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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

Vivaldi’s Songbird
A short story by Otto Fischer

It is 2010 and Autumn in Vienna. I am standing on the grey flagstone street in front of the rather unattractive grey University of Technology. The sky is leaden and a cold wind is harassing dry leaves along the cobblestones.

A small, insignificant-looking plaque proclaims that this is where the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi was buried. His pauper’s grave is unknown, the site now built over. On the cold stones below the plaque lies a bird, stiff in death, its feathers ruffled by the wind.

The scene haunts me. I am intrigued why this famous man – composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher, opera impresario - died so far from home, laid to rest without mourners, honours or music!

I love this composer! I start reading about this “Red Priest”. Many before me have been fascinated by this genius whose work was all but forgotten for almost two centuries. He is an enigma: a priest who would not say mass, an asthmatic who had the energy to not only perform, but to compose prodigious amounts of brilliant music while busily training his cloistered female orphans at the Ospedale della Pieta. These girls did not become talented and famed musicians without a dedicated teacher! This man with the weak chest and flaming red hair had the fortitude to travel, not only to Mantua and Rome (where he performed for the Pope), but as far afield as Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam!

I do not possess the skills of these researchers, but it becomes clear to me that, as thorough and as devoted to their subject as they have been, much remains unknown ...

***

It is 1740. Vivaldi is 62 years old, and it shows. His health is indifferent and his once eye-catching red hair is largely grey.

His former wealth is a thing of the past. His operatic projects of late have been unwisely conceived and poorly received. Venice is in economic down-turn and patronage has dried up. Only his teaching at the Ospedale has kept him solvent. His generosity to his family and to the Giṛs has been difficult to sustain.

Ah yes, the Giṛs! : Scandal dogs him! His defiant association with his former pupil, the diva Anna Giṛ, has aroused malicious and salacious whispers and has brought him condemnation and obstruction from Church superiors.
And the baroque is waning in popularity: Vivaldi’s music is losing friends.

***

Anna and her sister have gone. Vivaldi remembers it with a mixture of joy and sadness ... and guilt.

He had come from the Ospedale that afternoon and found that Anna and Paolina had packed their belongings into trunks, ready for transportation. She had met his dismay and bewilderment with a sad smile. He remembered thinking how beautiful she looked.

“Antonio,” she had said. “You are too generous and loyal to us to do what is necessary, so we are doing it for you. No, do not argue, Antonio. This has to be!” And she had looked at him with an intensity of resolve that he knew brooked no opposition.

“Tongues have wagged too long, my friend. I have done you harm which you have not deserved! And although you are too kind to have spoken about it, Antonio, we know that you can not now afford the generosity which you have extended to us for years! We will not impose upon it further. No, do not argue! It is true!”

“You have been good to us Antonio and you have made a singer out of this daughter of a barber. We will always remember your kindness with gratitude my dear Vivaldi, but it is time we left. Don’t blush so, my Prete Rosso – you are red enough!”

Anna had taken both his hands in hers and had pressed them warmly: “Your little songbird is a grown woman now, and well able to make her way in the world. It is you I have to thank for giving me the skills and the confidence to do so!”

“Tomorrow we leave for the Continent. I have a season in Prague and there will be others elsewhere. Thanks to you my name is known and I will not starve!”

She smiled roguishly. “And who knows, I may yet meet a rich Count who will sweep me off my feet and care for me in a manner beyond my station!”

That night Vivaldi found it hard to sleep. His mind was filled with the many places, moments, music, laughter and shared thoughts that Anna had illuminated. Who could know like he the depth of her understanding, the quality of that mind in that small but forceful body?

He had drifted into drowsiness when he became aware of candlelight. The next thing he knew, Anna had slipped into bed beside him and the scent of lavender enveloped him.

“Hush!” and she laid a finger on his lips to stifle his bewildered protest.

“Hush! This is not your sin, Prete Antonio, it is mine!” She brushed his cheek with her hand and cupped his face. “You have suffered for your innocence for years, my friend. Those mean-mouthed whisperers have long since done their damage – the Devil take them! He will not have you though, not for this thing, given with love. Heaven will not bar you Antonio, even though men may have closed their doors! Now, I am your mentor for this one night! Tomorrow it will be as if this never happened!” And Anna had snuffed the candle and kissed him, and his heart had nearly leapt out of his breast.

