Musical Cities: Venice

18 January 2024

La Serenissima, The Floating City, Queen of the Adriatic – Venice attracts many thousands of visitors each year to its historic churches, elegant bridges, and winding canals, but it also has a rich classical music history.

During the 16th century, long before Italy even existed as a unified country, Venice was one of the most prosperous cities in Europe . The city developed its own tradition of church music, became a major centre for early music printing and was home to the famous St Mark’s Basilica. Andrea and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli were among the city’s most successful composers at this time, known for their double and triple choirs, and popularising the use of early brass instruments such as sackbuts and cornetts.

Later in the Baroque period Venice became home to the world’s first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, which opened to paying guests in 1637. Venice was a major centre for early opera in Europe and by the 1700s had seven full-time opera houses for a city of some 160,000 inhabitants. Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) was performed during the 1643 Venice Carnival and his operatic successes in Venice led to the opening of similar theatres elsewhere throughout Italy. Another successful opera composer of this period was the Venice-born Antonio Vivaldi, although today he is best-known for his chamber music compositions.

La Fenice is the best-known opera house in Venice and is the site of many significant opera world premieres since it opened in 1792. These include operas by some of Italy’s greatest bel canto composers, including Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, but perhaps most importantly Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas Ernani, Attila, RigolettoLa traviata and Simon Boccanegra all had their first performances at the theatre. Unfortunately, the opera house caught fire in 1996 (as it had done in 1774 and 1836), and it had to be rebuilt and re-opened in 2004, hence its name La Fenice (The Phoenix) due to its ability to keep rising from the ashes.

Richard Wagner was a frequent visitor to Venice. It was there where he finished composing the second act of his opera Tristan and Isolde (1859) and the final act of Parsifal (1882). Venice was also Wagner’s place of death: he died from a heart attack on the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi palazzo on the city’s Grand Canal on 13 February 1883. His body was taken away by a funerary gondola procession – Wagner’s Hungarian father-in-law Franz Liszt was so moved by this sight and later composed the piano piece La lugubre gondola (The Black Gondola) in his honour.

Another key composer to spend time in Venice was Benjamin Britten, who first visited in 1949, and again in 1954 for the premiere of his new opera at La Fenice, The Turn of the Screw. Britten fell in love with the city, and at the end of his life composed his last opera, Death in Venice (1973), after the novella by Thomas Mann. Set on the Venice Lido, it tells the intriguing story of an ageing writer’s fascination with the search for perfection and the meaning of beauty during a cholera epidemic.

To experience some of Venice’s magic a little closer to home, don’t miss Welsh National Opera’s brand-new production of Death in Venice, opening in Cardiff on 7 March 2024 before touring to Llandudno, Southampton, Oxford, Bristol and Birmingham until 11 May 2024.