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La Fenice Theatre 1810-1870: the Birth of a Modern Orchestra

The years between 1810 and 1820 were certainly very critical for Venice. In fact, for four consecutive times, it passed alternatively from Austrian to French rule. The city was suffering from both an identity and economic crisis, and all commercial activities had drastically decreased in this time. However, those relating to music seemed to have flourish in the same period, confirming the traditional trend that during economic and political crisis, recreational activities increase in the attempt to balance and exorcise the real ghosts of poverty.

In 1829, the Venetian Carnival season presented three operas and three ballo at the theater La Fenice. In addition to this there were 15 operas at the theater S. Benedetto (six for the Carnival season, four for the spring season and five for the fall,) two at S. Luca for the spring season, and four at S. Samuele for the fall season, for a total of 24 operas in one year!

Towards 1830, following the crisis of the previous decade, the number of professional musicians (190) decreased drastically. The theater La Fenice wrote the following bemoaning the difficulty of finding good musicians: �...if in fact ten years ago it was easy to find a number of orchestra musicians which was more than double what we needed, now we are having difficulties finding enough musicians for a season.�

From this point in time in the history of music in Venice, the theater La Fenice will be the point of reference of the city’s musical activity. Almost all Venetian and Italian musicians played at the renowned theater. During these difficult years, La Fenice organized high level gambling (which had already been taking place in the theater’s foyer, il ridotto, in previous years) and the game of Bingo, which attracted the common people hoping to win the grand prize of 500 liras. The performances, which lasted approximately seven hours, generally began in the evening with the opera and ended late at night after the ballo, where female dancers did not refuse the audience a glance at their graces.

“Violin professor Signor Fortunato was warned several days ago not to turn towards the stage during a ballo. He replied that even though he was looking at the dancers, he was still playing proficiently. Even maestro Calligari, celloist, keeps turning to the stage, and plays very little and at his ease, looking at the scene and at the stalls and in the boxes.� In the stalls there was food and conversations were carried out, while in the foyer people could gamble and meet. Anonymity was guaranteed by the use of a mask and by the possibility to pull the box curtain, so that music could be heard without being seen.

On May 31, 1831, in order to guarantee the proper functioning of the orchestra, the theater direction decided to organize a jury competition for the hiring of orchestra members who would retain their positions for an indefinite period of time. This was a very unusual and avant-garde idea, since musicians were usually paid by the day. Archives still contain numerous letters of musicians who were interested in participating in the competition. Even those who had long played for the theater had to compete and accept the jury’s decision. Older players, fearing that the energy of young players could prevail over their experience, asked that their seniority be considered.

Young players were ready to take the exam which they hoped was impartial and similar to those required by other theaters of Europe: for violins, the reading of some short pieces and some opera solos and the first tempo of one concert for violin and orchestra by Mozart, same for violas but by Stamitz, a test of basso continuo for cellos and double basses. As can be seen, the professional level of musicians was high, but the direction still reserved the right to keep those who proved worthy and to dismiss those who were not competent even after hiring was done.

During the course of centuries, many professors were fired or demoted to less demanding artistic positions in the orchestra. Many were the controls and the reports on their ability and their behavior, including absences, which were excused only in case of a doctor certified illness. Therefore, the commonly held notion that Nineteenth century Italian musicians playing in theaters and orchestras (at least in Venice) were nothing but a mediocre group of amateurs incapable of professional performances, must be disregarded. This idea developed during the end of the Nineteenth century, and was caused by foreign musicians like Wagner, whose musical writing did not take into consideration the Italian cultural tradition regarding music technical executions, nor the customs of sonadori, and therefore were not satisfied with the artistic rendering of their music by our orchestras.

At that time, the orchestra only had three cellos (a first cello for operas, a first cello for ballo and a student in training) and nine double basses, an inconceivable number for modern day orchestras. In operas, it was the double bass which played the bass continuo and it was again the double bass, not the cello, which performed low sounds. Even the orchestra members� position was completely different from that of a modern orchestra, as can be observed in the plan, which details the position of each player.

The sound effect had to be stereophonic for the audience, but the position created difficulties for the sonadori who did not even have the guidance of the director of orchestra, a role that was to be introduced in later years, and which was performed by the first violin. During that time, an orchestra was composed of 71 members (there were no trombones but trumpets with piston and trumpets with slide) among which the strings which were:

Principal violin and director for opera

Assistant principal violin for opera

Principal violin for ballet

Assistant  principal violin for ballet

Nine first tutti violins

Principal second violin

Assistant principal second violin

Nine second tutti violins   

Principal viola for opera       

Principal  viola for ballet         

Six tutti viola                 

Principal cello for opera          

Principal  cello for ballet     

One tutti cello          

Principal double bass for opera

Principal double bass for ballet

Seven tutti double bass

Every musician had a precise numbered position. The assistant, just like in modern orchestras, sat next to the first violin and helped with its functions. There were also three pupils (a first violin, a second violin and the third cello) who were youngsters who accepted to work without compensation in order to acquire working experience in an orchestra, and therefore obtain a pre-emptive right in case a position in the orchestra became available.

