Thursday, October 25, 2007
Excerpt from Vivaldi's Virgins, by Barbara Quick
Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick
[Let's start at the end of a letter from Anna Maria dal Violin (given that last name for the instrument she plays, as all the girls training under the maestro Vivaldi are named), to her mother whom she has never met because she was dropped of at a Pieta in Vienna as a baby. Someone there suggested she write these letters to her mother, this one is from 1709. Just the end of it remember.]
Oh Mother, if this letter has truly reached you, hear me! Would that I could ask for your help not in words, as clumsy and ugly as the flies that gather in the corners of the windows in summertime, but with the notes of my violin.
I write to you now a girl, still a girl. A virgin who cannot find the key to playing music that comes from a man's loins. [She earlier in the book recalls what it's like to watch Vivaldi while he's composing], Who cannot play the allegro.
I beg you to pray for me,
Anna Maria dal Violin,
Student of the Mastro Vivaldi
I had an answer to my prayers that autumn. A new girl was brought to the Pieta-not an unwanted child, but a paying student from Saxony. She had excellent training and already played well.
Even now, there is usually at least one such girl every year, sent to board with us until she reaches the age of seventeen. They are not, as we are, bound for 10 years to perform and teach in exchange for the charity bestowed upon us, and to train two replacements if and when we choose to marry or take the veil. For these students from the outside, the Pieta is only a way station on the road to an advantageous marriage and the production of heirs.
These girls bring with them a breath of worlds unknown to inmates of the ospedale, worlds where music is not necessarily at the center of one's existence. They come with their talk of fashion, families, and stolen kisses.
Claudia, as a violinist, was places under my special care. I taught her every trick I knew of the Italian style, helped her with her grammar, and aquainted her with our routine. But I was evermore her student than her teacher.
Although only two years older than I, Claudia was already womanly and wise in the ways of the world. I remember how it startled me to see how the maestro clearly took note of her bosom. I was uncomfortable thinking of the maestro -or any priest-as a man. I cannot say that I am overly comfortable with the thought now, even though I know full well that it is a fact of life. It is their very manhood that makes their vows of celibacy both necessary and so difficult to achieve.
It was Claudia who told me, in her imperfect Italian, how important it is to remember that all men-whether noblemen or beggars, priests, or procurers-all have one thing in common, to which they are commonly in thrall.
Shortly after her arrival, the maestro had one of his fits of temper, during which he tore at his hair and wept at the innocence that keeps us from playing with the passion demanded by his music. I looked over to see how Claudia would react. To my surprise, she sat there with an enigmatic smile on her face, looking well satisfied with herself.
That night was particularly cold. Most of us were sleeping in two's, as was out wont in wintertime, even though, the year before, we had each earned the right to our own bed. I was just drifting off, with Claudia's arms wrapped around me, when she whispered in my ear.
"Anna Maria, I can teach you the secret of this passion your maestro wants you to feel."
My eyes were still half closed with sleep, and sleep had come only with difficulty because of the cold. "I am a virtuous girl," I muttered, resentful at being wakened.
"And you can remain one. I promise you! Your virtue will be unsullied. But you will bring your maestro great joy." She propped herself up, leaning back on her elbows.
I turned to look at her. "You speak in riddles, " I said crossly. Even though the darkness was inpenetrable, I could sense Claudia's smile.
"Here, let me show you!"
"Show me? Here? In the dormitory?"
"There is no better place."
She sat closer still, and speaking in little more than a whisper.
"Every woman, Anna Maria-and every girl-has a secret place on her body. If you stroke it in just the right way, it makes your body quiver and make music like the strings of your violin."
I lay back down, angry to be mocked in this way. "Go to sleep, Claudia!" We need to be at our best for the rehearsal tomorrow."
She shook my shoulder. "Which is exactly why I am telling you this tonight, Annina."
"Don't call me 'Annina," I said. I thought about how I used to believe that the music made by the coro came from the girls' bodies. I couldn't guess how this Saxon witch came to know of my childish folly.
"Look." She pulled me upright again. "Here, do what I do."
My eyes by then had begun to grow accustomed to the darkness. Claudia poistioned herself as if playing her cello, her knees splayed. "It's here," she said, reaching under her nightclothes.
"You have one too. It's like-I don't know the word in your language." She took her hand out and then cupped her other hand around her finger, pantomiming a bell. "The little piece that makes it ring. Can you find it?"
I reached under my nightclothes. How was it I'd never noticed before? When I touched it, it was exactly as if I were a violin. I felt the touch of my fingers vibrate in every part of my body, but especially the tips of my breasts and the arches of my feet.
I saw Claudia had closed her eyes. I did the same.
"Can you feel it?" she asked me.
"Yes," I said, gasping a little because my breath was suddenly labored, as if I'd been climbing stairs.
"Stroke it just as you stroke the strings of your violin, Anna Maria dal Violin."
"The strings of my violin don't grow wet when I stroke them."
"Think of the sonata we're playing tomorrow-of the allegro. And when we're playing the allegro tomorrow, think of this!"
I could not answer her. The urge to keep stroking was suddenly larger than everything else, so large and so loud that everything else disappeared. I forgot where I was; I forgot who I was. There was only the urgent need to -I knew now what. And then-Oh blessed Mother of God-my body rang with the joyful force of all the bells of la Serenissima on Easter morning.
It was as if I'd fallen into the sea during a storm and been washed up on the shore, half drowned, half dead, but like one who has seen the face of God.
When I woke the next morning, I wondered if it had all been a dream. But there was Claudia sitting over me, smiling her little catlike smile.
I smiled back at her.
"Don't forget to think of it while we're playing today."
"I will think of nothing else!" I assured her. "I must tell Giulietta. She must think of it while she is playing her cello today!"
I told Giulietta (and drowned in that sea again in the telling), and I think Giulietta must have told others in her turn.
When we all gathered for rehearsal, it was a pale-faced, fever-eyed group of girls who faced the maestro.
"What's this?" he muttered. "Have I missed my calendar?" [Vivaldi, in this book, could tell 'the time of the month' by the behavior of his girls]
From the moment we began playing, it was clear to all of us-but most of all to hiim-that everything had changed. We played with brio. We played with passion. We playted with urgency. We played so that we were panting at the end, and I would not have been surprised if some of our bells were ringing.
The maestro lowered his hands and stared at us with disbelief. "I'm dreaming," was all he said at first. And then, with an expression of rapture filling his eyes:
"How did this happen?"
All of us just sat there and smiled with the same little half-smile that Claudia wore.
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