Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice

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9780763639174: Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice

While studying under Vivaldi, three girls in a Venice orphanage forge their own notions of love in a sensuous, engrossing novel told in three narrative voices.

It is a longing and search for love that motivates three girls living in the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage renowned for its extraordinary musical program. But for Rosalba, Anetta, and Luisa, the love they seek is not where they expect to find it. Set in the early 1700s in the heart of Venice, this remarkable novel deftly weaves the history of Antonio Vivaldi’s early musical career into the lives of three young women who excel in voice and instrument. Under the composer’s tutelage and care, the orphans find expression, sustenance, and passion. But can the sheltered life of the orphanage prepare them for the unthinkable dangers outside its walls?

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About the Author:

Pat Lowery Collins is the author of many acclaimed novels and picture books. She was inspired to write HIDDEN VOICES when she learned that Antonio Vivaldi wrote countless concertos to showcase the talents of orphan girls — and snare husbands for a lucky few. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Anetta

You can find him by following the leaping shadows along the walls of the school corridor, for Father Vivaldi often paces there and waves his arms about. This time he's so intent on whatever he hears in his head, he doesn't notice us dancing around him or running right past. Luisa Benedetto plays tag, reaching up and tugging his sleeve, yet he flicks away her hand as if it's a pesty little bird and doesn't even look down. Almost fourteen, she is small for her age and sometimes seems younger. But her voice is as large as a room and so sweet that I carry the tones that she makes in my mind so I'll hear them when I'm feeling sad. My own voice is pleasant enough. Somewhat, they say, like my face, which is almost the very same shade as my very pale hair. When I've looked in a glass, which we're not encouraged to do, I could see there was no counterpoint between the two to make me seem pretty and overshadow the marks of the pox.

Father tells me it would be wise to spend more of my time on the viola d'amore than on my singing, that I have an ear and a touch for the instrument. I would like to explain how I have a heart for it as well. But perhaps he's already aware of this in the same way that I am aware when he loses himself to the music he's making while walking the halls.

"Ouch!" says Maria.

The distracted man has given her a good swat in the face with one of his flapping hands.

"Scusi, my dear," he says, snapping back to the life all around him. He rubs the slight red mark on her cheek while she looks up, her dark eyes hurt but resigned. We're becoming used to these antics again. He studies his watch. "Surely it isn't so late. Almost the middle of day."

"It's a half hour past violin ensemble for the beginners," I tell him. "Maestra dei Cori has sent me to say they've been waiting long enough."

Father has been a maestro here, except during the few years just past, for most of the life I remember. But I don't really feel completely at ease with this priest since his unexplained recent return. Perhaps I should not have used Maestra's own words.

Often called the Red Priest because of his startling red hair, Father shakes the cap of it in dismay. Not at me, I'm relieved to find, for he seems to look into himself as he spits out a litany of complaints. From what I can gather, his great efforts to arrive before first bell seem to be complicated by the fact that the apartment of his parents, where he and his many brothers and an unmarried sister or two still live, is always in a state of upheaval.

"How do I do it? How do I lose track of time in this way? It cannot be so many hours since dawn and my father's rap on my door. Today Guido went off with my only clean shirt, and I had to search for a worn one of Tomaso's. I came as fast as I could, can you believe it, still carrying the notes that I heard in my dream. Where does the day go?"

He is not really asking me anything. But if he were, I would tell him the way he goes out of himself when the music takes hold. Afterward, he must know it, just as I do after living inside a concerto for hours on end.

"It is your fault, you know," he says, taking small steps in a hurry to keep up with me. My feet are much longer than his but have finally ceased growing, I'm happy to say. At fifteen, I am well rounded and tall. But my body seems awkward beside his slight frame.

"It's the new concerto for your performance on Sunday. I have some ideas for the harmonies right near the end of the second movement."

He has discovered the dissonant places that troubled me. I should have known that he would. If he did but look at me at this moment, he'd see the pleasure in my eyes, for even as I hesitated to mention it, I was certain he'd find the problem.

I step more quickly, and he increases the length of his strides.

"Why are you running?" he asks at last, almost breathless. "I cannot keep up."

I had forgotten about the asthma, how it can suddenly visit him. They say that is why he can never perform an entire mass, and why Father Luigi was engaged to do it instead. In fact, though our teacher does indeed wear the skirts of his calling, he does nothing more priestly than hear an occasional confession. Myself, I think his dereliction of sacred duty is really because he cannot focus on anything but the music for long. Quite understandable, it seems to me, for it is rumored that he promised the Board of Governors two masses and vesper settings annually, plus two motets a month and as many concertos as he can devise to display the talents of those girls deemed most eligible. It is also rumored that his music is making something of a stir in Venice and even beyond, and that he will continue to perform sporadic concerts with his father at the Teatro San Angelo. If the tales I've heard of his more ambitious designs are true, it is hard to think they can be launched from this ospedale for orphaned girls.

I try to slow down so he can catch up. It seems my eagerness to share my own news has quickened my step again.

"I am the one to check the scarfetta in the church for the babies today," I say at last. Usually the students, the figli di commun who study no instrument, do it. But every so often, because Signora Mandano knows how I love it, I get a turn. I sometimes wait and wait in vain for the wheel to move. It is set on its side like a flat disk that can twirl from the street and deliver an infant into the nook of the chapel, leaving the one who brought the baby completely unseen.

"A child, even swaddled, could die unobserved in such a cold place," I tell him.

"Ah, yes," he says absently. It's clear the infants are of no special interest to him until they can lift a violin or sit at the cello.

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