***

Vivaldi has put Venice behind him. In Vienna he has a potential patron who could restore his fortunes: Charles, King of Bohemia, whom he had befriended in better times, is now Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor.

So he crosses the Carpathians once again and heads north. This time he travels lightly, taking only bare essentials: a few clothes, his violin, his manuscripts. There is no servant, no Anna, no Paolina to look after him. Such journeys are doubly arduous if one is no longer young, and not in the best of health!

On the way Vivaldi stops at Graz, a lovely little city on the River Mur. He knows that Anna is performing here and looks forward to visiting his two old friends.

***

Drawing his old black cloak more closely around him, Vivaldi leans on his stick as he labours up the cobbled slope of the street. At the inn he had asked instructions. He knows what he wants. His heart is pounding, not merely from exertion. It is too long since he has last seen her.

He stops outside the low door with the gilded bird dangling above and breathes heavily, leaning on his cane to catch his breath. He stoops to enter and waits for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Musty smells of seed and straw assail his nostrils. He hears the songbird before he sees it, and music dances before his eyes. He closes them for a moment and in that fleeting instant he is transported back to another place and time: He is in sunny Mantua where the 13 year old Anna is first brought to him for tuition. Sunny Mantua! And he has his violin tucked under his chin, his bow is dancing on the strings, and the soaring, happy sounds of Spring spill forth into the balmy air.

He is unaware of the hunch-backed, leather-aproned shopkeeper’s sly look of derision as he makes his purchase. He can ill afford it, but he arranges for the man’s pimply young son to carry the cage for him. He has an address in his breast pocket and gets the boy to guide him there. The boy looks at the house and then at the man and shakes his head: this foreigner is out of place here!

Vivaldi hands the boy a small coin and takes the cage. His heart is really thumping now! How kind will the years have been to Annina? He can still see her: a shy 13 year old being introduced by her barber-wigmaker father; fresh-faced rather than pretty, and eyes that spoke of frankness and intelligence. A nice mouth and, when he got her to sing some notes for him, a voice of much promise: A voice that that shrewd-eyed Frenchman surely hoped would earn him a comfortable old age. Ah yes, a cunning barber! He had struck a canny bargain with Vivaldi: tuition for the young girl in return for the house-keeping services of the much older sister who would act as her chaperone while they lived under the teacher’s roof. And, hey-presto! Two less mouths to feed!

And yet, mused Vivaldi, no man could have predicted how much my heart was gladdened in those years to come, or how useful Paolina would become. Yet there was pain too. Yes, there was pain.

The recollection has misted his eyes. Vivaldi shakes his head to clear them and steps up to the door. Taking a deep breath, he seizes the heavy lion’s head knocker and raps loudly.

***

The door was opened by an elderly manservant who, having scrutinised him with ill-concealed disapproval, took his coat with a look of distaste and ushered him reluctantly into a well-furnished drawing room.

As the old servant left to inform his mistress Vivaldi seated himself on the satin cushion of a nicely carved chair next to an elegant writing desk. His eye wandered over to an envelope resting on the red leather surface. He allowed himself a hasty peek and found it was from another Antonio: a Count Antonio Maria Zanardi Landi, no less! An imposing title indeed! She was keeping exalted company, his little songbird from Mantua! And it was he, Vivaldi, who had made it possible. Surely he could allow himself the sin of a little pride! Ah Antonio, was there also the sin of envy lurking alongside?

Barely had he registered that second emotion when a flushed and breathless Anna rushed in, followed haltingly by an ageing Paolina.

Bursting into tears, Anna hugged Vivaldi warmly. Paolina bowed, her lined face beaming. Holding Vivaldi at arm’s length Anna blinked away the tears and studied him critically.

“Maestro, are you not well?”

Vivaldi smiled wryly and shrugged. Then he held forth the little cage with its golden bird. “For you,” he said. “A songbird for my little thrush!”

“Thank you Antonio! How sweet!” After some hesitation she placed the cage upon the leather-topped table, obscuring the letter.

