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The Vivaldi’s Women project (from Tamesis, issue 198, February 2008)

And now for something a little different to report: women singing both tenor and bass, with the author as living proof of capability in both parts. Some of you may have watched a broadcast of Vivaldi’s Gloria on BBC 4 a few weeks ago without realising that the ensemble of singers and players was entirely female in composition.

SPAV filming through grille This was a repeat of a production shown in 2006 in tandem with a documentary about the known performing practice in the eighteenth century at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where Vivaldi was employed on and off for 37 years from1703 to 1740 first as maestro del violin and then as maestro di concerti. The Pietà was one of four institutions in Venice that catered for society’s derelicts; it took in foundlings, or unwanted and abandoned babies and infants, and gave to those of them (perhaps one in ten) who showed musical promise or aptitude a thorough grounding in music. This was done not merely from charitable motives, as by Vivaldi’s time the practice of music had developed to a stage where it had become the custom to perform in public to an appreciative paying audience every Sunday.

Many accounts survive to illustrate the high quality of these performances, often penned by travellers undertaking the Grand Tour, who were attracted by the reputation of these famous girls and women. They generally performed in the galleries, or cantorie, of the church, by candlelight and stationed behind gauze curtains and a metal grille which lent an air of mystery to the proceedings. So we, attired in replica costumes, did likewise, and performed Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589) from memory as it was originally intended to be sung, with women singing all four parts at written pitch. Surviving records at the Pietà make it quite clear that this was so, as the names of the performers are written into the score. So much for musicologists’ theories about introducing men to sing the lower parts or transposing them up; no need to do either when some of us are well able to do the job unaided.

So who were we, and why did we have the opportunity to demonstrate these powers? The group of singers, called Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi, or SPAV for short, was derived initially from members of the Oxford Girls’ Choir, augmented by a few older outsiders to provide some “beef” especially in the lower parts (plus in my case some exceedingly low notes; down to F below the stave in the Gloria and I can go lower still, down to C below the stave on a good day). This represents the age composition of Vivaldi’s singers as well as the vocal distribution of parts. Accompanying us were members – females only – of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Jerwood experience. In the eighteenth century girls and women of the Pietà were often trained in both fields but for the purposes of the broadcast and to maintain an appropriate quality of sound professional players were used. We have performed since, most recently on tour last autumn, and have plans to perform some more once funding has been secured, so we are open to offers on that score.

Because there were limited opportunities for double takes most of the filming took place in one go. We had a brief rehearsal time in the church, which was freezing cold in November. The church of the Pietà, which was completed after Vivaldi’s time but probably to his specification, is only opened for concerts and some special occasions (eg during Biennale) at present, so thankfully we did not have to dodge gaping tourists or get up at dawn. For authenticity’s sake all the electronic kit was well- concealed, including miles of cable and a £2 million jimmy jib camera that rose majestically from the floor of the church to capture us at an altitude of 60 feet, and a hidden conductor equipped with monitors that we could see but which were rendered invisible to TV viewers. At one point the jib camera struck the metal grilles, to a chorus from us of “Jimmy crack jib, and I don’t care”.

Another unscheduled highlight was when the choir opposite started a Mexican wave, to which my choir responded by whistling a bit of the Gloria. We could hear the producer groaning aloud at this manifestation of the true St Trinian spirit. Recording sessions can produce that effect after a while, even in so glamorous a setting as the Pietà church with its magnificent Tiepolo ceiling painting. A kind of sympathetic magic gripped us all. Being in Venice and especially singing there is romantic enough, but there was the added frisson of treading in the steps of the original performers, for whom we felt a marked empathy across the years. Music was their way of life; literally so, as the fees paid by visitors helped in large part to sustain the institution, which survives today (the only one of the original four to do so, after Napoleon’s reforms of the city’s government suppressed the other three) as a children’s home and refuge for those from troubled families. And Venice was unique in educating females in this way; the four conservatorios in Naples for instance took only boys. One could almost imagine the spirit of Vivaldi benignly encouraging us.

And why us? We had originally been formed as a group in 2005 in response to the BBC’s invitation, with a distinct mission to demonstrate women’s ability to sing all parts at pitch and had already sung for Evensong in Canterbury cathedral in the late summer on a first outing. I think the cathedral establishment - or at least their predecessor monks - are still recovering from the shock and surprise of hearing the voices of female trebles, let alone female tenors and basses, beneath their hallowed gothic vaults!

Margaret Jackson-Roberts


Filming the documentary

The documentary "Vivaldi's Women" on BBC Four presented the story of an extraordinary creative partnership between one of history’s great composers – Antonio Vivaldi – and an all-female orchestra and choir. In the early 18th century, Father Antonio Vivaldi was a violin teacher, musical director, procurer of musical instruments and in-house composer for a Venetian institution called La Pietà, a home for children who had been abandoned at birth. The institution had its own all-female orchestra and choir who provided sacred “entertainment” in the church for the visiting “Grand Tourists”. The unique creative relationship that Vivaldi formed with these women resulted in what many believe to be one of the finest performing groups of all time.

The documentary also reveals the personal stories of this unique community of female musicians and the full extent of Vivaldi’s relationship with the institution. During five days in November 2005 Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi, directed by Richard Vendome, recorded and filmed three different programmes for the BBC on location at La Pietà. The choir of 18 past and present members of Oxford Girls' Choir (aged 14-36), together with seven older ladies, replicated Vivaldi's choir in size, age and vocal range, the lowest voices can singing down to bottom F on the bass stave!

Antonio Vivaldi, as well as being a composer, worked at the Ospedale della Pietà for much of the first half of the 18th century. This was one of four such institutions in Venice - a home for abandoned and unwanted babies, often the children of prostitutes. The boys there were trained in stone cutting, weaving and shoe making, so they could leave at 16 with a skill for the future. The girls however, unless they got married or became nuns, stayed there for the rest of their lives. It was Vivaldi’s job to train those girls who showed musical promise (about one in ten) to sing and play instruments during services at La Pietà. Vivaldi wrote many of his works for this female musical establishment, and evidence suggests that all the vocal parts were sung by women, including tenor and bass.

SPAVfilm2005 In November 2005 we travelled to Venice with 17 female members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Jerwood Experience, led by brilliant young virtuoso Nadja Zwiener, to perform at the church of La Pietà, staying in the Casa per Ferie, close to where the orphans used to live. The boned corsets of the 18th century costumes were elegant if rather constraining, and we filmed the "Gloria" by candlelight behind the grills in the galleries looking down on the main body of the church. In addition to filming the "Gloria" we spent a day recording and rehearsing Vivaldi’s music for Easter Vespers for BBC Radio 3, which was broadcast on "The Choir" on Easter Day 2006. The programme was presented by Aled Jones and Catherine Bott; the producer for the BBC was Michael Surcombe and the sound engineer was Mike Hatch.

- click here to see the documentary "Vivaldi's Women" on YouTube

- click here to see Vivaldi's "Gloria", filmed at the same time. Our later (2009) DVD of Vivaldi's "Gloria" and other works can be ordered on our home page.

© 2006 Rosie Dilnot