By MICHAEL WHITE 'ANDROMEDA LIBERATA' Zankel Hall Carnegie Hall; Nov. 29.
FOR someone who composed one of the world's best-known musical scores (the contemptibly familiar "Four Seasons"), Antonio Vivaldi is a surprisingly little known composer. Only a small part of his output is performed. Much is lost. And much of what we ought to know about him remains buried at the back of cupboards in old European libraries, gathering dust.
But occasionally the dust is rearranged, revealing hidden curiosities. And when it happens, it's not always at the hands of the people you might expect. Vivaldian detective work these days is done not just by mainstream scholars but also by mavericks, on the fringes of the academic world. And against all odds, it's mavericks who have made the most noise recently in two definitely curious finds.
One of them - spectacular but controversial - is "Andromeda Liberata," the recently rediscovered quasi opera that Andrea Marcon and his period band, the Venice Baroque Orchestra, will tour in America at the end of this month. Another, closely linked, is the extraordinary treasure trove now emerging from the archives of the Ospedale della Pietà: the Venetian children's home where Vivaldi worked throughout his life and where "Andromeda Liberata" may well have received its first performance, in 1726.
"Andromeda" is now a subject of a fierce dispute within the normally quiet world of music scholarship, led by two contestants who could pass for David and Goliath. Playing David is Olivier Fourés, a young French dancer and violinist who has turned himself into a serious Vivaldi expert. Traveling around Europe, he acquired an interest in libraries and manuscripts, looking for things he could make use of in performance; and two years ago, in the course of a casual trawl, he happened on the anonymous "Andromeda" manuscript in the library of the conservatory in Venice. Turning the pages, he developed what he calls "a gut feeling" about its authorship, based on "following the notes with my fingers as much as my head, knowing that Vivaldi was, like me, a violinist, and sensing a familiarity in the shapes of the phrases, that sort of thing."
Eventually, he came to an aria that seemed particularly familiar. It matched a known Vivaldi aria in the same library, note for note. And along with some broader-based detective work, it convinced Mr. Fourés that "Andromeda" was wholly or largely by the great Venetian.
Vivaldi finds make news these days, amid a growing belief that the composer's stage works are next in line for rehabilitation after Handel's. So things moved fast. Venice Baroque decided to champion the piece, giving its first modern performance last month prior to a world tour. Deutsche Grammophon took it into the recording studio and just released it on the Archiv label. And Mr. Fourés found himself the scholarly equivalent of a celebrity.
Then, enter Goliath, in the form of the pre-eminent Vivaldi scholar and British music professor Michael Talbot, who came across the "Andromeda" manuscript himself several years ago but made little of it. Professor Talbot isn't much impressed by Mr. Fourés's claims. The authentification of manuscripts, he argues, is "a matter for musicology, not gut feelings." He insists that "Andromeda" is a pasticcio, a collective work by many hands, and that Vivaldi's part in it was small: perhaps no more than that one aria.
Some months ago he wrote to Deutsche Grammophon to say so, and as a result, the discs are being marketed as by "Vivaldi and others." But Professor Talbot considers even this to be a falsification. "I can understand why they put Vivaldi's name up front," he says, "but it's almost fraudulent. They shouldn't do it."
By way of response, Mr. Marcon, Venice Baroque's founder and director, argues that Professor Talbot has his own agenda. "It's hard," he says, "for a musicologist to admit, 'I had this manuscript in my hands 10 years ago, and I didn't realize what it was.' So they attack. And Talbot's attacks make me angry. You know he wrote to Deutsche Grammophon to try and stop them from issuing the discs? As though I was stupid or naïve in doing them. Well, I'm not stupid. I do my job. Talbot should do his."
The "Andromeda" dispute is opening old wounds in the relationship (never easy) between scholars and performers, exposing the territorial conflicts that always lie behind attempts to resurrect a piece of history as living art. But it is also, in a striking way, exposing the dependence of Vivaldi scholarship on people at the fringes of the academic world. Which brings us to that other Vivaldian mystery, the Ospedale della Pietà.
The thing about "Andromeda" that everyone agrees on is that it was written to celebrate the return to Venice of a former exile: one Cardinal Ottoboni, who had been forced to leave for reasons of political indiscretion but had in the meantime become a serious patron of the arts, which made him a natural target for the attention of Venetian artists. A likely site for the performance would have been the Pietà, which was famous for its concerts, given by an all-girl orchestra and directed by Vivaldi.
Books on the composer usually describe the Pietà as a girls' orphanage, sometimes as a convent, and they almost invariably give the impression that it no longer exists. But they are wrong. And the living proof is a robust, chain-smoking, gruff-voiced Englishwoman, named Micky White (no relation), who opened the place up for me one recent Saturday morning and showed me its treasures.
