Arts grant organisers always ask writers these questions - they want to know if you know your story's reason for being. Sometimes that's hard to answer. Sometimes, you know in your heart a story is gathering speed, like Frecciabianca, Trenitalia's high-speed 'white arrow'. And soon, your story and its characters will take over your life. So it is with The Four Seasons of Caterina.
My five other w-i-p junior fiction novels now wait their turn, especially one so close to finishing it glares at me every day. Thankfully that novel, Sweet Adversity has the interest of a brilliant publisher who says I must be totally happy with it before submitting again (for the third time). This time differs because she has very generously provided fabulous feedback, and I take notice of her advice.
So why this story? Why now? I love Baroque music, especially that of the Italians. The Baroque, a glorious, brilliant, richest and most diverse era in the 1700-1800s in Europe when the arts and intellect bloomed like never before - music, writing, painting, opera, sculpture, architecture, thought, travel and reasoning. It was the era of Antonio Vivaldi, son of Venice, most brilliant violinist in Europe, and a composer who changed the path of musical history, influencing later composers like Bach, Mozart, Haydn and others.
I wrote a short story about this virtuoso violinist for the 52-week Flash Fiction Challenge I'd set up on Facebook three years ago. That week's word topic was AUTUMN. Of course, only one possibility would pop into the head of a Vivaldi-fanatic at the word autumn.
It was surprisingly easy to write. As if it already inhabited my creating brain. What was unexpected though, was an instant recognition of the unknown girl in the story - one of the young female musicians hidden behind the choir grills, high above in the Church of the Pietà. When I began that short story, I had no idea Caterina waited her turn to shine. And so it has come to pass. Here is that short story. I suggest you play Vivaldi's Gloria as you read it, for extra sensory pleasure.
The Red Priest cradles his violin and closes his eyes. Outwardly, he’s at peace here in the church beside the Ospedale della Pietà, but his senses are alive to every sound and smell. A dove coos in the hidden nest behind a stone archway. Through the open door wafts a Venetian high tide’s briny smell. It’s tinged with nutmeg and clove from the spice ships docked in Canal di San Marco.
Antonio relaxes his shoulders and looks up. There's a hint of movement behind the metal grilles on the balconies above. He hears the hollow thump as a wayward knee connects with a cello and knocks it over. A smothered giggle, an admonishing shush. He nods. His hidden choir and orchestra are ready.
Their music master closes his eyes again.
Travellers from far afield fill the church pews to the back. In the front rows, Venice’s intelligentsia sit in the comfort of velvet-covered chairs. They converse, sotto voce behind their hands and fans.
‘Did you hear Don Antonio Vivaldi’s been promoted to Maestro di Concerti at the Ospedale?’ asks one. ‘Let’s hope this new Gloria lives up to expectation.’
‘He needs it to, does he not?’ Another man sniggers. ‘I’ve heard he’s more popular in Vienna than in Venice nowadays.’
Vivaldi sighs. Che strano. How strange it is – when you shut your eyes others think you cannot hear them.
‘These putte, these females of his choir, they say some of them are ugly with deformities to their limbs,’ the voice continues. ‘How can they sing and play instruments?’
‘Ugly? No, no!’ his companion says. ‘Wait until you hear them. Ugly ducklings don’t exclude grace.’
Antonio sighs. Many of his female musicians started life as unwanted daughters of philandering nobles, misshapen by parental syphilis and God knows what else. But in this home of abandoned children, they’re his students. His figlie di coro and instrumenti, his daughters of the choir and the orchestra.
His choir of angels.
Teaching them has sustained him financially for years; but will it last? Every year the Board of Governors decides his tenure. Last year, the vote was close.
Antonio Vivaldi opens his eyes, lifts his violin and bow. The voices fall away. He begins to play the opening stanza with the orchestra: cellos, violins, flutes and bassoon. Then the voices of his angels pour through the grilles, their pure melody spiralling to the vaulted dome. Sopranos, altos, then contralto and bass.
Gloria, Gloria, in excelsis Deo.
As they sing, Vivaldi’s thoughts roam. Soon he’ll toss another cat amongst the pigeons of Venice’s musical busybodies – his new concertos about the landscape he loves and the ordinary people who live and work upon it. Music to depict a year in the Italian countryside.
What will they make of this extraordinary work’s four parts? He’s already named the concertos even before they're finished. The third violin concerto flowed from his pen as if it had already formed in his mind as he’d wandered through Mantua the year before. His L'Autunno. Autumn ... time of harvest.
Venice’s musical literati will deride this composition. Maybe he will take his Le quattro stagioni to Versailles, to a French king who appreciates lively, exciting music.
Autumn, a time of harvest, but also death.
His chest pain plagues him still. Will he reach the autumn of his life? His winter?
Then from above, the glorious voices fill Antonio’s senses again. He nods his appreciation to the figures behind the metal screens. His girls adore him, even if many outside the Ospedale della Pietà don’t.
People call him il Prete Rosso, the Red Priest because of his hair, not because they see him as a reliable cleric who carries out his duties as diligently as he should. Antonio risks a thought he’d never breathe aloud, for the Vatican’s spies are everywhere.
Music is his life. Not religion. Not accolades from the powerful or the rich.
The Almighty Father understands. Of this, he is sure.
The voices fade in the Gloria’s final notes and Vivaldi waits. Then he smiles as the audience clap wildly and rattle their fans. His music may die with him, but his choir of angels at the Ospedale della Pietà will raise their voices forever.
© Sheryl Gwyther 2013
Until next time, signing off ...