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18th century music depicted in a Venetian painting will be performed Wednesday at Penn State

A photo of part of a fresco painted on the wall of a music room at the ospedaletto in Venice.  It shows young women playing instruments and singing, with one woman holding the manuscript of an aria.
Marica Tacconi
Marica Tacconi
Part of a fresco at the ospedaletto in Venice. The young woman in the center is holding sheet music for the aria "Contro il destin che freme" by Pasquale Anfossi, which will be performed at Penn State Wednesday night, March 23. (Photo by Marica Tacconi)

On Wednesday evening, a group of musicians from Venice will perform with the Penn State Baroque Ensemble. They’ll share some rarely-heard music from the 1700’s in a concert on the University Park campus, including one aria that is depicted in a painting in Venice.

Back in the 18th century when music history was written on mere paper, works by Mozart filled volumes, and rightly so. But the names of many of the composers Mozart admired, and some of those from whom he learned, have languished in obscurity. An ensemble from Venice, and a Penn State musicologist have been working together to dig them up.

So how do you find music by these forgotten composers? Well, if you’re in Venice, sometimes you just read the writing on the wall – painted there – a couple hundred years ago in the music room of an orphanage.

“And at the end of this room there is a fresco that shows several women playing various instruments, and some singing,” said Marica Tacconi, Distingushed Professor of Musicology and Art History at Penn State. “And they are conducted by the god, Apollo, which is the god of music.”

A photo of an ornately designed and painted room, with frescos on the wall and ceiling, dating from the 18th century.
Marica Tacconi
Marica Tacconi
The music room at the ospedaletto in Venice.

Tacconi was on sabbatical in Venice when she visited a place called “Santa Maria dei Dereletti.” In the 18th century, it was an orphanage for girls called the “ospedaletto.” In the music room there, Tacconi examined the elaborate painting on the walls.

“And on the side there is a man who holds a music score. So I took a whole bunch of photographs, and I was very intrigued by all of this,” Tacconi said.

Th American soprano Liesl Odenweller was with Tacconi on that visit to the ospedaletto. Odenweller is co-founder of the Venice Music Project which works to dig up forgotten musical gems and perform them. Odenweller is a resident of Venice.

“What we were told, when we saw this fresco,” Odenweller said, “was that this was the composer holding up his opera called 'Demetrio' that he wrote for the girls who lived here and who studied music there.”

A detail from the fresco showing the composer, Pasquale Anfossi, holding sheet music, rolled up in his right hand.
Marica Tacconi
Marica Tacconi
A detail from the fresco showing the composer, Pasquale Anfossi.

After some research, Tacconi learned Demetrio wasn’t the name of the opera. He was a character in an opera which is now lost, except for one aria, which Odenweller will sing at Penn State.

Why is a woman singing a man’s role? It happens in opera, where music matters much more than appearances. And this opera, Tacconi said, was written for an orphanage full of Venetian girls.

“This music would have been sung by these young women who received superb training to become professional musicians. And in fact, a number of these women from this institution went on to sing in operas by Mozart and other major composers of that time period. So they went on to have professional careers,” Tacconi said.

Women trained for a profession? To be opera stars? That sounds unusual for anyplace in the 18th century. But, there’s a reason why these orphanages could afford to hire top notch composers like Vivaldi to teach teenage girls.

“One of the reasons for that is because, you know, some of these women were truly orphaned. Others were foundlings. And there’s a bit of a difference there," Tacconi explains. "So, some of these women were the illegitimate daughters of Venetian aristocrats. And, therefore, these institutions were very well-endowed. Their fathers made significant donations so that their daughters could be well cared for and could receive this superb education that included music education as well.”

Many composers employed at these “ospedali,” as they were called, turned out a lot of great music – much of it unfortunately forgotten. And that’s the inspiration for a concert Wednesday evening at Penn State.

“And so the idea,” Tacconi said, “is to shed light on this music that really should be heard more frequently. I mean, we do hear a lot of Vivaldi, and we do have two works by Vivaldi on our program. But then, some of the other composers: are not heard very frequently if at all. And so we wanted to kind of bring out that repertoire, and work with the musicians in Venice, work with our Baroque Ensemble to bring that back to modern audiences.”

On Wednesday evening, members of the Venice Music Project will join Penn State’s Baroque Ensemble to give a performance of this music that mimics the sound the instruments would have made in the 18th century. As soprano Liesl Odenweller explained, art, once again, plays an important role.

“We rely on paintings to give us an idea of how the musicians were performing,” Odenweller said.

Period performance practices include playing stringed instruments with Baroque bows, which are curved, unlike modern bows; and tuning all the instruments a half step lower. And if you’ve been to a modern orchestra concert, you’ll usually see the musicians sitting. But most of the string players in this performance will stand while they play.

Members of the Venice Music Project rehearse with the Penn State Baroque Ensemble, with all of the voilinists standing.
Kristine Allen
Members of the Venice Music Project, including soprano Liesel Odenweller (center) rehearse with the Penn State Baroque Ensemble.

“Our musicians really love the freedom of standing up,” Odenweller said, “because you know, this was the rock music of the time. I mean, Vivaldi was like, you know, Led Zeppelin. That music was the party music. And of course people were practically dancing when they were playing.”

Soprano Liesl Odenweller, and instrumentalists from the Venice Music Project will join the Penn State Baroque Ensemble for a concert Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the School of Music recital hall at Penn State. Together they’ll play some of the music learned by those well-educated 18th century orphan girls in the ospedali of Venice.