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, the Ospedale dei Derelitti (also known as Ospedaletto), the Ospedale degl'Incurabili and the Ospedale della Pietà. In addition to their various charitable activities, they also trained musicians. Like the similar institutions in Naples, they eventually became known as Conservatoires.

Chamber music and orchestral music returned in vogue in the 18th Century, being played in public and private academies, ospedali, churches and the courtyards and halls of nobles palaces. The violin "solo" evolved in Venice thanks to many virtuosos, such as Antonio Vivaldi , Pietro Nardini and Giovanni Benedetto Platti. Many violin concertos were written by these virtuosos or the so-called “amateurs”, such as Tommaso Albinoni, Benedetto Marcello and Domenico Alberti.
In addition to these Venetians musicians, some of Europe’s most important composers also worked in Venetian theatres: Hasse, Porpora, Domenico Scarlatti, Händel, Gasparini, Leonardo Leo and, of course, given the fortunes to be made in Venetian opera theatres, the most famous singers of the time, such as Farinelli, Carestini, Bernacchi, Faustina Bordoni and Niccolini.

A very important Venetian musician in the late 1700s was Baldassarre Galuppi. Not only was he the music director at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti and the Ospedale degl’Incurabili, but in 1766 he was commissioned to reorganise the St. Mark’s Basilica musical ensemble. He reduced the choir to 24 members (six per voice) and boosted the orchestra.
Principally a composer of operas, he created the genre of dramma giocoso (jocular drama) thanks to his close links with Carlo Goldoni.
His many light operas were performed in Venice and so many major European theatres that the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia invited him to Saint Petersburg as her music director. Towards the end of the 18th Century the political and financial crisis in Venice also affected its music, resulting in the survival of just the Ospedale della Pietà. The prolific publishing of musical scores also tailed off at the end of the century, when the market gradually moved to Northern Europe. For example, Vivaldi had his first two works printed in Venice (1705 and 1709), but was later forced to use a music publisher in Amsterdam. The end of the century was also the start of the decline of Venice’s glorious musical culture. 1797 saw not only the end of the Serenissima with its thousand-year history, but also the closing of its famous musical institutions, such as the Ospedali and St. Mark’s Chapel.


19th Century

When Venice’s most famous theatre was destroyed by fire in 1773, a new opera theatre was quickly built and called Teatro La Fenice (after the mythical Phoenix bird that arises from the ashes). 
It opened on 16th May 1792 with a performance of Giovanni Paisiello's I giochi di Agrigento and soon became the most famous theatre in Venice and Italy. "La Fenice" premiered many operas by Gioacchino Rossini ("Tancredi", "Sigismondo and Semiramide"), Vincenzo Bellini ("Capuleti e Montecchi"), Gaetano Donizetti ("Il Belisario") and Giuseppe Verdi ("Ernani", "Attila", "Rigoletto", "La Traviata" and "Simon Boccanegra").

Music in Venice in the 1800s is also closely linked to the German composer Richard Wagner, who often stayed in the city for long periods and finally moved there permanently with his family in 1882 . Wagner wrote his last compositions in Venice and died on 13th February 1883 in Palazzo Vendramin Calergi of a heart attack.
Gustav Mahler is also frequently associated with Venice, although he never actually lived there.
Thomas Mann is responsible for this, having likened his protagonist Gustav Aschenbach in “Death in Venice” to Mahler. Luchino Visconti helped reinforce this impression in his 1971 film adaptation, by making Aschenbach a composer. Visconti also used the Adagietto from Mahler's fifth symphony in the film, thus turning it into a kind of theme music for Venice.


The 20th Century and contemporary music

The musical scene in Venice was completely changed in the 1900s, becoming an international venue for contemporary music. In 1925 the International Society for Contemporary Music chose Venice as the location for the third edition of its music festival. Committee members included Jan Sibelius, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel.

Stravinskij felt increasingly linked to Italy , where many of his works had been represented for the first time, and so wished to be buried on the island of San Michele.
Like the Venice Biennale, the International Festival of Contemporary Music (FIMC) was established in 1930 and has taken place every year since 1936. Various twentieth-century masterpieces by Dallapiccola, Prokofiev and Stravinsky have been performed during this Festival, as well as the more experimental music of Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono , two Venetian composers who are still at the cutting edge of post-war Italian music throughout the world.

The Teatro "La Fenice" was rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed in a fire on 29th January 1996 and still offers important opera and concert seasons featuring the world’s finest musicians. It is also home to the Venice Biennale International Festival of Contemporary Music. With Vivaldi concerts in the squares and the contemporary music during the Biennale Musica, Venice still offers visitors the chance to appreciate the richness of its musical culture, past and present.


Toni Hildebrandt

1300 - 1400  -   - rev. 0.1.20

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