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Music in Venice

An Introduction

Detail from Bellini's S. Giobbe altarpiece

The Venetians were famous for being mad for music; even the gondoliers sang as they rowed, songs called barcarole that would inspire the barcarolle of composers over the centuries.

And for three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th, the Republic was at the forefront of the European musical scene, its innovative composers playing a major role in the development of modern opera.

It all happened just as Venice began its long slow decline. The fall of Constantinople and rise of the Ottomans in the eastern Mediterranean, the discovery of the New World and a route around the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East didn't bode well for Venice's long term survival as a trading maritime republic, living in the manner to which it had become accustomed. Yet as is so often the case, Venice's political decline coincided with a great flowering in the arts, in publishing and not the least of all in music.

The challenge of composing music for St Mark's Basilica with its various galleries and divisions inspired successive music directors and organists, from Adrian Willaert through Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli to Claudio Monteverdi to compose a new polychoral music of responding, echoing and interweaving voices (both singers and instruments).

Monteverdi, who composed Orpheus, the first modern opera, while he was employed by the Gonzaga court in Mantua, carried on writing them in Venice, culminating in his Incoronazione di Poppea. After his death in 1643, Francesco Cavalli carried the torch.

Opera was becoming big business, and by the early 18th century, when Venice was firmly established as Europe's capital of fun, the city had seven full-time opera houses, which by 1743 had produced an astonishing 582 different operas; the current one, La Fenice, was also the very last to be built, just before the death of the Republic.

Going to the opera was not only popular, but often tumultuous; true music aficionados sought out the city's Ospedali—orphanages and homes for illegitimate children that acted as music conservatories for the girls). The most famous were the musicians at La Pietà, taught by Antonio Vivaldi and the first to play many of his concerti (he also wrote scores of operas, although few are ever performed today).

Local talent dried up with independence: although numerous 19th-century composers spent time in Venice, including Verdi and Richard Wagner, who died in the city. In the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky premiered his Rake's Progress at the Fenice, and when he died was buried on San Michele next to Diaghilev. But by then Venice had a new voice and a radical new music: avant garde composer Luigi Nono.

Today, besides La Fenice, venues around Venice regularly host chamber music concerts, with plenty of Vivaldi and opera arias in the mix, including the aforementioned La Pietà, San Vidal, San Giovanni Evangelista, San Basso, the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto and the Palazzo delle Prigioni.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art