The salaries for the Carnival and Lent season were paid in four installments called quartali. The season began on the night of S. Stefano, on December 26, with the cavalchina masked ball, and ended at the end of March. Orchestra members decided to deduct a 2.5% tax from their quartali to fund an account, which they could use in case of sudden necessity, sickness or old age.  The pay was low: the first violin received 700 Austrian liras for the whole season, the first oboe received 650, the bassoon 450 (the position held by de Azzi Vincenzo, member of the renowned family of wind instrument makers,) the most important violins 380, the second violins 250, and double basses and violas 180-140.

Composers, lead singers and famous dancers received very high compensations. In 1823, while still very young, Giacomo Rossini received the sum of 5,000 liras plus food and lodging in the best hotel of the city for the writing of an opera which took him 20 days. Angela Catalani, famous singer of the time, was paid 150,000 liras for singing in four accademie! Apart from these isolated cases, if we consider that the yearly rent for a house was in the range of 180-400 liras, the price of wheat was 50 liras per 100 kilos, and the price of barley was 100 liras per kilo, it is easily seen that the average pay of a sonadore was extremely low.

This is the reason why they had to look for contracts with other theaters in the city and had to constantly deal with problems due to the overlapping of rehearsal times and concert times. Many were the musicians who accepted contracts with theaters in other cities, like Padova with the orchestra of the Basilica del Santo, Verona with the Teatro Filarmonico, Trieste, Rovigo, Treviso and other far away cities such as Milan, Pesaro, Bergamo, Parma and Bologna.

During the night of December 12, 1836, the sentinel of San Marco’s bell tower awoke the city's sleeping citizens as it rang out the alarm for a fire, which was ravaging the theater La Fenice. This fire was so intense and uncontrollable that within the span of few hours it completely destroyed the theater, which was the life of the musical activity in Venice. After this sad event, musicians who were afraid of losing their main source of income established the Pia Fondazione dell’Orchestra, whose main goal was to “assist with pensions and aids those professors who, for reasons of illness or old age cannot render their services. The main funding of this phylantropic institution is a performance or an accademia which is staged once a year for this sole purpose.�

Luckily, just like with the 1996 fire, which seems to be an exact repetition of this event, the activity of the theater was not interrupted and, even among many difficulties, a provisory season was set up at the Apollo Theater. Giovanni Buccella, a violinist whose quarterly pay was 75 liras, wrote an interesting letter on January 8, 1837:

 “To the Noble Presidency of the Grand Theater La Fenice

This humble undersigned viola musician of the orchestra of this Grand Theater had, among other obligations, that of coming to the rehearsals for the ballo. Because these rehearsals lasted most part of the day, sometimes even after midnight, I left my instrument in the theater. As a consequence, that fatal night of December 13 when the theater was devoured by flames, my instrument followed the same fate. This was a fatal loss for me, because I was deprived of the only means of livelihood for myself and my family. To be faithful to my professional obligations I must borrow an instrument from my colleagues who sometimes cannot be of assistance. With the pay I receive, I am not in the position of purchasing a new instrument. I need to provide for my family and I must distribute the amounts I receive over the periods of time when I do not work. I therefore beg the goodness of this presidency to grant the sum of 62 liras for the purchase of another viola, which will substitute the one I lost. Certain to meet your understanding in the light of these sad circumstances, I thank you in advance.�

The theater gave him a refund of 24 liras.

The La Fenice theater archives contain many letters that attest the mobility of musicians. Many requested a contract deferment, others permission to complete the season with other theaters. These numerous letters document the many problem musicians faced on a day to day basis, worried about their work, their livelihood and that of their families.  They are a real testament of the time, and of the lives of its musicians. Sickness was the most dreaded problem. Only a short period of inactivity could cause total poverty in a musician’s family. A professor writes: “the needs of a family are a terrible daily task for those who own none other than art.�

Many musicians requested anticipations on their pay. A letter written by Giuseppe (II) Forlico, principal double bass for opera, who worked with the theater for more than 45 years beginning in 1796, is particularly interesting: “Last year (1839) I was assisted by the generosity of Count Benzoni through an aid from the Casa della Pia Istituzione which helped fulfill my needs during the winter season. Since I had nothing to protect me from the cold temperatures, I became ill and saw death in the eyes. We are now approaching the winter season and I am again in need of assistance to protect my health. I want this Noble Presidency to know that I did my best to ask for help, but it has been denied to me.

