The hidden women who rivaled Vivaldi

Tempesta di Mare presents The Women Behind the Screen – The Sensational Female Musicians of Venice’s Orphanages

4 minute read
Exterior view of the tall, white, pillared, historic, tile-roofed Venice church on a canal. People fill the sidewalk in front

As it prepares for its German tour, Philadelphia’s busy baroque orchestra ended its season with a uniquely programmed, impeccably played musical trip to Venice: The Women Behind the Screen – The Sensational Female Musicians of Venice’s Orphanages.

Tempesta explored music by six famous (in their time) baroque composers. Antonio Vivaldi was the most familiar, but all wrote for the musicians of Venice’s ospedali grandi, charitable institutions that addressed the needs of the poor. Boys there trained as sailors or in trades, while girls were educated in domestic arts, including music. Those who showed talent sang for church services, and some stayed lifelong as performers.

These figlie di coro (choir girls)—renowned throughout Europe—were also trained as instrumentalists and, between 1720 and 1780, all four ospedali had vocal and instrumental ensembles. They were celebrities and noted composers wrote works especially for them. But shielded from the public by screens, the women were only heard, never seen, and were denied careers outside the confines of their institutions, which kept them in poverty. (Read more about them here.)

Verve, elegance, and aplomb

Each ospedale had specific composers in residence, and Tempesta arranged the concert accordingly. First came the Sinfonia from the 1734 Serpentes ignei in deserto / Fiery serpents in the wilderness by Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783). Hasse wrote for the Osepdale degl’ Incurabili, which housed repentant prostitutes and people with syphilis, and he composed vocal works (like this oratorio) because the institution had several famous singers. The four movements of Serpentes opened the concert with verve and elegance.

Next came a remarkable vocal work by star opera composer Nicolo Antonio Porpora (1686-1768), written for the Ospedaletto dei Derelitti, which served the homeless. This complex four-part motet, Qualis avis cui perempta (1744-46), was composed for Angiola Moro, their star alto soloist. It was beautifully sung here by guest artist Kirsten Sollek, a true contralto lauded for both early music and contemporary repertoire. Qualis avis (“like a bird”) begins with a complex aria comparing the loss of God’s grace to a bird whose mate has been killed, followed by an extended recitative and a prayerful aria capped by a joyous and lengthy “Alleluia.” Sollek has an exceptionally rich voice and an engaging presence, and buoyed by the orchestra’s excellence and pace, she navigated the work—dense musically and textually and filled with tricky ornaments—with aplomb.

Galuppi, Ferrandini, and Vivaldi

The third and fourth works on the program were both written for the Ospedale dei Mendicanti, which housed beggars and orphans. There was a Sinfonia from Judith, a 1746 oratorio by Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785) that is filled with beautiful florid writing, the winds and strings echoing one another throughout. Following was the Overture to Talestri, regina delle amazoni /Queen of the Amazons (1760) by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini (1710-1791). He had studied oboe at the Mendicanti, which offered lessons for paying customers, so this three-movement work had especially fine writing for the winds.

After intermission, Tempesta played three compositions written for the largest and most famous of these institutions, Ospedale della Pietà (housing 4,000). There, children born illegitimately (and known only by first names) were surrendered anonymously, deposited into an open scaffetta box. Pietà housed an expansive music program, and its most famous faculty member was Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1727). But the maestro di coro who actually hired Vivaldi as a violin teacher was Francesco Gasparini (1661-1727), whose three-movement Sinfonia (Overture) in B-flat opened the second half.

More from the women behind the screen

The concert closed with two stunning Vivaldi works. Concerto in E-flat (RV260) was written for the ospedali’s most famous musician, violinist Anna Maria (1695-1782). She spent her entire life at Pietà and was soloist and concertmaster from 1723-1729. At that time, Vivaldi was writing a concerto every two weeks, and this work appeared in Maria’s personal notebook. Its second Adagio movement is exceptional: spare and haunting, opening with just a few strings. The work is dazzlingly virtuosic for the soloist, here Tempesta concertmaster Emlyn Ngai, who seemed to play it as easily as breathing.

A view of an open page of the historic notebook, densely scored with handwritten musical notes in black ink fading to brown.
The personal notebook of Anna Maria, of the Ospedale della Pietà. (Image courtesy of Tempesta di Mare.)

The final work was another Vivaldi stunner. Sollek sang three magnificent arias from the 1716 oratorio Juditha Triumphans (RV644). Umbrae cara / Dear shadows, a lulling and reflective barcarolle, was filled with beautifully realized word painting for soloist and orchestra. Transit ætas/A lifetime passes was an intimate duet for singer and lute (Richard Stone on his signature instrument), where the velvety contralto and the plangent instrument made a magical contrast. The concert closed dramatically with Agitata infido flatu/Shaken by a faithless wind, an exciting work for soloist and ensemble filled with word painting, instrumental color, and amazing vocal swoops and leaps: Vivaldi at his rarely heard finest, matched by stellar performances.

In a region (and a season) rich with early music, this concert was special. As Tempesta did with its excavation of works by Johann Friedrich Fasch (for which it will receive Germany’s Fasch Prize next month), the company plans to delve into the stories and music of these invisible musicians whose gifts (and fame) rivaled the male composers who wrote for them. Hopefully there’s more to come about the “women behind the screen.”

Above: Venice’s Church of the Ospedale della Pietà, lifelong home of violinist Anna Maria. (Photo by Tony Hisgett, via Wikimedia Commons.)

What, When, Where

The Women Behind the Screen: The Sensational Female Musicians of Venice’s Orphanages. Ensemble directed by Gwyn Roberts and Richard Stone. Tempesta di Mare Baroque Orchestra. Saturday, May 13, 2023 at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and Sunday, May 14 at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. (215) 755-8776 or


The cathedral and its annex, where restrooms are located, are fully accessible.

Masks were not required.

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