“Pianississimo” and “sospiroso come il Ponte dei Sospiri” – this is how the Museum of Musical Instruments at the Benedetto Marcello conservatory in Palazzo Pisani, Venice, unveils itself
I’d like to start telling the tale of the small yet interesting Museum of Musical Instruments of the Venetian Conservatory, which pays homage to Wagner in one of its halls, with the two expressions coined and used by the great Maestro as he conducted the Venetian orchestra while it was getting ready to perform his Symphony in C Major on Christmas Eve 1882 to celebrate the birthday of his wife Cosima Liszt.
The re-enactment of this famous concert took place at Teatro La Fenice on 28th November 2019 and was a huge success with the public invited.
The Museum, located in a little-known corner of Venice in the famous Palazzo Pisani, began the last decade “pianississimo” (i.e. extremely slowly), softly, in a “sighing” manner between relocations and extraordinary and irregular openings. The Museum was set up around 2000 by Maestro Verardo and was rearranged in 2016 with the current layout of display cases and instruments.
The Conservatory of Venice
The Conservatory was set up privately in 1876 as a Music High School-Society (ten years after the Unification of Venice to Italy) and was first located in 1877 in Palazzo da Ponte and as of 1880 in the Sale Apollinee at La Fenice, where it remained until 1899 (and where Wagner conducted his famous last concert in 1882).
The Conservatory was then permanently moved to Palazzo Pisani, which was bought by the Municipal Authorities in 1897, albeit partially. The purchase, which involved the more recent part of the building overlooking the second courtyard, was completed in 1921.
The relationship between Wagner and the Venice Conservatory
After considering other possible places to celebrate his wife Cosima, Wagner chose Venice thanks also to his personal relationship with the pianist Bassani who was actively involved with the Conservatory and a close friend of Liszt’s – famous colleague and father-in-law of the great German Maestro – who in this case mediated between the two.
Wagner was so happy with the orchestra of the Music High School-Society (which was originally a private institution but became municipal as of 1895 and national in 1940) that he presented it with his music stand and baton, now on display in the ROOM dedicated to him, room three in the Museum (photo 1).
In the 1950s, Luisa Baccara donated Wagner’s beret, clearly visible in the photo, with an accompanying letter. Wagner’s nephew then donated the death mask made by sculptor Augusto Benvenuti.
The letter in the case is a draft copy of the condolences sent by the President of the Board of Directors Giuseppe Contin di Castelseprio to Cosima. On the walls, we find some photos of teachers and members of various administrative bodies of the then Music High School (including the first president Giuseppe Conti di Castelseprio). Some of them played with a few of their pupils at the concert on 24th December conducted by Wagner (photo 2).
The small Museum of the big Venice Conservatory
But the entire Museum is indeed a gem, yet has not been easy to visit up to now and therefore has remained unknown to most. It is truly exemplary most of all for the beauty of the instruments on display but also for their importance from an educational point of view. There are a few rooms located in a lovely mezzanine decorated with still-visible elegant stuccoes.
See for example the four seasons (photo 3) or the four elements (photo 4) or other details of the ceiling and the walls (photos 5 and 6).
Room of chordophone instruments
On entering room one, which is truly spectacular and dedicated to chordophone instruments, we see a 1563 polygonal spinet from the Levi collection (photo 7). Spinets were the first instruments that girls from both wealthy families and Venetian “hospital-conservatories” learned to play.
Near the mezzanine entrance, we can admire a series of harps, from the first one with no pedals to the successive pedal versions. All harps date back to the 19th century and still feature some moulded plaster decorations (photo 8).
The harp soundboard is made of spruce which boasts excellent acoustic qualities for the soundboards of the bowed instrument world. It is a particular type of European spruce whose wood presents ring-growing anomalies and has very few knots. For centuries, it has been used by violin-makers and manufacturers to make the soundboard of various string instruments. This tree is found in few European areas with a cold climate such as Trentino in Italy.
Some are Érard harps (photo 9), named after the manufacturer who developed and perfected the seven-pedal mechanism managing to raise the notes by two semi-tones, one for each pedal action-position. Each string is connected to two disks: the pedal actions the first disk that turns and tenses the string raising the note by a semi-tone (first pedal position). In the second position, the pedal turns the second disk raising the note by another semi-tone.
