Vivaldi: Concerto in A minor for two violins & strings Op. 3 No. 8 RV 522

1711 was a good year for priest, composer, teacher and virtuoso violinist Antonio Vivaldi. To begin with, he had an extremely satisfying victory in the form of a reinstatement to the job that he had lost a year previously: the board of the Ospedale della Pietà, the school for orphans where he had been working since 1703, had tired of his contumacy and voted him out by a narrow margin, then repented and recalled him back unanimously the next year.

He also published his first set of concertos, a collection of twelve titled L’estro armonico (“The Harmonic Inspiration.”) It was the start of a lifetime’s collection of concertos that would, by the time he died, number around five hundred works, and the sheer number of them was primarily thanks to the nature of his job at the Pietà. Although the school was an orphanage, and trained its male students in a trade to be sent out into the world, its lasting fame and primary place in Venetian society was due to its education for its female students. The girls of the Pietà received a first-rate musical education, and while many left to make advantageous marriages, the most skilled of the student musicians were invited to remain in residence with the school’s top ensembles for the rest of their lives. The concerts at the Pietà were considered some of the top entertainment in the city– so much so that over time, it became clear that not all of the children furtively abandoned at its gates were, strictly speaking, actually orphans. Eventually, they simply started accepting adolescent music students, who paid fees for their education.

Thus the twelve concerti of L’estro armonico, including No. 8 for two violins and strings, would have been first performed by the women of the Pietà. And although there were many differences between the concert-going experience of Venice in the 1700s and Canada in the time of COVID-19, there is one significant similarity: the audience hearing Vivaldi’s string concerti for the first time were also not permitted to gaze upon the faces of the musicians playing them.

In lieu of masks, the audience was separated from the performers by an opaque metal grate; and instead of being a ward against physical disease, the barrier was intended to protect the audience both against unpious thoughts of female beauty and, possibly, the realization that many of the musicians were in fact disfigured by smallpox. Of course, the heightened sense of mystery created by the grate probably encouraged more impious thoughts than it prevented; Jean-Jacques Rousseau was so driven to distraction by the thought of the angels hiding behind it that he finagled a lunchtime meeting with the Pietà students through a friend who worked at their dormitory. He soon realized that was was being hidden from him wasn’t exactly what he had been expecting: “Scarcely one of them was without some striking defect,” he later wrote. But he soon learned, as we masked concert-goers and -givers of 2020 must also learn, that appearances aren’t everything. “During the meal,” Rousseau admitted, “they soon became enlivened; ugliness does not exclude the graces, and I found they possessed them. I said to myself, they cannot sing in this manner without intelligence and sensibility, they must have both. My manner of seeing them changed to such a degree that I left the house almost in love with each of these ugly faces.”