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Vivaldi's Girls

Vivaldi's Girls

Book excerpt

July 29, 1741 - Vienna

       He now rests beneath the soft brown earth.

       As I stare down at the newly shoveled mound at my feet, the notes of his last composition come back to me. I recall our meeting last night as I sat in a small chair next to the fire in his study. We chatted as if we were friends; he smiled and told small anecdotes, mostly about himself, and I had to hide my bitterness from him.

       Once more I am alone with him. The gravediggers are gone; all his girls and all his bootlickers have left me alone on this little hill in the Bürgerspital Cemetery to pay my last respects. But respect left long ago; I am here to look down on him one last time.

       He can no longer bother me with his arrogant stories. My mind is fixed on revenge – not the impulsive revenge that sparks an explosion of anger, but the type of revenge that is eternal. I look up at the blue sky and hope. Perhaps the angels who came for him when his breath failed for the last time recognized him. Perhaps they saw the face that the heavens had warned them about. Perhaps they then cast him down rather than lifted him up.

       Last night, I stared at him in the dim light of the candelabra on the piano as his head rocked gently with the rhythm of the music. The melody that he had written was soft, mournful, and – I admitted to myself – lovely. The vibrations that rose from the pianoforte created gentle movements in the air, weaving their way toward me. His great talent had always been making each person in a room believe he was the audience for whom the music was composed.

       But when I looked at Antonio and saw the thin smile on his lips, I was reminded once again that he only played for himself.

       I shifted in the chair and crossed my weakened left leg over the other, settling once again just as he too shifted toward the lower register of the instrument, softly caressing the keys and gently sliding his fingers off the edge of the ivory.

       I was there last night because he had just composed this new sheet of music and he had summoned me to his poor one-room flat near Stephansplatz to hear it. Antonio had an insatiable need for approval, and I supplied the audience so that he could prove that he was still the genius that the world remembered. He didn’t claim it was his masterpiece, but he wanted an endorsement from someone, and I happened to be in Vienna at the time. I smiled impatiently and accepted, but I had my own personal reasons for visiting him.

       For an hour after I arrived, we sat and passed the news of the day with inconsequential stories, neither of us particularly interested in such small talk but using our back-and-forth conversation as a swordsman might parry his opponent’s jabs until the right opening offered itself.

       The candle flickered and the short stubs of wood in the fireplace crackled. Warmth wasn’t needed inside this room, not in July, but the low flames from the hearth threw off a dim and meager glow in the room, enough to light his face and the keys of the piano that his fingers rested upon.

       Our talk that evening had been as one between men of an advanced age who shared memories of life and time. If a stranger had stood in his doorway that evening he would be forgiven for thinking that Antonio and I were friends. But despite our years in each other’s company, friendship was not the reason we were drawn together.

       The truth was that we both loved the same woman. She was only one of his ‘adventures.’ But she was my wife, a girl that I had loved since her birth in my twenty-first year. A young child I had watched grow into womanhood, whose sparkling eyes and long blond tresses endangered any man who caught her in his gaze.

       Despite all her suitors, she chose me, a man with a gimpy leg, thinning gray hair, and many more years on earth than hers. And the miracle of it was, she loved me.

       But she was also in love with the music he created. It enchanted her, and he used these sonorous tunes to lure Rachel just as he had lured other young girls into his arms.


       In the end, I was the one who would have to make Antonio Vivaldi pay for his sins.

June 1693 - Venice

Antonio’s birth in the year of Sixteen Seventy-Eight was marked by the evil eye. On that day, there was an earthquake in the city, the first in distant memory, and his health was said to be weak from the beginning. Just out of his mother’s womb, Antonio coughed and sputtered, his chest heaving in great attempts to draw in air, and his family thought he would expire before sunset on the same day. So, the midwife baptized him that very afternoon, an act condemned by the priests of Venice as insufficient and against God’s will. But Antonio’s mother, weakly recovering from a difficult birth, feared that the baby – now breathing – would die in her arms and go to hell without a proper baptism.

        Antonio Vivaldi was born the same year that I was. His family was not as distinguished as my own; his father was just a barber.

        Giovanni Vivaldi was busy trying to make money to provide food for the family and was out of the house on that day. He learned of the birth and baptism from a friend in the square. 

        The infant Antonio survived. He spent many years of his youth with suppressed breathing, a fate which followed him into later life. In our earlier years, as with most children, the riches of our parents seem to be only a veneer upon life itself; we didn’t distinguish between those who had more and those who had less, if we were in each other’s company. I sympathized with Antonio’s plight, but my father convinced me that it was on no consequence for us.

        “Don’t mind him,” he said. “He’s just a musician.”

        Whenever I spoke with Antonio over the years, his voice always seemed to be squeezed out between breaths, sometimes almost a wheezing sound. I listened carefully so that I could catch his words, but my father’s own words replayed themselves in my memory.

        Antonio’s father possessed some musical talent and it was this that offered some slight reprieve from the duties of serving as a barber to the moneyless class. His abilities with musical instruments were modest, enough to give his son and other eight children an opening to the world of concerts and operas, but not enough to distinguish himself in the upper class of maestri in Venice.

        Although he sought talent in his progeny, Giovani despaired of any true musical excellence in his offspring. He believed that they wasted the opportunity – or were simply not up to it.

        But Antonio was different. From an early age, he displayed an uncanny ability to perform on the violin. He was all but prohibited by his parents from learning the wind instruments; his thin breaths and harsh breathing would never have let him succeed at that assignment.