There is also a cross-strung harp (Pleyel) that never became popular for its technical difficulty and, moreover, because its sound was deemed unsatisfactory (photo 10).
The first room also displays five double basses including a rare specimen of Gofriller, named after the violin-maker of “German” origin – meaning from Alto Adige, as was the custom at the time – who had a workshop in Venice at the Santi Apostoli (photo 11), and that of Carlo Giuseppe Testore (or Testori), both dating back to the 17th century. There are also two specimens from the 18th century (photo 12) and one from the 19th century.
At the centre of room, there is a large display case donated by Fondazione Querini Stampalia containing a viola and two violins, one for adults and a three-quarter size for children (photo 13). Children use smaller instruments that, albeit on a smaller scale, are functionally identical to full-sized ones and are available in the three-quarter, 1/2 sizes and so on up to 1/32.
Over time, these instruments have reached their optimal shape with two opposite side Cs that enable the bow to move without touching the body.
The display case also contains a viola d’amore which usually boasts, in addition to the seven strings played by the bow, seven vibrating sympathetic strings i.e. the vibrating sequence of the main strings moves the secondary ones. This 18th century specimen does not feature the little cherub this type of viol was probably named after.
All bowed instruments are characterised by a heavily-curved and high bridge so as to enable the musician to play single strings unlike the lute, where the bridge is less arched because there is no bow and musicians use their right hand, so fingers slide more easily if strings are aligned.
The other platform outside the display case is home to a collection of cellos and a single viola da gamba with natural gut strings. Although it dates back to the 20th century, it is precious nonetheless because there are not many of them on display in Venice (photo 14). Viole da gamba are chordophone instruments with usually seven (French viol) or six strings (English viol). It developed between the mid and late 15th-century and was mainly used during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Although the name is similar to that of violins, there are many differences separating the viola da gamba from the violin family: the former marks the distances of semitone intervals on the fingerboard through “frets” (animal gut strings positioned transversally). Although “fretted” like a lute, it is not pinched with the hands but played with a bow.
The viola da gamba also designates an instrument family: from the soprano (treble) viol (the smallest), alto viol, tenor and bass viol to the viol double bass (or violone). The most common viola da gamba used for solos is the bass type, which is the one displayed in this Museum.
On another platform we find two finely decorated chitarroni (photo 15). Chitarroni are a 17th-century variety of lute, like theorbos, and therefore known as Roman theorbos, but with an even more extended neck.
It is the largest and deepest sounding instrument in the lute family. It also features bass strings played exclusively using the right hand. It was used mainly to produce basso continuo in music to accompany singers or orchestras.
An exception to the chordophone instruments found in the room yet connected to them is an anonymous celesta dating back to the late 19th-early 20th century (photo 16). This instrument was developed to produce a new different sound to the delicate one produced by harpsichords, whose strings were plucked, and to that produced by fortepianos and pianos.
When it comes to the latter, in fact, the sound is produced by strings but hit by hammers actioned by the keyboard. The celesta is indeed a percussion instrument, though the sound is obtained thanks to metal plates.
In the celesta on display, bells replace the plates. A celesta with bells is better known as Glockenspiel.
Celesta appeared for the first time in the lovely suite of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. A famous piece played with a celesta is the magnificent finale of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 13 “Babi Yar”.
Next to the celesta, there is a 19th-century Venetian fortepiano made in San Lio (photo 17). Originally, the fortepiano was known as a harpsichord with the Piano and the Forte, as it no longer featured a pinched string system like a traditional harpsichord but the sound was created by the percussion of hammers on the strings.
As the hammers were covered in leather, they produced a more gentle and softer sound compared to that of later pianos with hammers covered in felt.
The example displayed in the Museum was in use until recent years by middle-school students and featured an original tin mirror that got broken. Fortepianos were usually used in chamber music, unlike pianos but, just like pianos, the number of strings per key varies between one and three depending on the size of the instruments as well as on other factors.
Fortepianos would lose their identity towards the mid-1800s when a louder sound was needed in public concerts with a larger audience. It has however been re-evaluated in connection with philological interpretations.
