The Violins Sing, But Not the Gondolieri!


The gondoliers don’t sing anymore. Maybe if you flip them enough extra Euros, I was told, would a rare helmsman harboring the vestiges of the prized vocal traditions be bribed into song. Along with Venice’s many opera houses and the cloistered female orchestra of La Pieta where Antonio Vivaldi held forth, the singing of the gondoliers made for one of the prime musical tourist attractions of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. Whereas operas and concertos were the most modern products of a European musical culture powered by Italian energy, the gondoliers’ melodies were considered ancient and exotic, as if wafting over the Adriatic from a vanished Byzantium or still-menacing Ottoman Empire. After the rise of opera in Venice in the 17th century, the gondoliers’ songs became inflected—some said infected—by opera’s greatest contemporary hits.

I did see a few families slouched in their rented black barks—the going rate, determined by city regulations and often promptly ignored, is about 100 Euros for an hour—with kids plugged into their IPods, no doubt listening to barcaroles by Paganini or Chopin, or perhaps even a historic recordings of the gondoliers themselves.

These last could theoretically spawn a renaissance of aquatic Venetian singing. By contrast, the fate of Venice’s organs seems irrevocable. These instruments were works of sonic and visual art. Stupendous to look at and, by many accounts, to hear, the doors often fixed to either side of the case were usually adorned with paintings. With pilasters and pediments, the cases themselves mimicked Roman temples. The monumental history of Venice written by the native humanist Andreas Sabellicus and published in 1501, praised lavishly the organ builder known simply as Bernhard the German—an enterprising monk credited with inventing the “modern” pedals—for the instrument he made for St. Mark’s Cathedral in
1470. Sabellicus elevated the foreigner to one of the greatest artists of the city alongside the Bellini brothers, who had painted the doors of Bernhard’s organ.  These paintings survive, but the organ does not.

The cannibalizing of the Bellini doors sums up the history of the Venetian organ since the city’s Golden Age. In the Tintoretto family’s church of Madonna dell’Orto in the somewhat less touristy Cannareggio section of the city, the sixteenth-century master’s doors for the organ also survive, hung above the entrance to the sacristy. The outside of these wings—seen when the doors were closed and the pipes hidden—hosts his Presentation of the Virgin. The young girl holds up her skirts slightly to clear the gently curving marble steps that lead up to the high priest in his golden-tasselled  vestments, lobster-claw headgear and godlike white beard. Enthralled mothers with their own daughters watch the Virgin’s upward progress. The steps and balustrade that suggest pipes must have given the organ case a magnificent vertical lift, an effect amplified by the pipes themselves when the wings were opened to reveal Tintoretto’s saints  on the backside of the doors.

The church is a tourist haunt on account of these doors, and still more for the giant canvases as high as the church itself on either side of the altar depicting the Last Judgement and the Golden Calf. Above the entrance at the other end of the church a somber Victorian organ now lurks, a depressing ghost of the symphony of gold and color that Tintoretto, himself a spirited amateur musician, heard. No doubt the painter enjoyed admiring his ascending Maria when the doors were closed, but was moved still more when the wings spread and his saints began to sing.

So many of Venice’s churches chronicle the overthrow and execution of the King of Instruments. From the Pieta to the Mendicanti, where so many Doges and their great families built monuments aimed at ensuring their posthumous fame, the most typical scenario finds one or even two fabulous organ cases emptied of all their pipes and the tomblike gaps beneath the arcades shrouded with faded red muslin. Often at the foot of the steps leading up to the altar there is a dinky harmonium or worse, that musical oxymoron—an electronic organ. This arrangement often allowed me to crouch down and take a photo with the keyboard of the piddling contraption in the foreground with the empty vertical coffins rising up behind. With stucco crumbling, weeds in the ramparts, and water rising all around, it seems unlikely that the organ will ever reclaim even a shred of its former gory in La Serenissima.


That the violin was born in this northern Italian city nearly five-hundred years ago and flourished here in the workshops of the Amatis, Guarneris and Antonio Stradivari is made known to motorists pushing through the flagrant urban sprawl of Lombardy by a twenty-foot high metal sculpture of the body of a violin in outline. It stands in the middle of a weedy traffic circle just off the freeway outside of Cremona amongst a jumble of business parks, gas stations, and land-for-sale signs. Such is the prestige of the violin the world over, that any and all—from Singaporean virtuosos to Spanish truckers —can immediately recognize this schematic folly for what it represents. The Strad is the Cremona brand.

The city museum houses an exhibit dedicated to Stradivarius where many of the master’s tools—chisel, planes, clamps, calipers—, sketches, plans, forms, and a few instruments (a guitar and harps and parts of a lute) can be inspected in their display cases. Even the wooden sign that once hung over his Cremona shop is here, cut off after the first three letters of his surname. The wooden forms around which the body of the violins were moulded speak to the relentless empiricism of the man who became history’s greatest violin maker, gaining that status especially in the 19th century when his instruments were significantly changed to give them more power to meet the demands of the ever bigger concert halls of the day. Along with the dates burnished into these forms one from Christmas Even 1691 describes the results as “especially good.” Is it an ever-so-slightly plumper belly or slimmer bout that made its sound better?  Why and how improvement came could only be attempted by intuition and skill and tested by painstaking trial and error, along with ever-mutable judgement.

Now the city is filled with violin makers, most of whom came to study at the city’s school founded during the Mussolini years when Stradivarius was elevated to national hero. Foreign collectors—mostly American—have repatriated many important Stradivarius instruments back to Cremona, from the early miracles of around 1670 with inlaid arabesques, the sketches of which are also in the museum’s holdings, to the later models of the 18th century which count as classic in their less exuberant, less decorated appearance.

To hear these violins you have to go to the special demonstrations in the  medieval city hall with its booming acoustics.  This building faces across the piazza to the cathedral which claims to have tallest bell-tower in Europe and whose marble façade was praised by Brahms for its beauty. The Stradivarius that belonged to his friend Joseph Joachim—the greatest violin virtuoso of the late nineteenth century for whom the composer wrote his violin concerto—has recently been given back to the city by a Chinese businessman, who as a boy had studied in Shanghai with a student of Joachim.

At Saturday noon I trundled into the hall along with a busload of touring Italian ladies to hear one of the famed instruments let free from its glass prison on work-release. A distinguished man of perhaps seventy in an immaculate Italian suit walked down amongst the grand neo-Renaissance seats and tables used by the city council during the week and explained that in his hands was indeed the “Joachim” Stradivarius. After extolling its legendary properties he proceeded to saw monotonously through diverse movements from various Bach solo violin works without bothering to allow any time to intervene between the different keys, this get-in-and-get-out demonstration spawning extended periods of atonality. As required, the audience marvelled at the beatified little box, while the player did his best to prove that the fetishization of musical sound itself often works to the detriment of convincing performance. As a poster amongst the Stradivarius tools points points out, Henry Ford himself bought a half-a dozen Strads, which are still in his Dearborn museum.  He fiddled country music on them.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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