17 Jul 2009

Vivaldi's Women

What things do you regret not learning during your own education? What were your 'gaps'? There always are some, of course, just as there will be gaps in what we are able to teach our children. I suppose, too, that they'll be sorry about theirs, the same way that I'm sorry about mine.

I studied the sciences at school. It is what bright kids did. If you were clever you did science - if you were not so academic you settled for arts. I regret that choice now. Now I wish I knew more about music and fine arts, gardening and the clouds, history and literature. I wish I'd studied accounting so I could be more help in my husband's business, and I wish I had kept up my French and Latin and Ancient Greek. I wish I knew more about computers too, but I suspect my age is more to blame there than my alma mater...

It is little surprise then, that I have settled on a liberal arts education for Jemimah...and it is no wonder that I am loving it.

Learning more about music and the lives of our wonderful classical composers has been a particular pleasure for me during these past terms, and I hope that my enjoyment and enthusiasm for the subject has inspired my daughter as well. Of course I have studied my favourites first: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Tchaikovsky. Wagner with his warbling women can wait. Some of the Russians we might never get around to...

Our composer study is simple. Using the advice of the Ambleside Online ladies and my own existing CD collection we put together a selection of the best of each composer's music and...surprise, surprise...then we play it. Lots. Over and over and over. For a whole term. Sometimes we discuss what we're listening to, but mostly not. We just enjoy it - much as the composer expected us to.

I wrote more about this in a post last year - you can read it here, because in this post I'm trying to get to Vivaldi and the girls. But still there's more introduction, so lets continue...

Once a week we spend a lesson looking at the composer's life, but they're a complex lot, musicians - tormented tragic souls, a lot of them. Look at Beethoven with his dark moods and bad temper, his battle with deafness and his greater battle with himself. There is Tchaikovsky with his questionable sexuality, his disastrous marriage, and his strange association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. And then of course there is Mozart - decidedly odd. As an adult I find a lot of this stuff fascinating and yet sad at the same time - a sort of sordid soap opera. It's not the sort of thing that Jemimah needs to know about.

The Classical Kids CDs do a fantastic job in sanitising composers' lives for a younger audience. Admittedly as I've listened to a few more of these CDs I've found the storylines a little weak and occasionally disturbing - Elizabeth's interaction with her mother in Mr Bach Comes to Call is insolent and rude, and I wish Jemimah didn't hear it. Similarly, when Katarina breaks the valuable Stradivarius in Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, and subsequently loses it, I do wish she would at least admit it to Father Vivaldi when she has her 'heart-to-heart' with him later. But I digress, yet again. On the whole these CDs have introduced the lives of the composers to our family in a lively, engaging and most importantly memorable manner and I recommend them highly.

When we began our study of Vivaldi this term I was initially a little disappointed in the Classical Kids offering, Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery. It seemed to me that this particular CD was more fiction than fact - a highly engaging story about Vivaldi's life as tutor of orphan girls at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice during Carnevale, but telling very little of the man himself. Just who was il Prete Rosso, "The Red Priest"?

Well it didn't take much googling to discover that little more is known about Vivaldi's early life than what he imparts to Katarina during their cozy chat. I also realised quickly that his work with the girls in the orphanage was really quite fascinating.

Vivaldi worked as violin teacher, musical director, procurer of musical instruments and in-house composer at the Ospedale della Pietà for most of his career. The Ospedale was a home for abandoned and unwanted babies, often the children of prostitutes, who left their babies on the institution's doorstep soon after birth. The boys were trained in stone cutting, weaving and shoe making and would leave the orphanage at 16 equipped for their future with a trade. The girls, unless they married or joined the church as nuns, stayed there for the rest of their lives. About one in ten of the girls showed musical promise, and it was Vivaldi's job to train those girls to sing and play instruments during services at La Pietà. Vivaldi wrote many of his works for this female musical establishment, including his well known Gloria, and evidence suggests that all the vocal parts were sung by women, including the tenor and bass.

I'm not the only one to find this portion of Vivaldi's life compelling. Author, Pat Lowery Collins, was so intrigued she wrote a book, Hidden Voices - The Orphan Musicians of Venice to acquaint her readers with the composer and his music. In the book three girls on the verge of adulthood, Anetta, Rosalba and Luisa tell their own stories of life in the Venice of the early 18th century.

Isn't to be loved what we all want in the end? - Rosalba
As orphans sequestered in the safety of the orphanages, the three girls are easily seduced by the romantic fantasy of life outside its walls. But has life inside equipped them with the skills to survive the dangers of the Venice of the early 1700s? Will true love be what they expect?

Sadly the choices the three girls make prevent me from being able to read this book to my seven year old daughter. They won't stop me reading it myself. The novel is beautifully written and fleshes out what for me was a tantalising glimpse of Vivaldi's life briefly seen through the Classical Kids eyes. It is being marketed for young adults. If you are happy with your teen reading about poor non-Biblical lifestyle choices and their consequences, including rape, then I would recommend it as an excellent living book on this fascinating subject. If not then give it a miss. I must say, I do wonder about the lack of Christian training in girls raised in a religious institution, even in licentious Venice.