On the walls, we find two canvases by Milesi, one dedicated to Barbara Marchisio (photo 18), contralto with a very extensive vocal range. As a sign of gratitude, Rossini dedicated to Barbara and her sister Carlotta the Petite Messe Solennelle with music created specially for their unique voices. They were the interpreters of the first performance on 14th March 1864 at the home of Count Alexis and Countess Louise Pillet-Will, bankers and close friends of Rossini, in the presence of the Paris aristocratic and intellectual elite. Barbara Marchisio also took part in the concert inaugurating the Music High School-Society.
The other canvas by Milesi is dated 1914 and is a portrait of Maestro Bossi (photo 19), composer and organist, among the first to direct the Conservatory (1895-1902). The Maestro deserves to be acknowledged for introducing instrumental music in a period dominated by opera.
After starting off as a genre painter representing the everyday Venetian life of gondoliers, boatmen, traders, etc., Milesi became one of the prominent Venetian portrait painters of the beginning of the 20th century as shown in these paintings. Many musicians, actors and the bourgeoisie of the time often chose him to paint their portraits.
Room of aerophone (wind) instruments
The second room of the Museum is dedicated to wind instruments, i.e. the so-called aerophones.
On the walls, we see some of the Conservatory’s leading figures (photo 20): Fortunato Magi, first Director depicted by an unknown author and Ermanno Wolf Ferrari (photo 21), another director who is also the author of some lovely operas such as “I Quatro Rusteghi”.
There is also a bronze head of Malipiero (photo 22), a director who spent years discovering ancient music also relaunching Vivaldi and who, thanks to his Roman connections, restored the palace partially returning it to its ancient splendour. The restoration reopened the loggias between the two courtyards as well as some windows overlooking them, removed the apartment divisions put up in the 19th century, brought the ancient ceilings back to light and so on.
The selection also includes a copy of the portrait of Benedetto Marcello to whom the Conservatory is dedicated (photo 23).
If we focus our attention on the instruments, curious examples to the non-expert eye include a cimbasso and a 17th -century buccina (photos 24 and 25). The cimbasso, a brass instrument part of the trombone family, is still in use in Verdi orchestras – see the one used in the latest performance of ‘Aida’ at Teatro La Fenice in 2019 (photo 26).
The buccina, one more brass instrument, is a sort of curved trumpet used in Roman times for military purposes. Depending on the sound emitted, it instructed soldiers to get ready to fight or assemble in formation. It is also depicted in a fresco in the Conservatory’s Concert Hall. The shape was simplified in Medieval times and later took on a true musical function thanks also to lighter metal alloys.
Among the wind instruments we also find a bassoon, an instrument with a low register that was improved mainly in the 1800s, when Romanticism imitated the deep colours of nature with sound as well, and a contrabassoon (photo 27). The latter is the largest instrument of the woodwind family and has a very long reed curving around on itself and a low sound, even lower than the bassoon and among the lowest found in an orchestra.
Another display case is entirely given over to piccolos and flutes (photo 28): the piccolo is the smallest version of the transverse flute as can be seen from the photo showing two piccolos and four flutes. An additional display contains the trumpets (photo 29) and even a lovely 20th-century French horn (photo 30). Trumpets are among the oldest instruments in the world – in the Bible, for example, in addition to metal ones, a version made with ram’s horns is also mentioned several times.
There are also oboes – two dating back to the early 1800s (Fornari) and an oboe d’amore – bombards, a racket and a cor anglais (photo 31) with chalumeaux and clarinets in another case (photo 32).
We cannot ignore the fact that, over the past few years, the mezzanine where the Museum is set up has been studied and analysed when it comes to the meaning and symbolism of its decorations, as it was supposed to be a gathering venue for Freemasons, of which the Pisanis were among the main representatives. Therefore the sun, the four elements, the zodiac signs, seasons and at the entrance the compass (photo 33) could be traced back to this organisation.
The same objects can be found several times in other parts of the Palace as well and are always the subject of research.
We are therefore confidently expecting and fervently hoping that our Conservatory of Music will open the Museum on a regular basis so that it can be enjoyed not only by musicians and experts but also by lay and passionate people who, like me, are curious and interested.
Many thanks to the Director of the Conservatory Maestro Marco Nicolè for his availability.