        When he was only fifteen years of age, Antonio’s parents offered him to the Church for a life in the priesthood. His mother was probably still in dread of the evil eye she said hovered over his life. Antonio’s father was more practical. With eight other children, Master Giovanni just wanted his precocious son to find a solid career in the cloth.

        By this year, Antonio had already applied his musical genius to write a liturgical hymn. Laetatus sum was a brilliant and joyful composition that combined exquisite orchestration with soaring vocals and seemed to bring heaven down to earth. Perhaps Giovanni’s fantasies for his young son’s advancement were well placed. Priesthood and the studies that determined it would come first, however, and no one could tell how one pursuit might affect the other.

December 1696 - St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice

We both performed in a Christmas concert at St. Mark’s Basilica, the most beautiful cathedral in all of Christendom. I took my position in the fourth row of violinists and felt a nervous excitement in my hands and fingers, waiting in silence until the young maestro Antonio Vivaldi would be announced to quiet applause under the curved arches of this glorious Byzantine church. He was a small figure, a proud youngster who always held his back straight and erect to get the most out of the little stature God had granted him. But whenever he stood to play the violin, Antonio was transformed. He was no longer the struggling youth with thin breaths and short legs. When he played, he was an inspired master who brought sighs from the women and beaming smiles from his family.

       There were thirty of us present to play that day. We were all boys; in itself, that was a strange twist. There was a conservatory in Venice; well, a school of music, attached to the orphanage. The prefect of the school didn’t waste time teaching music to the boys; they were instructed in the trades. The orphan girls were taught music so not having any girls in this concert in St. Mark’s might seem a surprise. But to play in the Cathedral – that was reserved for Venice’s boys and, mostly, the boys from the families whose brilliance in trade determined the fate of the city.

       I pondered all that from the darkened recess near the back of the orchestra as I saw Antonio enter from the left of the altar. His family was not rich or important. But by this tender age he had already achieved a degree of fame that I had long dreamed would be my life’s work. It was his mastery of music that placed there on the altar of St. Mark’s for this Christmas concert; I thought it a position reserved for families of note in our city. For a moment, I wanted to trade my fine clothing for his secondhand waistcoat.

       The nervousness left my hands as I thought about all that. But the feeling that took its place forced an involuntary tightening of my grip on the neck of the violin and bow.

       When Antonio entered, he held his violin delicately in one hand, his arm stiff so as not to swing the instrument. In his other hand he held the bow, which he swung carelessly back and forth in rhythm to the little steps he took on the approach. It was as if while protecting the violin he was insouciantly announcing his arrival with the swaying of the bow and smiling at the audience that he already took for his own.

       The conductor followed him onto the low step of the altar and then mounted a small platform so that he could be seen by the musicians arranged in rows around him. I heard the clack-clack of his baton as he rapped it on the stand before him, then he raised his arms for a moment and brought both down in one sweep across his chest.

       The ten violins in the third and fourth rows began at once, and the sound of a viola chimed in on the second measure. By the fourth measure the woodwinds had joined in and low notes sang from the oboe. The pace of the bowing increased as the composition stretched into its translation section, and I could hear my breathing increase while I focused with intensity on maintaining the pace. The crescendo tipped the sounds of little orchestra into a sudden dive of silence. Although all movement from the musicians had ceased, the last notes hung like an angelic cloud over the audience, echoing softly from the vault of the dome above us.

       The conductor held through this pause with his arms raised above his head. After three beats he brought the baton down with such suddenness that it seemed he would lose his balance. But he had coached us in the weeks leading up to this concert to jump into the next measure as soon as his right arm began its downward swing. By the time the baton hit the bottom of the arc, the strings and woodwinds had raised their voices and were praising Almighty God with the all the strength built into them.

       Instead of finishing the composition with whispered notes that trailed off into the assembled crowd, the conductor had chosen a piece that ended with a frenzied boom that reverberated off the walls in the interior of St. Mark’s long after we had rested our instruments on our knees.

       The concert was a great success and it received a sustained applause uncommon in the hallowed space of a cathedral. I was so enthralled with the music and my responsibilities with it that I had no time to study Antonio. But as the sounds of the melody finally drifted away to reside forevermore in the recesses of stone and mosaic that decorated the walls of this church, I noticed him standing in front of the orchestra, bowing to the applause.

       When we had completed our work, I carefully wrapped my violin in soft cloth and nestled it into the velvet-lined case that my father had purchased for me. The sacred instrument had appeared on my bed a year ago but only after much discussion and argument.

       “What would you do with it?” he asked me repeatedly before giving in to my pleading.

       “I will protect it and learn to play it, with mastery,” I would reply.

       On that afternoon in Christmastide, after packing my violin safely away, I walked from the nave into the crisp air of winter, past people who had cheered the performance but who now hardly noticed me as I emerged from the church. I was an anonymous musician from the unseen rows of other anonymous musicians who lined the back of the orchestra on this night.

       I slipped quietly past the gaggle of young girls that surrounded the thin young violinist with blazing red hair. He smiled at his coterie and told small stories, the kind of stories that would come to mind for a self-absorbed young man.

       I nodded in Antonio’s direction. Was it to be civil and acknowledge his presence, or a feeble attempt to draw some of the attention that surrounded him? It would have been better if he had ignored my shy plea for attention.

       “Domenico!” he said. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you all night.”

       The stinging comment left me more isolated than I had been sitting in the darkened rows of the minor violinists in the church.

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