“But alas, I am no longer in the flush of youth. Your little songbird has crows-feet around her eyes! The years are leaving their mark my friend. Soon my audiences will find me wearisome and I shall retire an old maid and be forgotten!” She looked at him sideways, smiling coquettishly and laughed.

“Impossible!” exclaimed Vivaldi gallantly. She was still beautiful, his Annina, but it pained him to see the faint lines he had not remembered.

***

Paolina leaves to organise some refreshments and Anna sits him down and plies him with questions. But Vivaldi insists on first hearing about her career and satisfying himself about her welfare. Only then will he talk about himself. He smiles wryly. “Alas, my public continues to find other darlings. My star in Venice has paled so that I cannot pretend now that I can rekindle its lustre.” He pauses, seemingly unsure of the words. His smile is bitter. “I left rather hastily ... ingloriously, you might say!”

He inhales deeply, straightens his thin shoulders. “However, I am very hopeful of a change in my fortunes! I am on my way to Vienna. My friend the Emperor - remember His Highness in that funny mask in Venice when he had much too much to drink? – he will be pleased to see me there I am sure! There will be commissions! I will do him proud! Music dances in my mind already! You and Paolina shall join me there. You will be well received – remember how delighted he was with you in Venice? Vienna is so much bigger than Graz!”

Anna can sense his ambition. Paolina does not quite share his enthusiasm. She is careful to hide it, not to say anything negative. But she remembers thinking that Charles’ interest then had a little more to do with Anna’s youthful charms than with the beauty of her voice. And she has heard things in the market place ...

***

They send for his meagre belongings. Anna and Paolina insist on Vivaldi staying for a good two weeks, although he is soon eager to be off. She speaks severely to the old manservant and has new clothes brought for Vivaldi. He is her guest one night at the opera “Adriano”, weeps with joy at her performance and comes away happy. Paolina makes sure he eats well. By the time he leaves for Vienna his spirits have lifted enormously and he feels himself much stronger.

***

In Vienna Vivaldi eventually gains an audience with the Emperor. Charles seems distant, care-worn. Is this the same man? As they speak, each choosing his words carefully, Vivaldi feels a chill gathering in his heart. He suddenly realises that he has missed the Emperor’s last words.

“My dear Vivaldi,” the Emperor says, raising his voice, forcing the Venetian back to attentiveness. “My dear Vivaldi! I would give anything to turn back the years and to be there in Venice with you, carousing and carefree and masked! But I have an Empire now, with all its myriad cares and duties!” The Emperor sighs, focusing somewhere in the vague distance beyond Vivaldi.

“I am beset with troubles. My enemies are many. My friends are few, and Spain is recalcitrant. My coffers are empty, Vivaldi. Empty! I cannot afford patronage for the frivolity of music, my friend! My treasury leaks gulden and my army leaks men! These are dark times, Vivaldi! Troubled times! There is little music at my court I fear, and much discord!”

“However, my old friend, I am sure you will find work in Vienna. You have so many talents! Come, do not look so glum, my Venetian Impressario. We shall share a cup and you will dine with me, and then I must return to the intrigues of state. Ah, Spain! A thorn in my heart, Vivaldi. A thorn!”

***

October, 1740. The Emperor has enjoyed a meal of mushrooms. He dies in agony. Vivaldi is distraught.

The winter of 1740 - 41 is severe. The cold is relentless. There is no patronage and little work. There are no commissions. One by one Vivaldi sells off his manuscripts. They don’t bring much.

He takes up cheap lodgings in rooms owned by the widow of a saddler. He cannot afford to heat them adequately. He eats little. His health deteriorates. He is too ashamed to write to Anna and Paolina. He can’t stop shivering and coughs incessantly.

Vivaldi finally succumbs to pneumonia in July 1741. He is 63.

***

Anna and Paolina worry. They have not heard from him in months. When they finally do, it is indirectly, long after the event. A few years later, when the little bird dies suddenly, Anna weeps again. A stand-in has to be called for her performance.

Seven years after Vivaldi’s death, when Anna is 38, she marries her recently widowed Count Landi. Her singing days are now over.

Had he lived just one year longer, old Papa Giṛ would have been ecstatic!

© Otto Fischer 2015

 

 




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