I've not yet read much of the book. I only bought it on Thursday, but so far I'm enjoying it, probably because of my initial interest in the subject. You can read the first chapter here.

During five days in November 2005 Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi, an all-female ensemble of singers and players from Oxford in England travelled to La Pietà in an to recreate the sound of Vivaldi's choir. The choir of 18 past and present members of Oxford Girls' Choir, together with seven older ladies, replicated Vivaldi's choir in size, age and vocal range, the lowest voices singing down to bottom F on the bass stave. The YouTube video that begins this post is the girls singing Gloria as Vivaldi wrote it. In it you can hear the beautiful singing and you can see La Pietà. Now I can show this to Jemimah! This really makes Vivaldi's life and music come to life!

The girls made a documentary of their trip. You can watch the first 10 minutes below. Sadly the rest of the film is not year available online, but the clip shows more of the Ospedale, and well as giving some valuable information about Vivaldi's life. I found it fascinating. So did Jemimah, and fortunately the short comment about the lasciviousness of the times was lost on her.

You can see it here:

I hope you enjoy our study of this fascinating man as much as we have - both my daughter and her mother! You're certain to love his hauntingly beautiful music.


  1. Jeanne,
    I really enjoyed reading this. There are so many areas about which I want to learn if the Lord spares me enough years! As you know I come from a wonderful line of hard working, farming type folk. Talented in many and varied ways but alas little time was ever devoted to music and the arts. I am both very uncreative and tone deaf!!!
    My hubby comes from more musically inclined folk and he loves classical especially Beethoven, secondarily Mozart.
    The children's education in this area has been patchy. All learning an instrument at least for some time, but none showing any great talent or inclination to go on with it. I also found, not being musical myself, that it was hard to be the one enforcing the practice.
    It does appear that many who have been gifted artists and musicians have also suffered mentally and emotionally. Perhaps, I comfort myself, it is better to be of a sound mind than to have all that talent.
    I suppose, unless the gifts are used to the glory of God they are vanity at any rate.

  2. What a wonderful and informative post Jeanne! It's a delight to find someone else who prefers to cultivate an enjoyment and appreciation of music, rather than to 'teach' it! I wouldn't know how to do this anyway! The enjoyment side flows esily and naturally though - as you say just by playing it! We love Vivaldi's music in this house, and the works of Beethoven, Bach, Handel and Mozart... We too have discovered the Classical Kids range, and like you I'm a little disappointed with some of the story lines, yet the idea behind them is great and it
    works! I hardly knew one composer from the other before we began to play classical music in our home. Now my 4 year old can recognise certain pieces!

    Melanie x

  3. Facinating! I love Vivaldi, but learned some new things from your post today. I can't wait to share this with my kids. Maybe we'll study him when we start back to school in Sept. I love the "Gloria" (which is why it's on my playlist on my blog!). We sang that in college choir, but with guys on tenor and bass!

  4. Beautiful post. I have not added composer studies to our year one yet. I have been putting Vivaldi CD on through out the day in our house. It is amazing how music, good music, affects everyone's mood. So, I guess even though we are not formally studying, we are learning to enjoy. Thanks for this post. Many Blessings.

  5. Yes, I do wish to be spared some of the details of composers and artists that we wish to study.

    The story of the "orphan musicians" is a fascinating one and I so love learning something new. It is wonderful that Jemimah gets to experience the music alongside her mother.

    We, on the other hand, are currently only listening to Colin Buchanan. He has even played in the kitchen and the living room simultaneously (a bit like your BH&G family). We are begging Oleg to learn the chords for a family sing-along.

  6. Unfortunately I got a very public education and am totally lacking in these types of things. I found it super interesting though - and had to play the youtube link. :) The things we learn when blogging. :) Thanks so much for sharing. I very much enjoyed it.

  7. Blessed Mommy, If you're listening to Vivaldi play around the house then you're probably doing Composer Study already!! Just mention the name of the piece and the composer occasionally and you're done. It really is that easy!!

    Composer Study really is one of the easiest and most enjoyable subjexts to implement.

  8. I regret that, a few from Mom aside, my reading as a child was limited to the scholastic book club. Yes, Mom did read the original Winnie the Pooh and the original Mary Poppins, but much else was little Golden Books or Scholastic titles. I enjoyed so many of the AO books I've read to the kids or had them read during our two homeschool stints.

    Art and Music came my way thru the family and, oddly, thru public school.

  9. I found this all very interesting~I especially want to get that book now! Thanks for writing what you do and how you do it. I plan to incorporate composer study into our homeschool this year and appreciate any advice on how to do it. You wrote of it beautifully!

  10. I am such a total slacker in the music/composer study department! :-( But this post makes me want to get it going this year!

  11. Jeanne: We are using Beautiful Feets History of Classical Music this year which very nicely focuses on the spiritual aspect of the composers, even when they are complicated & make poor moral choices. Ditz is twice your daughter's age though. ☺ Her voice ensemble is alto & soprano voices only so we actually really understood Vivaldi's work ~ & it's limitations ~ when we studied him. I think music study is fascinating & I love interesting people, though only a madman would want to live that way.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...