“Last night there was a concert of voices and instruments at the Hospital of the Incurabili, where there were two girls that, in the opinion of all people, excel either Faustina or Cuzzoni, but you know they are never permitted to sing in any theatre.”
Lady Mary Montagu
Impressive though Venice’s operatic tradition was, it represented only one side of its musical life. Another important facet was the sacred music which was performed in St Mark’s, in the churches, and also, perhaps most famously the concerts given at the orphanages or ospedali which became enormously popular with the grand tourists. The four ospedali (The Incurabili, the Mendicanti, the Ospedaletto and the Pietà) became renowned nurseries of musical talent and the young girls who received this first-class musical education became virtuoso instrumentalists and singers whose talent, according Lady Montagu, often exceeded that of professional opera singers. The most famous of the four ospedali was the Pietà, whose choirmaster was Antonio Vivaldi and whose music was written to be performed by his angelic young pupils many of whom caught the eye of prospective husbands, though Rousseau complained that the girls’looks were less angelic than their voices (one was disfigured with small-pox and another had only one eye). The heyday of Venetian music was undoubtedly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beginning with Monteverdi,(who, although Cremonese, was active in Venice), the Gabrielli, Albinoni and Vivaldi.
However, although there may have been some waning of native musical talent in the nineteenth century, the city acted as a magnet to foreign composers notably Wagner who died in Venice. Another aspect of Venice’s musical life were the barcaroles sung by the gondoliers.. Both Helen Frick and Amelia Morgan waxed lyrical about the concerts given by the gondoliers in the moonlight near the steps of Santa Maria della Salute. These performances reflected a musical tradition which was rooted in popular culture.