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Venice-born Scarpa’s Stabat Mater won the 2009 Strega Prize, Italian equivalent of the Booker Prize. Judging by one Italian online forum, it has the capacity sharply to divide opinion, some detractors clearly finding it difficult to cope with a 162-page monologue, as Cecilia (a teenage pupil at the legendary Ospedale della Pietà in Venice) recounts the personal awakening that follows Vivaldi’s arrival as music teacher at the all-female convent/ orphanage/music school.

The point of course is that Cecilia (a highly talented violinist) is not entirely happy with life at the Ospedale. To set up the impact Vivaldi is to make on her, Scarpa – in rhapsodic, poetic prose – devotes well over half the novel’s span to Cecilia’s despair at her treatment by some of the convent’s nuns, her sense of rootlessness given the lack of access to information about her past, and the indignity engendered by the anonymity imposed on the institution’s young musicians as they are day-by-day forced to play behind a grille in the Ospedale chapel. Not to mention their doubly lowly status as orphans and females. What’s more, Vivaldi’s predecessor Don Giulio is a boring old stick.

The coming of the Red Priest transforms the musical experience of the Ospedale’s young performers (he even wants the cellists to play with the instrument between their knees) and in the case of the brilliant but bashful Cecilia (presumably very loosely modelled on the real-life Anna Maria dal Violin) he transforms a whole outlook on life. The denouement is so short and sharp that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you.

Scarpa, who was actually born in the Ospedale building, knowingly takes liberties with the chronology of various featured Vivaldi works, but his chief virtue lies in not allowing his long-term enthusiasm for the composer’s music to spill over into sentimentality and twee- ness. It’s a gritty and at times brutally graphic account. We learn nothing new about Vivaldi, but as an attempt to bring a famous period in musical history realistically rather than romantically to life, the short span of Stabat Mater is well worth exploring.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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