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Women Musicians of Venice: Musical Foundations, 1525-1855.

The musical lives of Anna Maria of the Pieta, Elisabetta Mantovani of the Incurabili, Anna Cremona of the Mendicanti, and Bortola Anzoloti of the Dereletti, to name but a few, have long awaited narration. The title to this book promises to recount the stories of the renowned figlie di coro of Venice. Instead, Berdes provides a vast collection of data relating to the history of the four Venetian ospedali, showing how music became an essential and integral part of institutional life.

In the introduction, Berdes expresses the hope that her study be "not only a repository of information and references for those working in various aspects of Venetian studies, but also a tool". The bibliography, despite lacunae and inaccuracies, is a valuable source of reference. The rest of the book reveals Berdes to be primarily a collector of information, obviously not all firsthand, and not all of equal significance. Her attempt to lead a coherent path through a barrage of highly documented details is obscured by the lack of critical evaluation or inquiry. Her study spans over three hundred years of documents and other data relating to four large Venetian institutions through the rise and fall of the Republic. The various types of information are presented without regard to their relative validity, historical value, or contextual differentiation.

The book is divided into three parts, dedicated in turn to Venice, the ospedali, and the musicians. The number of pages devoted to female musicians is merely nine. Berdes gives the enthusiastic impression that she has uncovered a wide open prairie of research opportunities, but the accessibility and manageability of many of the Venetian archival sources are not without shortcomings, as the growing community of scholars working in this field knows.

Most of the book is concerned with the social history of Venice, presented in the context of the evolution of music at the charitable institutions. Berries attempts to show that music was already significant at the ospedali in Venice before 1700, and not the sudden creation of an eighteenth-century venture. She includes some thoughts on the influence and relationship of music at San Marco to the evolving musical conservatories at the ospedali. This is valid, since several of the ospedali composers were also active at San Marco during their careers. It is also important to stress the distinctions. For example, liturgical books from the Pieta describing its ceremonies have yet to be found. The exact format for Vespers, or the extent to which the ospedali followed local practice or adhered to Roman or another use, is not made clear in the music manuscripts. As to musical style, the significance of polychoral writing at San Marco has a different meaning and tradition than the many works written "in 2 cori" for the ospedali. The extant vocal music from the eighteenth-century ospedali repertory shows a much greater influence from opera and concerto than from the earlier sacred music styles.

While Berdes expresses a strong interest in the musical repertory composed for the female musicians, she is not very accurate in her representations. For example, Berdes cites surviving examples of music by Giovanni Porta from the Pieta to include sixty-one psalms, eleven Magnificats, and one Passion, whereas my study of the part-book collection from the Pieta shows eighty-one psalms, twelve Magnificats, and four Passions, representing but a part of his total output for the Pieta ("The Partbook Collection from the Ospedale della Pieta and the Sacred Music of Giovanni Porta" [Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1993]). Her musical statistics for the later composers should also be read only as a conservative estimate.

The musical commentary is also not particularly informative. When discussing the composers, she states that their duties included "composing vocal repertoire for the cori in the same three main genres that predominate in the repertoire of the basilica: psalms, motets, and sonate da chiesa". She also refers to the famous treatise L'armonico pratico al cimbalo (Venice, 1708), merely as "a keyboard tutor by Gasparini". She states that "the hiring of teachers of orchestral instruments beyond the traditional string ensemble at the Pieta, for example, is evidence for the emphasis on instrumental rather than vocal music at that institution". This is a typical misinterpretation fostered by the popularity of Antonio Vivaldi's music. It was the need for sacred vocal music which laid the foundation for concert-making at the ospedale. Only by expanding the role of the sacred music repertory, was instrumental music then given an opportunity to flourish at the Pieta. More colorful orchestration was also used in the dramatic works, such as the oratorios, in place of sets and costumes. While there was an increase in the use of instrumental music through the latter part of the century, purely instrumental music continued to be tangential to the sacred repertory.

Berdes's conclusions are influenced by a thinly veiled feminist agenda. For Berdes, the achievements of the cori were suppressed "as a result of the actions of some [men] who felt threatened with the loss of status". Unfortunately, this suppression theory cannot account for the fact that the musical corpus was written almost exclusively by men, and passed into oblivion for nearly two hundred years. It was not until after Vivaldi was rediscovered in this century that the history of the charitable institutions was recovered.

Nevertheless, the late Jane Berdes's legacy holds many fascinating clues. She was a generous and active correspondent with a passion for collecting data. While any one topic in her book is worthy of further development, the wide diversity of relevant information encouraged Berdes to appeal to the efforts of team research, and indeed her work offers unlimited potential for interdisciplinary studies.

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Author:Tiedge, Faun Tanenbaum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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