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5 Historical Facts about Music in Venice

Venice has the reputation of an important centre of European music history – but why exactly?

The impressive and eventful musical history of the city of Venice goes back as far as the Renaissance. Moreover, it influenced the musical traditions of the rest of Europe for hundreds of years.

1. Opera in Venice

The golden era of opera in Venice began in the mid-17th century, and at times, the city boasted as many as 20 opera houses! Opera had originally been the exclusive preserve of entertainment at court, but this changed in 1637, when the first public opera house opened its doors. The Venetian opera houses offered seating in boxes and standing room in the stalls; countless operas were performed here, among them works by Antonio Vivaldi und Johann Adolph Hasse. This made the Venetian opera a magnet for singers, composers and librettists, and also attracted an increasing number of tourists. Alongside Milan and Naples, Venice remained one of the three main centres for premieres of operas by Verdi, Donizetti or Bellini until well into the mid-19th century.

Teatro La Fenice
Teatro La Fenice © Museo Correr

2. Basilica di San Marco

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The first organist at St Mark's Cathedral assumed his position as early as 1316, and even then, he apparently had several organs at his disposal to accompany the services of worship. Early in the next century, in 1403, the famous choir school was founded, which marked the rise of Venice as a centre of European music. The Scuola di cantofermo e figurato e contrapuntto teoretico e pratico was financed by the state, and initially only musicians from abroad, for example, from Holland, were hired as teachers.

The choristers of San Marco provided musical accompaniment for the feast days in the church calendar and for the official appearances of the Doge and the Signoria connected with them. (The Doge was head of state of the Venetian Republic, while the Signoria was the supreme body of government.) The first maestro di cappella at St Mark's, 1436–1457, was Johannes de Quadris, followed from 1491 to 1526 by Pietro di Fossis. Adrian Willaert from Flanders took over the position in 1527, and retained it until his death in 1562. In that period, composers from all over Europe came to Venice to learn from Willaert, who had made significant contributions to the Venetian School and to its musical innovations such as polychoral singing.

View of the Inside of San Marco
View of the Inside of San Marco

Among other things, Willaert introduced Sunday concerts at San Marco, a tradition that was later adopted by the »ospedali« ensembles as well, and became a tourist attraction. He also enlarged the choirs and elevated the music performed in the basilica to a much higher level than hitherto. Incidentally, his successor many years later was none other than the famous Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi.

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3. The Invention of Printed Music

After Johannes Gutenberg invented book printing in 1450, music copyists began to use the new technique as well, printing sheet music from engraved metal plates or woodcuts. In 1498 the Venetian book printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466–1539) invented music printing using movable characters – a principle already in use for books by this time: with the help of Gutenberg's manual casting tool, it was possible to manufacture individual and accurate-to-size characters and symbols in large numbers.

The transfer of this technique from books to music made Petrucci Europe's first important music publisher, and turned Venice into the centre of European music printing for the next few decades.

Printed sheet music by Ottaviano Petrucci
Printed sheet music by Ottaviano Petrucci

4. The First Music Conservatoires

Einen bedeutenden Beitrag zum Musikleben Venedigs leisteten seit Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts die Ensembles der vier großen Heime für Waisenmädchen. Die dort gegründeten Chöre und Orchester wurden von renommierten Musiklehrern unterrichtet und waren europaweit für ihre Virtuosität berühmt. Neben der Mitgestaltung von Gottesdiensten und Staatsakten gaben sie regelmäßig öffentliche Konzerte und waren eine Attraktion für Einwohner und Besucher.

Der wohl berühmteste Lehrer war Antonio Vivaldi, der am Ospedale della Pietà wirkte. Seine Schülerinnen müssen auch nach heutigen Maßstäben hervorragende Musikerinnen gewesen sein, denn er schrieb zahlreiche hochvirtuose Solokonzerte für sie. Der Ruhm der Waisenhäuser wuchs dadurch so sehr, dass bald venezianische Eltern versuchten, ihre Kinder dort zur Schule anzumelden. So entwickelten sich die Ospedali mit der Zeit zu Vorläufern der heutigen Musikkonservatorien.

Chiesa della Pietà, Venice
Chiesa della Pietà, Venice © Moonik / wikimedia commons

5. Instrument Makers

Venetian instrument makers had already perfected their handicraft in the 15th century, a time when stringed instruments in particular were in demand in northern Europe. Thus in the 17th century Venice advanced to become one of the leading centres for making stringed instruments, and to a lesser extent keyboard instruments, alongside Cremona, Brescia, Florence and Naples. Some of the workshops had contracts with the San Marco choir school and the »ospedali«, and produced, sold, repaired and lent out instruments. Today, many instruments made in this period are particularly valuable. Among the important instrument makers were Matteo Goffriller (1659–1742), Domenico Montagnana (1686–1750) and Pietro Guarneri (1695–1761). And the important Tyrolean violin maker Jacob Stainer (1618–1683) probably also spent some time in Venice.

Lauten / Rebec, (Bellini: Pala di San Giobbe, 1487)
Lauten / Rebec, (Bellini: Pala di San Giobbe, 1487) © Von Warburg / wikimedia commons

Text: Julia Mahns

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