I did not want to inconvenience this Presidency, but I have no other resource. My great need and extreme necessity urges me to look for help. I therefore ask your generosity and that of Count Alvise Francesco Mocenigo to favor this humble request, and to grant me an aid from the Casa della Pia Istituzione. It shouldn’t surprise this Noble Presidency that I find myself in such difficult conditions. A man with a large family, with five male sons who need education, and with no income, can easily extinguish all sources of livelihood. The pay I receive for my services as principal double bass of this Grand Theater is not sufficient for the needs of my family, even during the Carnival season, and my situation is such that it should move even the hardest of hearts. I dare confide my difficulties to the goodness of this Noble Presidency, sure that it would keep this matter confidential, and certain that it will be moved by the needs of a loyal musician who had always rendered his services dutifully and who will continue to do so until his forces will allow. I trust that this request will be humbly granted. Thank you. Humble Servant Giuseppe Forlico.�

Unfortunately bad luck seemed to persecute Forlico. In 1841 his son Pietro (II), a tutti double bass at La Fenice with the miser pay of 100 liras, wrote the following letter to the theater Direction: “The other day my father was carried back home by four men because he was stricken by hemiplegia which paralyzed his right side and caused a loss of speech. Being the head of a family and only source of livelihood, he now leaves his family with no means, and he himself is bed ridden and in need of continuous cures which are subject to sensitive costs. This Presidency, maybe also due to the fact that my father has been a loyal musician who began working at their theater at the age of 18 and continued for 40 years until the age of 60, has been generous in the past giving 80 liras to my father at the end of each theater season. On that fateful night, being in such a critical need for money, my seriously ill father, sweating with fever, got out of bed to come to rehearsal at this Grand Theater...on my father’s behalf and on my behalf I appeal to this Presidency and, in the light of these sad events and circumstances I ask that the above mentioned sum be granted to him so that he has the means to recuperate his health...�

His father slowly healed and resumed his services at the Theater at the age of 60. The Theater Direction changed his position in the orchestra so that he was now at the side of Giovanni Arpesani, the famous double bass soloist of the time. Forlico wrote a colleague saying how, even though he was a renowned soloist, Arpesani could not lead the double basses in the orchestra. But what hurt him the most was the salary difference among them: 900 liras for Arpesani and 650 liras for him.

In 1831, Michele Fabris, brother of Luigi, the violinmaker, requested to be reinstated into his old position of first trumpet and horn (he was also a member of the San Marco orchestra with a salary of 172 liras.) He also requested the position of second horn for his son Giovanni, saying that he could play any type of trumpet and if needed he could even be the first horn. During this period of time, the trumpet had a coulisse, just like modern trombones. The use of trumpets with coulisse will come to an end after the trumpet with piston makes its way in Venice in 1830.

The musicians of the time alternated the use of the two trumpets depending on musical needs. In 1830, the Gazzetta di Venezia published an article that highly praised the orchestra performance, with the exception of the trumpets which played a sour note during a solo for thirds. According to Fabris, who was fired because of this incident, the problem occurred because the second trumpet did not play being tired from working all afternoon at the casotti in Riva degli Schiavoni. He also said that playing the trumpet at the age of 50 is extremely demanding, not like playing the horn, and begs to be reinstated because he needs to provide for his wife and seven children. His son became first trumpet with piston from 1840, while in 1856 he was demoted to the position of third horn.

There were many conflicts among the sonadori, but there were also to be found many acts of solidarity. While ill, Giovanni Fabris writes the following to his colleague Froelich:

“Dear Froelich,

Since I am ill and my son is also ill so that my wife cannot leave the house, I ask if you could go to the Noble Presidency of the Grand Theater to see if they have granted my humble request for aid. If they have, please receive it in my name and take it to my home. I do not intend to inconvenience you, but certain of our friendship I do not doubt your availability in this occasion.

Your friend Fabris � S. Samuele, Calle Mocenigo 4341.�

Another interesting letter is that of Antonio Buzzolla, who arrived from Adria in 1832 and was given the position of second flute at the orchestra of the theater. In a few years he became a famous and requested opera composer, maestro di cappella at San Marco and director of the phylarmonic society ‘Doninzetti� of Giuseppe Camploy.

Years went by in Venice and many things changed but not the salaries, the musicians� problems, and the set up of the orchestra (the only difference is the introduction of trombones in the orchestra in 1847). The Carnival and Lent season of 1847 and 1848 were extremely troubled because of the many anti-Austrian protests in the theater which were a demonstration of the sentiments of Venetian people. The insurrections against the Austrian invaders were about to begin.