Ms. White is the Pietà's archivist. She is working on a book about Vivaldi, which, she says, will counter "the garbage people write about him." "Honestly, I read this stuff, and as often as not it's just disguised guesswork from authors with no hands-on experience of Venice and how it is - still less, how it was," she said. "Authors who've never come to the Pietà, who'll tell you it's been pulled down and replaced by a hotel, and who've certainly never seen the archives here, otherwise they wouldn't write what they do."
Ms. White doesn't pull her punches. But like Mr. Fourés, she's a maverick, and what the authors she berates would probably dismiss as an amateur, having come to her work as an enthusiast with no real academic pedigree. By background, she was a sports photographer who had spent two decades shooting Wimbledon finals before deciding that Vivaldi mattered more.
She lives in the Ospedale's precincts, or what remains of them. During the 18th century, they were a town within a town, accommodating some 800 children who were mostly abandoned: passed by desperate mothers through a hole in the wall. The hole (now filled) forms part of a hotel that stands on much of what was the original Pietà site. And as part of my tour, I was ushered into the hotel's back stairways, where odd fragments of the former buildings, including the entrance to Vivaldi's music room, survive. From the effusive "Buongiorno signora"-ing of the chambermaids and waiters, it was clear that Ms. White's tours are a regular event.
Yet the hotel is nothing compared with the old buildings beside it, which were, and remain, the Pietà: a quiet oasis of part-renovated, part-collapsing courtyards, conventlike and hidden behind high walls.
"But it's not a convent," Ms. White said emphatically, "and never was. It's a secular children's charity, connected to the local church, but a civic institution that goes back through the centuries. And after all those years, there are still children here, although there are only 16 at the moment. A few less than Vivaldi's time."
As if on cue, we passed a plastic tricycle left on the stairs before proceeding - with much opening of locked doors and deactivating of alarms - into the archive. The Pietà's staff was remarkably thorough. They documented everything, day by day, in detail: meals, expenses, babies - all of it bound and filed in volumes from 1651 to the present.
Vivaldi joined the staff as a violin teacher in 1703 and remained involved until his death in 1741. During that time he ran the all-girl orchestra, whose quality and fame drew international visitors. Some of them were writers, and their accounts led later generations to imagine the Pietà as an institution that took in only girls.
"But it wasn't," Ms. White said, handing me a large leather-bound folio. Dated 1690, it was one of many filling a wall of cupboards. And opening it at random I found an entry for the "son of Hortensia Bianchini, baptized Adria," with the day and time of his being deposited through the wall, together with a description of the clothes he came in and reference to an attached note from the mother.
"You see," Ms. White said, "they weren't always girls. It was just that only the girls learned music and went on show. The boys would learn a trade. And they weren't orphans, either. The mother would usually have been alive and known, hoping that some time later - if her circumstances changed - she'd be able to come and claim the child. See these?"
I looked into a box of paper packets tied with ribbon: pristine, undisturbed since they were bound 200 years ago. I opened one and found, along with various documents, a cloth pouch with a pin. I drew the pin. Out fell a broken half of a religious medal. "The mother would keep the other half and use it to identify the child if she was ever able to take it back," Ms. White said. "Touching isn't it?" My hands trembled as I put the pin back in the pouch, careful to keep the holes exactly as they were.
On the "Andromeda" debate, Ms. White is guarded. She is more concerned, she says, with a broader issue: that people should understand the role the Pietà played in Vivaldi's music. "I believe that what he wrote here picks up on the vulnerability of all these kids, all these mothers. There's an innocence: an 'otherness' you feel when you walk through the doors and leave the vulgar, brash, commercial world of Venice behind. "Even with 800 children, I think you'd have felt that. And if you can grasp it now, you'll grasp something about Vivaldi that all the books, scholars and musicologists in the world won't give you."
This, it seemed to me as I replaced the packets and ribbons in the archive, goes to the essence of the current controversies over the undusting of Vivaldi. There are issues only scholarship can settle. But the boundaries of our knowledge are still limited enough to leave us mired in guesswork. And while scholars speak their guesses in the voice of reason, there's something to be said for the interpretive force of hands-on experience: for the touch of a 200-year-old pin or the feel of a violinist's fingers.
It may be that the best hope for solving the mystery of "Andromeda Liberata" is lingering right now on the back shelves of a library, waiting for an intrepid amateur to blow off its dust.
Michael White is a columnist for BBC Music Magazine and writes for The Sunday Telegraph in London. November 21, 2004.