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Vivaldi And The Women Of The Pieta

The The Women of Vivaldi was founded in Buffalo, NY in 2018 by Suzanne Fatta to promote early music in the Buffalo/Niagara area, and to support all-female choirs which include Tenors and Basses. Based on the work of the world-famous Vivaldi’s Women ensemble (Oxford UK), our performances aim to recreate the sound world of Vivaldi’s Venice, featuring an all female ensemble. Despite a licentious reputation, the opera houses were required to close for all important religious festivals and Saint’s Days. But Venetians and their visitors still wanted to be entertained. Vivaldi’s all-women orchestras and choirs were legendary sensations, but the girls needed to be protected from noblemen and travellers to the city.

Seraphic Fire women shine in an evening of virtuosic Vivaldi

BBCFour programme of Vivaldi's Gloria performed by an all-female orchestra and choir in the Pieta in Venice. Complementary to the BBC4 programme 'Vivaldi and the Women of the Pieta' uploaded by markfromireland, which showed the progress of the project. Venice, Vivaldi, and the Ospedale della Pieta'. This seventeenth-century illustration of the Ospedale della Pieta' from the Correr Museum in Venice shows the building as it probably looked in 1715. This is the Ospedale that Isabella and her friends would have known. The marker on the map above shows the location in Venice of the site of the Ospedale della Pieta'. Through her portrait of the Pieta, Laurel Corona shows the underside of a city beneath the public face and social structures in the lives of abandoned women, and yet at the same time, her narrative presents a compelling story of women whose lives develop from within the hidden walls of the Pieta.

La pieta music

Patrick Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire in an all-Vivaldi program Wednesday night at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton.

Antonio Vivaldi’s work at a Venetian girls’ orphanage is sometimes treated as the story of a great composer bestowing his gifts on a group of destitute children.

But there’s another way to look at the Baroque master’s involvement with the Ospedale della Pietà, Patrick Dupré Quigley, artistic director of the choir Seraphic Fire, told an audience in Boca Raton Wednesday night. Already renowned for the musical skill of its students, the Pietà provided Vivaldi with the virtuoso performers he needed to develop his own gifts and produce the works for which he would become famous.

The collaboration between Vivaldi and the girls and women of the Pietà was the subject of Seraphic Fire’s latest program of concerts, which opened at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. Appropriately for the subject, the musicians on stage, from singers to violinists to organist, were all female, except for Quigley (someone had to play Vivaldi).

Vivaldi And The Women Of The Pieta Book


With all respect to the work of tenors, baritones and basses, the men weren’t missed. An all-female choir can produced a particularly light, transparent, sun-splashed tone for works of religious joy and devotion. And even in passages of darkness and solemnity, in texts that described the crucifixion or the mercy of Christ, there was no feeling of the absence of voices at the lower end of the vocal range.

Judging from the works presented, Vivaldi’s religious muse was more up-tempo and ornate, and less stern and lugubrious, than those of Bach or Handel. There was a lot of drama, and there were demands for considerable virtuosity on the part of both singers and instrumentalists, indicating the high musical standards that must have prevailed at the Pietà.

In Nisi Dominus, alto Margaret Lias delivered crisp coloratura, with effortless ornaments and a tone of urgency in her voice. The long Amen was a sustained display of vocal fire.

Vivaldi And The Women Of The Pieta

The chorus’ perfect intonation and pure tones in the Credo made the most of the unearthly descending harmonies of the crucifixion verse. Quigley’s conducting brought out the theatrical side of the music throughout the evening, with swelling crescendos, abrupt pianissimos and lots of rhythmic drive in the last verse, which tells of Christ’s resurrection.

Cessate, omai cessate was the program’s only secular work (very secular, with words like “savage memories of a potent love”). Alto Clara Osowski sang it, aptly, like an operatic scena, with her rich voice taking on a dramatic edge. In the second verse, which deals with the pains of love, her smooth legato took on a tragic tone that matched the words of suffering and heartbreak.