On the evening of February 6, during the 22nd performance of Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi, and of the ballo La Vivandiera e il Postiglione�, the audience insistently applauded during Malcolm’s invocation: �chi non odia il suol natio, prenda l’armi e segua me� and the choir answered �la patria tradita � piangendo ne invita � Fratelli! Gli oppressi corriamo a salvar.�

“At the beginning of the ballo, the dancer Fanny Cerrito enter the scene with a red white and green veil. The enthusiasm of the audience at her entrance was so great that the applause became always more insistent accompanied by cheers to Italy.

Austrian officials seated in the first rows or seated in other areas of the theater stood up with a threatening look on their faces, thumped their sabers on the floor, hoping to quiet the protesters. This act of intimidation instead provoked more enthusiastic outbursts from the protesters. Ladies seated at the boxes took out red white and green handkerchiefs they previously hid in their clothing. The handkerchiefs were braided to form tricolored festoons which were placed along the boxes.� Shortly afterwards, a contingent of Croation soldiers entered and evacuated the theater.

Under the independent government of Manin, which lasted almost two years, from 1848 to 1849, Venice seemed to try to live again the splendid times of the Republic when, after a long siege plagued by hunger and illness, the city again surrendered to the Austrian rule: �il morbo infuria, il pan ci manca, sul ponte sventola bandiera bianca�.

These were very difficult times, especially for musicians. The activity was almost inexistent. Orchestra players lament: ”there are no more theaters, no more students�, which were the main sources of income. They desperately request the theater direction to obtain financial assistance through the funds accumulated by the Pia Fondazione and those accumulated by the 2.5% tax on their salary. Unfortunately those funds were not available because they had been unwisely invested by a shortsighted direction, and were mortgaged. Even commissions to violin makers were practically inexistent during this time.

In 1849, Carlo Bosoni was nominated director of La Fenice theater for the first time. He replaced Gaetano Mares, former first violin and head of the orchestra, and offered him the position of director of orchestra, a position unknown of, until that date. Mares had been first violin since 1831: he performed his duties with extreme professionality, always supported his colleagues (he stood behind some professors who had been unjustly dismissed), was always available to solve any problem or dispute among orchestra members. He also curated the composition of orchestra elements, selecting players.

He was a renowned violinist capable of playing the most difficult solos. He also perfectly played the harpsichord and could conduct an opera, compose concerts, arias, or anything was requested of him.

This passage to director is very important, because it marks the birth of the figure of orchestra director in a modern sense, which did not exist until this time, and which was performed by the first violin. Later contracts were written, spelling out his duties: �(the director) has to concert with the harpsichord on the scene with the other artists and singers during rehearsal, and replace the composer in all the opera in case of absence. During the performance he will stay at his assigned place in the orchestra and beat the time with his baton.�

In 1856, a fourth cello was added to the Venetian orchestra, which now counted 76 elements.

During the years 1859-1866, until the annexation of Venice to the Kingdom of Italy,  La Fenice theater was closed, mainly for political reasons. Many Venetian musicians immigrated to other cities or played in minor theaters in order to continue their professional career. Commuting, which began a few decades earlier, became ever more frequent.

When the theater resumed its activity in 1866, the strings were composed as follows: 13 first violins, 11 second, 8 violas, 6 cellos, and 7 double bass. Among orchestra members Fabris Spiridione stood out. He was born in 1831, the son of Michele and nephew of Luigi. There is an interesting collection of letters written by him and Giuseppe Pelitti, an instrument maker in Milan, who was commissioned to make a bombardone (a earlier version of the basso-tuba) and a horn with cylinders which could better served the changes musical needs of the time (1869.) The price of the instrument was 231 liras, which was anticipated by the theater because the musician, a widow with five children, could not pay the price.

Some orchestra members became very important figures within the musical scene of Italy: Giuseppe Guarneri entered La Fenice orchestra as a celloist, Luigi Poltronieri became principal of the second violins, Enrico Piatti, brother and student of the famous Alfredo (with whom he competed) was also a celloist, Luigi Catalani was double bass, and Cesare Trombini was first violin. Competition amongst orchestra players was intense, and was further provoked by salary differences. The excellent artistic level was also due to the selection of musicians. In 1868 five professors were fired for incompetence, eight were demoted to lesser positions, and eleven retired.

In 1870 the salaries increased:

Maestro and concertatore 2,400 liras

Principal violin   1,200 liras

Principal violin for ballo  900 liras

Assistant principal violin for opera 700 liras

Assistant principal violin for  ballo  600 liras

First tutti violins 450 � 200 liras

Principal of the second violins  600 liras

Assistant principal of second violins   500 liras

Second  tutti violins 450 � 200 liras

Principal viola  600 liras

Viola tutti  450 �250 liras

Cellos  250 � 750 liras

Double bass 350 � 800 liras

Many musicians came from faraway cities like Parma, Florence, Bologna, Trieste, Milan.