(Reviewed by Terez Rose OCT 26, 2007)
In the early eighteenth century, Venice was a bustling, exotic city-state, thriving with trade and art, with no less than four public institutions for the housing and upkeep of the city’s less favored population. The Ospdale della Pietà, an orphanage of sorts for foundling and unwanted children, is the setting, then, for Barbara Quick’s Vivaldi’s Virgins. Anna Maria dal Violin—orphans are given a last name according to their instrument of skill—is plucked from the commun at an early age to join the figlie di coro, an elite group of performers under the direction of maestro Antonio Vivaldi, nicknamed the “Red Priest” for the color of his hair and the vocation he neglects in favor of composing. The virgins in question are his all-female musicians, cloistered within the Pietà’s walls, obscured from public view even when performing.
The story is less about Vivaldi and the violin, however, and more about an adolescent’s search for self, for clues about the mother she never knew. Encouraged by Sister Laura, a cloistered nun and friend, to write letters to this absent mother, Anna Maria pours her questions, thoughts and hopes into missives that punctuate the story and set its poignant tone.
There is a lot to like here: the writing is elegant and flows well; descriptions of Venetian society are detailed and evocative. Music is presented in a light, poetic fashion that will please readers whose classical music tastes run along the lines of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
Anna Maria, based on a real life violin virtuoso to whom Vivaldi dedicated thirty-seven compositions, is a spirited sort. Sneaking out with a friend to attend an opera; secreted by Vivaldi to a nobleman’s masked ball at his palazzo; escaping to attend a celebration in the Jewish Ghetto—these events bring adventure to her life, but continually land her in trouble. Her ensuing punishments demonstrate well the confining nature of life within the Pietà’s walls and the institutionalized element that defines Anna Maria’s world.
During one such punishment, Anna Maria comments in a letter to her mother that “I’ve come to believe that music is the one companion, the one teacher, the one parent, the one friend who will never abandon me.” In musings such as these, Quick has aptly captured the saving grace of music that serves as a religion of sorts for many of us. For the violin-savvy reader seeking insight into the life and mind of a virtuoso, however, this story dishes up thin fare. We’re told Anna Maria is a violin prodigy, how she works hard in trying to memorize and play Vivaldi’s challenging music. We hear that the coro “played very well,” and that “I played for my teacher, just as skillfully, just as beautifully, as I was able.” But what we’re missing are the details.
An aside here, if I might. The violin is not the piano—you don’t just learn notes, plunk them out with the keys and then spend the rest of the time practicing till the music flows smoothly from your finger. Fretless instruments allow infinite opportunities to subtly vary intonation—both a challenge and an opportunity violinists can spend their entire lives trying to master, necessitating hours of daily scales, arpeggios and etudes before passage work can even begin. A violinist’s relationship with this temperamental instrument is intense and enduring—both the violinist’s best friend and her harshest taskmaster. No player is unaffected by the beauty of the instrument, its glowing surface and shape, much like the body of a woman—surely of note to the lonely, motherless Anna Maria. Greater description and detail here, along these lines, would have gone a long way indeed.
What the reader does get are Anna Maria’s feelings when playing, which are lyrically, if vaguely expressed. “The first movements went beautifully well, with notes yielding, sweetening as my fingers found their hiding places and called them into the air. They followed my bow as if I were the leader of a great army of musician warriors: I made them sing.”
Singing, and the broader subject of music in general, is where Quick seems to hone in more successfully on description. One wonderfully depicted event that demonstrates both music and the ribald pageantry of Venice takes place inside the Teatro Sant’ Angelo, which Anna Maria’s friend has dragged her out to attend. There, they encounter both nobility and working class alike, in silks and rain-soaked woolens respectively, all faces covered by the masks Venetians favored in public during the long season of Carnival. The two girls take seats and observe, gape-mouthed, as the drama plays out, both onstage and off—high entertainment for the reader as well.
Later, the ensuing nighttime gondola ride back to the Pietà allows Anna Maria to revel at more natural wonders: “The sky on a clear night is a living, pulsating thing. The stars are like musical notes turned to light, and, like notes, they shimmer and swell and fade and fall.”Like these stars, Vivaldi’s Virgins has a vivid, affecting trajectory, swelling perhaps a bit too early, but subsiding elegantly to produce a satisfying, heart-warming read. Recommended for fans of Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan who seek a milder, more sentimental touch, with a dollop of classical music thrown in for sweetness.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Vivaldi's Virgins at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Northern Edge: A Novel of Survival in Alaska's Arctic (1990)
- Vivaldi's Virgins (July 2007)
- Still Friends: Living Happily Ever After…Even If Your Marriage Falls Apart (January 2000)
- Under Her Wing: The Mentors Who Changed Our Lives (April 2000)
- The Commitment Dialogues (with Mathew McKay)
- Even More / Todavia Mas (2004)
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- Official website for Barbara Quick
- Reading Guide for Vivaldi's Virgins
- PopMatters review of Vivaldi's Virgins
- Curled Up review of Vivaldi's Virgins
- SF Gate review of Vivaldi's Virgins
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About the Author:
Barbara Quick is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), where she majored in English and French. After a year of travel and free-lancing as a gardener, seamstress, and chef, she was trained as an editor and then became a senior writer for UC Berkeley and the University of California’s statewide administration.
Barbara was a senior writer and editor for the late on-line lifestyle magazine, MyPrimeTime.com, writing a weekly column (still pirated on the Internet) called “The Gender Dialogues.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Ms., and the San Francisco Chronicle.
She has lived or spent extensive time traveling in the British Isles, Hungary, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Alaska, and Brazil. A trained dancer and an avid sambista, Barbara rehearses, parades and performs as a member of the corps with the Brazilian dance troupe Aquarela. She can speak, read, and write French and Italian, is fairly functional in German, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese, and can meet and greet in Hungarian.
She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her teenage son Julian, who lives part-time with his dad on a sailboat.