It was Nan McElroy's blog Living Venice that reminded me that this weekend was the Feast of the Ascension, celebrated in quite a particular way by Venetians.
The "Festa della Sensa," as Venetians call it, has been celebrated for nearly a millennium. Probably the best read you can find about it is in Ed Muir's Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice, but - as a quick intro - I can tell you that every year on the traditional Catholic feast day celebrating Christ's Ascension into Heaven after his Crucifixion, the city would take to its boats and row out to the end of the Lido barrier island, right in front of the Benedictine church and monastery of San Nicolò (as you can see in the image by eighteenth-century Venetian painter Gabriele Bella).
There, the Doge (the ceremonial head of the government) would drop a ring into the water, precisely where the Venetian lagoon met the Adriatic Sea, saying "We wed thee, O sea, as a sign of our true and perpetual dominion." (What can I say? Venetians were legendary for being more pragmatic than romantic!)
Today, a similar ceremony occurs, with the mayor standing in for the doge. But what really got me today was getting to wander around the old monastery complex of San Nicolò and the concert of seventeenth-century music which concluded the day's festivities.
Firstly, a couple of iPhone pics of San Nicolò... While most of the complex that one sees today (at left) is later than the sixteenth century, I have a soft spot in my heart for any and all remnants of the early Middle Ages. Sure enough, there is preserved a section of Romanesque-Byzantine mosaic pavement and some columns from the ruins of the nave of the older church, about a thousand years old! Even better is an easy-to-overlook tiny fragment of relief of an eagle, probably meant to be a symbol of the Saint John who is believed to have written one of the Gospels.
But the evening's concert held in the church was the best part of the day! Firstly, as is the case with so many cultural events here sponsored by groups like Musica Venezia, it was FREE! (Particularly amazing when you consider that you'd be hard pressed to find anything of the like stateside at nearly any price!)
Secondly, the musicians (from the group VeniDilecteMi) were fantastic (6 male & female vocalists, 2 violinists, a viola, 1 lutist, and an organist), and performed music composed more or less at the same time as the present church of San Nicolò was itself was built, that is, during the 1600s.
As you can see, it was the perfect setting for these beautiful sounds, many of which had been taken directly from seventeenth-century music books and had never been performed in recent times!* (BTW, while the church is about 400 years old, the crucifix you see in the photo at left dates back about SIX HUNDRED YEARS, to the fifteenth century!)
Most of the works performed were very short, just a few minutes long, and written by minor, lesser-known composers of the time. But still Venice was a major cultural center of Europe, and was absolutely saturated with wonderful music by composers of all levels!
Here, for posterity's sake, is the great program they performed (with the pieces that really struck me in bold):
- G.B. Bassani, Suonata IX (1683)
- A. Balbi, "Laudabo nomen Dei" (1606)
- A. Grandi, "Vocem Iucunditatis" (1637)
- A. Grandi, "Quasi Cedrus" (1630)
- A. Balbi, "Exsurgat Deus" (1606)
- J.H. Kapsberger, "Toccata III" (1604)
- F. Lucio, "Jubilate Deo" (1649)
- A. Grandi, "In dedicatione templi" (1618)
- A. Gabrieli, "Ego rogabo" (1576)
- A. Grandi, "Bone Jesu Verbum Patris" (1621)
- B. Marini, "Zarabanda III" (1655)
- A. Grandi, "Benedictus Dominus" (1610)
- J.H. Kapsberger, "Preludio in sol" (1640)
- A. Grandi, "Deus canticum novum" (1628)
- B. Marini, "Sinfonia IV tuono" (1655)
- A. Grandi, "Anima mea liquidfacta est" (1630)
- F. Cavalli, "Canzona a 3" (1656)
- C. Monteverdi, "O Jesu vita mia" (1603)
- G.B. Bassani, "Suonata VI (1683)
- A. Grandi, "Memoriam fecit" (1621)
- A. Grandi, "Ave maris stella" (1637)
- C. Monteverdi, "Cantate Domino" (1620)
As the program today said in his biography, "Claudio Monteverdi is one of the absolute musical geniuses of all time." Turns out that this is no understatement. After listening to several perfectly nice pieces by the minor composers of the era, I was utterly blown away by Monteverdi's "O Jesu vita mea"! There was simply no comparison between the unabashed virtuosity of his piece and the others. In fact, one of the earlier works had been called "Anima mea liquefacta est," which means "My soul is liquefied," and that was exactly how Monteverdi's composition - consummately performed in a lovely church constructed at just about the same time as his writing - made me feel! (Have I mentioned lately that God, I love this city?!)
*BTW, anyone interested in recuperating and performing this ancient music can find the musical notation for these pieces and others like them here!