As the horse drawn carriage sped away from Venice, taking Pellegrina towards her new life, she held the leather briefcase close to her chest. She had lived at the Ospedale since she was left there as a baby. It was her home, her school, and since Padre Antonio had begun to write music for her to perform, her workplace as well. The other orphaned or abandoned girls were the only family she’d ever known. Now she was leaving it all behind, keeping only the sheafs of paper in the briefcase, her four favorite works. When would they notice the theft? Maybe never. After all, these were now published, copies had been sold all over Europe, and Padre Antonio was now known far and wide. Still, these were her works, written for her and a few friends, and seeing them turned into violin concertos felt like a personal betrayal.
As the new wife of the most respected cloth merchant in Padova, playing music in public would be unthinkable, and yet it was her talent and skill on the oboe, perhaps the most unsuitable instrument of all for a young lady, that initially attracted the attention of her future husband. That was, after all, the purpose of the intensive musical education the girls received. The concerts at the Ospedale were legendary, and men from all over the continent attended them not only for the music, but for the novelty of it being performed by women, (although modesty and religious custom demanded that they perform only behind a screen that kept them out of the view of the public) and the explicit enticement that these talented young women were all available for marriage.
Pellegrina had been chosen. This was supposed to be the ultimate goal, the best outcome, the way out of the orphanage and into a life of comfort, children, and the social status of a married woman of means. It was beyond anything that could be achieved through music. The meager but often happy life of the performing musician was forbidden to women, as she and her friends knew well, yet that was the happy life she knew in Venice. Each time she received a new work to play it was a precious gift. Her favorite were the ones for her “concerto misto”, a group of flute or recorder, oboe, violin, bassoon, cello, and harpsichord. Padre Antonio had written many of these, but the week before the first performance of the four concertos that were now her precious cargo the only good bassoonist among her colleagues was suddenly chosen by a suitor, and left. The bassoon part was quickly refashioned for the viola da gamba, an antique instrument that was hardly ever heard in Venice, but was now played by two of the girls, perhaps on account of its popularity with travelers from France.
The four concertos described the seasons of the year, starting with the birdcalls of spring, and ending with frigid winter storms. Everything was there; the rustling of grasses and the barking dog in the afternoon, the summer heat and buzzing of flies, more storms, the autumn harvest, drunken villagers, the hunt. Each concerto was accompanied by a sonnet. This, in her mind, was not necessary since the music expressed perfectly everything that was described in the poems. Nothing like them had ever been composed. Now, even in their new instrumentation as concertos for violin, shorn of the colors of the different instruments, (could a violin ever imitate birds like a flute, or even an oboe can?) they were renowned and performed everywhere. Three different printings had been sold, and Padre Antonio was now dedicating himself to writing more and more of these concertos for a single soloist. His publishers in Amsterdam and London insisted that the public wanted nothing else.
Pellegrina knew that she would probably never perform again, probably never have a group of friends who could, through their instruments, express together more than they ever could individually with words. Works like “Le Quattro Stagioni” in particular would have been considered scandalous if performed by women. Their theatricality and difficulty put them well beyond the pale of acceptable decorum. She did not dwell on the injustice of it. She had always known this day would come, or at least hoped for it, as every girl was taught to do. Still, through every bump in the road she held the briefcase tight against her chest.
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