The singers were accompanied by a lean chamber orchestra of two violins, viola, cello, bass, theorbo (a sort of giant lute) and organ. But despite the small numbers, the orchestra made its presence felt effectively throughout, with accurate, incisive and spirited playing with Baroque bows and gut strings (requiring, as Quigley explained, more frequent tuning between works)

In Nulla in Mundo, the soprano Margot Rood effortlessly negotiated wide leaps and vocal ornaments, while singing throughout with feeling and a pure, rounded tone. Alto Amanda Crider gave a virtuoso performance of Jubilate omeni chori, singing long chains of dozens of notes on a single word, and doing it with verve and even tone throughout.

The largest work on this program of short pieces was Vivaldi’s Magnificat. Amid the fast and fiery violin playing, the women’s perfect intonation and clarity of singing made the most of the surprising harmonic turns. In the verse that speaks of God’s mercy, dark harmonic sequences descended over a repeated low notes in the orchestra in a grave expression of religious faith.

“Vivaldi and the Pietà” will be repeated 7 p.m. Thursday at Vanderbilt Presbyterian Church in Naples; 7:30 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables; and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale.

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Antonio Vivaldi is one of the more memorable names that the average person could probably either recall upon inquiry, or at least recognize upon mention. Born in 1678, he was trained in the priesthood, (most likely as a method to gain access to education) and once ordained in 1703, promptly abandoned the cloth to become a music teacher at an orphanage for girls. As noble as this may seem, orphanage is a rather generous term for the institute of which he was appointed. The Ospedale della Pietà may have originally been a place of safety for abandoned infants, by the 1700’s it was a school for young girls, many of whom were the illegitimate children of royals as a result of their secret relationships with various mistresses. Vivaldi, and many other highly skilled musicians during, before and after his appointment trained some of the most talented, all-women orchestras in Europe.

Records are scattered and rare of the lives of these virtuosos. There are a few notable accounts of Anna Maria della Pietà and her pupil Chiara della Pietà in various writings and historical archives, but little record remains of their personal accounts, accomplishments, and achievements. One book of note is Vivaldi’s Virgins, by Barbara Quick. Her story is from Anne’s perspective and is a fascinating imagining of what her life may have been like. Karla Walker has a great write-up in her research on Anna, (read it here) and there are a few other scattered memoirs, pieces of fiction, and romanticized historical records of a handful of other performers. For the most part, their accomplishments are noted as part of Vivaldi’s legacy, and I would likely not know anything about them had I not investigated his background deeper as part of a personal curiosity while studying his sonatas for the cello.

Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music by Susan C. Cook reviews some reasons why the women at the Ospedale della Pieta are not a bigger part of the conversation for renaissance musicians. In a review of her essays, Claudia McDonald writes that the women there sustained a vital part of the musical culture, but were revered as “pious angels,” suggesting that the stigma in those times often placed women outside of the framing of profession the way their male counterparts were perceived. Women were often confined to domestic roles, and when it came to performance, their skills were designated for household entertainment. While this exception at the Ospedale not only stands out, but proves otherwise, it is still placed in the realm of exception in the historical record. In Susan Cook’s writings, on page 136, she notes of Frederic Christian, the Prince-Elector of Saxony, admitted in 1740, “What makes the Pietà so famous is not just that all of the instrumentalists are truly excellent musicians, but an even rarer fact, which is that all of the instruments are being played by females without any males in the ensemble at all.”

The 1700s is a profound period in history, where revolutions took place in several large nations, where composers were captivated by the notions of democracy and freedom, and where many groups that experienced tyranny at the hands of oppressive forces wrote, and artists performed volumes of compositions dedicated to their struggles. Of the Black, Native American, and even colonial perspectives, some of the most glorious voices came from the forgotten children of nobles in an orphanage in Italy. The students of Vivaldi and his contemporaries played some of the most impressive performances of their time, and the women of the Ospedale della Pieta should not be forgotten. While Chiara della Pietà, Anna Maria della Pietà, Michielina della Pietà, Santa della Pietà, Agata della Pietà, Vincenta Da Ponte, Anna Bon, Maddalena Laura Sirmen, Regina Strinasacchi, Candida della Pietà are some of the only remembered in the record, all of the young women who got a chance to sing, perform, and learn at the hands of great masters like Vivaldi can be remembered in the preserved compositions from their archives.

Here is one of the pieces that Anne most likely played. We can only speculate how she may have invoked its beauty. Enjoy Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in B Minor, RV 387: I. Allegro.