Venice stands as a monument to the improbable paradise where city meets sea—a series of islands surrounded by mudflats and marshes, founded as a refuge from hostile invaders. But the Venetian Republic—also known as La Serenissima, or “the Most Serene Republic”—not only survived, but reached levels of maritime supremacy, democratic progressiveness, financial prosperity, and both cultural achievement and innovation, flourishing for centuries until its fall to Napoleon in 1797.
This month (February 3–21), Carnegie Hall salutes La Serenissima’s dazzling artistic legacy with concerts that feature early vocal masterpieces and virtuoso instrumental music. The celebration also extends citywide with events at leading cultural institutions, including panel discussions, theatrical events, and art exhibitions that not only examine the rich culture of the Venetian Republic, but its scandalous, ribald, and libertine history as well.
“Venice produced so much wonderful music that you could do a festival like this every year,” says Jordi Savall. The Catalan musician, conductor, and composer curated an ambitious concert that opens the festival February 3, The Millenarian Venice: Gateway to the East, saying, “I want to show 1,000 years of cultural evolution and exchange, as well as political conflicts—all presented through the power of music, which I think is the living history of human beings.”
“From its founding, Venice has always been a gateway to the East,” Savall explains, “with strong connections to Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, and trade routes extending as far as China. One of the Ottoman influences heard in music is the idea of improvising around a melody,” Savall continues. “Venetian composers did similar things when presenting a theme—say in a concerto or an aria—and developing variations on it.” Audiences at Carnegie Hall can hear the musical exchanges with Venice and the East in performances led by Savall and his ensembles Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, as well as traditional Ottoman music in a special program that features Ahmet Erdoğdular and his Classical Turkish Music Ensemble.
Like silk and spices, Venice exported as much art and entertainment as it imported. When Netherlandish composer Adrian Willaert came to Venice to direct the music at the Basilica of San Marco—arguably the most culturally significant church in Venice—he brought the complex polyphonic vocal styles developed in the North with him.
“Architectural and musical fantasy met at San Marco,” Savall explains. “By taking advantage of the unique architecture of the church, Willaert could place groups of singers in separate lofts to create polychoral effects. He brought new musical ideas to Venice that were transformed in unexpected ways because of the city’s artistic riches.” The splendors of San Marco, including works by Willaert and his successors, are explored in a multi-day workshop with The Tallis Scholars that culminates in a performance at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.
The booming print industry in Venice allowed composers to mass-produce complex, multi-part works by using movable type, making it possible for all of Europe to easily access La Serenissima’s musical innovations without traveling there directly. At Carnegie Hall, hear the Republic’s influence on the surrounding nations in a second concert by Savall and Hespèrion XXI (February 12) titled Musica Nova: Venetian Influences in Musical Europe, and a program that focuses on choral works by Flemish composers, performed by the critically acclaimed male vocal ensemble Gallicantus.
The vibrant musical economy of Venice made it the natural birthplace for public opera. While privately funded performances of operas in other locations date back to the late-16th century, opera houses supported through public ticket sales were first founded in Venice in the mid-17th century. The Republic remained the epicenter of opera production for nearly a century after.
“A variety of operatic styles were developed over the decades. Monteverdi used the stile rappresentativo, which at the time was a new way of dramatically setting text in music, in his Venetian operas,” Savall says. Monteverdi’s masterwork, L’incoronazione di Poppea—which Savall describes as “the first opera where the music always fits the emotions of each word and every moment”—will be performed by Concerto Italiano and conducted by Rinaldo Alessandrini from the harpsichord at Carnegie Hall. There is also an all-Monteverdi performance by Cappella Mediterranea, featuring selections from the composer’s madrigals and operas.
The rage for opera in Venice created a demand for dramatic musical entertainment in sacred spaces, too. Vivaldi, who composed dozens of works for public opera houses, also composed oratorios (as well as a huge body of instrumental works) for the Ospedale della Pietà—a convent, orphanage, and music conservatory where he also taught for many years. His rarely performed oratorio, Juditha triumphans—a thrilling retelling of the Biblical heroine’s victory over the barbarian of Holofernes—is being performed (February 7) by the Venice Baroque Orchestra, led by Andrea Marcon.
“We can see an evolution in opera from Monteverdi to Vivaldi, but we cannot think of it in terms of progress,” Savall says. “All works were products of their time, and musical styles changed constantly.” Opera arias and scenes by diverse composers are featured in several programs throughout the festival. The renowned period ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro presents an array of works by Venetian masters who may be less familiar to modern-day audiences in Lovers’ Passions: Agony and Ecstasy—appropriately scheduled for February 14.
Though most women in Venice held subservient roles, a career as a star performer provided some social and economic mobility. And if characters like Vivaldi’s Judith was a heroic role model for Venetian women, we can guess some fought fiercely when faced with obstacles. One truly exceptional woman in La Serenissima’s illustrious history was no doubt composer Barbara Strozzi, “who was really on the same level as Monteverdi,” Savall says. Giulio Strozzi, her father, wrote librettos for Monteverdi, and led an artistic and intellectual collective, in which Barbara developed her craft alongside some of the great minds of the time. Hear her sensuous and sophisticated vocal works in February 17’s The Secret Lover: Women in 17th-Century Italy, featuring the New York–based ensemble TENET, along with music by composers active in Venice.
Though vocal music was extraordinarily popular in Venice, instrumental music poured forth from homes and into the streets and canals. In fact at one time, more Venetian homes had musical instruments than books. “What is so incredible to me about the instrumental music of Venice is that no matter how complex it may seem, it is full of tuneful melodies that are easy to memorize,” Savall says. Be dazzled by virtuosic instrumental music from Venice in these and other concerts throughout the festival, including performances by Ensemble Connect and Quicksilver, and an additional program by Il Pomo d’Oro.
Despite the Venetian Republic’s fall to Napoleon, its cultural legacy continues to inspire us today. “Through music,” Savall explains, “you are in complete communication with the spirit of the time. When you hear the splendid sounds of La Serenissima, you don’t need a time machine.”
Stephen Raskauskas has for written for The Wall Street Journal and arts organizations across the country.