Donald Freed
International Playwright
and Master Teacher

Anna of the Violin

A PLAY IN 2 ACTS
by Susana Montal

 

ACT I

 

SCENE I

 

 

(In the darkness we hear a girl humming (ANNA’S THEME)… the lights illuminate a scrim behind which an older lady is seen, a cane at her side.  A beautiful filigreed grille is also dimly visible, with a swath of gauze swept across it.  This grille doubles as the performance balcony of the Pieta, as well as the Parlatorio area of the Pieta.  A small but ornate desk is seen: a young poet is sitting, writing furiously; his special light catches the movement of the plume of his pen. He looks up from his labours as, exquisitely, pianissimo, a single violin can be heard playing a beautifully poignant melody of Vivaldi’s, as the voice of an old woman says three words only, with radiance and conviction…)

OLD WOMAN

 It is enough…

POET

(Stage dark except for the Poet at his desk.  He lights another candle.) 

Tuesday, September 14th, the year of our Lord 1720.   I write to you in the early hours of the morning, your Reverence, to thank you again for appointing me to be your correspondent in Venice, and I assure you that no one could fulfill these duties with as much honour, consideration, and attention to your Highness’s interests – this informs my every communication.  Indeed, Sire, I hope that you have the possibility to visit la Serenissima, although of course in disguise, so that you would be able to enjoy what Venice has to offer without discovery.  Until then, I will be your eyes and ears, to whatever possibilities the City offers to your interests.

Now, on to my dispatches:  indeed, in Venice, the population rich and poor, spends almost the entire year in brilliant celebrations. Carnaval and countless, splendid musical entertainments and great spectacles, on land and at sea! And I have entry to the most important Embassies here, for all the courts of Europe keep a diplomatic contingent here.

From this day forward I will keep you informed of the most important financial, political and cultural events.  I have found the most natural way to ensure that I shall become privy to
the secrets of Venice and her safest investment and trade routes, to advise you of which appear promising, as well as the most recent foreign intrigue in this, the center of the world.  How shall I do this?  I have already begun, with great success, your Highness.  I have already gained entry, without any suspicion, by using the arts of music and poetry as my calling cards.  And I find I am welcome everywhere in this guise, and enter conversations that I could never be included in, should I appear
to be here in anything other than an artist’s role.

Today I begin my first dispatch with a remarkable phenomenon that I hope will be of interest to you for maintaining the high musical standards of our own court.  The musical performances here are  indeed worthy of the attention that Europe lavishes on them.  But, interestingly, the most extraordinary concerts I have found at the Ospedales themselves, the Foundlings Home and other Hospitals in Venice.  There are four, and they are all in competition with each other.  I only wish that you could hear these musicians yourself, Sire.  I have made arrangements to speak with the composer of these extraordinary works, and to purchase these compositions for your illustrious court, to be put to the skill of your most excellent court musicians soon. 

Allow me to share with you news from the Venetian Gazette, that you do not think it is only I who experience these marvels.

 ‘The girls of the Ospedale sang the pastorals like angels, the voices echoed so well around the crèche that listeners felt they were in Bethlehem…or heaven itself!’ 

I assure you that beyond even the musical perfection and virtuosity of the young women who play, that there is nothing so delightful to see a young girl, in a white dress, pomengranate blossoms at her ear, conducting the orchestra and beating the time with all the grace and precision imaginable.  Who is the best singer or violinist – that is a subject for spirited and heated discussion, and – one must be careful – each performer has her own partisans, who will attack should anyone dare to compare one with another… however, let me tell you of one of the most extraordinary that I have found at the Pieta…

 

(Transformation of the silhouette begins – the shape of a vibrant young girl,  Anna of the Violin, breaks free of the silhouette of the old woman and enters from behind the scrim onto of the stage as the lights slowly begin to dim.

 

A light comes up downstage, a lustrous violin becomes visible, lying on a dark bench. Anna walks with great energy to this violin, as if it holds the secret of life itself.and kneels at the side of the chair where the violin is resting… She picks it up with reverence – it is something magical, sacred.)

 

(the music of the adagio of Vivaldi plays throughout.)

POET

Do you remember…

ANNA

Yes. (deep in thought, a long pause before continuing.)  I remember… the first time I heard the  violins.  (She caresses the curved side of the instrument, then looks up at the poet, as if in a dream.) I was 7 then, you know, too young to be in the figlie di coro – but the priora had been watching me – as I would tap out rhythms of a hymn we had sung, or as I was folding the linen, singing a patch of melody that had wafted up from the gondolas that evening from the lagoon below us.

(She continues to speak to the Poet, as well as the audience.)

And then, that season.  The damp from the lagoon brought a touch of fever to many of the girls in the Pieta.  (She pauses.)  But not me.  The Virgin had protected me from this illness. We had not enough girls for everything that needed to be done in the ospedale, from candle-making to embroidery to baking.  And that was why, (her excitement growing) one evening, after we had observed compline, and the rest of the girls were saying their last prayers before going to bed, the priora came rushing into our bedroom, where so many of us lay ill, and pulled me up from my knees.   While the other girls stared in astonishment, she laced up my bodice, tied my headdress on, tucked my feet into slippers.  Then she took me by the hand, whispering “shush!” and rushed me to the door and flung it open.  We ran down a labyrinth to the balcony from where the girls gave their orchestra concerts to the audience waiting below.  And there…so much light, it blinded me!  But the priora pushed me halfway across the stage, and sat me down roughly at the harpsichord.  Then I rubbed my eyes, still sleepy, and saw that it was Maddalena who was seated  next to me at the keyboard.  The light from hundreds of candles burning above me dazzled me,
all around me!  But then, as my eyes adjusted to my new surroundings, I could see from our balcony to down below us, where many people were assembled, looking up at us, quite silent with anticipation.  I could hear the rustle of the most richly coloured gowns, and see the jewels sparkling, catching and casting lights from the chandeliers that winked through the filigree of the grille separating us. 

Maddalena shook me out out my stupor, and whispered: “you must turn the page, exactly this way, when I nod my head like… this.  Yes?”  “Yes!”  And she nodded and I turned it exactly, exactly when and how she wanted it, a few bars just before the page needed to be turned.  Then, Maddalena began the continuo, her fingers striking the keys, making that brilliant sound that somehow contained a note as well as the sound I made when my fingers strike the table.  I watched, breathless, as the girls took the violins off their laps and placed them under their chins, laying the horsehair of the bow across their violins.  Yet not making a sound, utterly still.  Then, they began to play – bows fluttering like angels wings all around me as they touched the strings - the gates of heaven opened wide and pulled me into a world I had never dreamed of, never hoped for, the sounds surrounded me, and moved through me.  I was in the center of a miraculous vibration that ran and danced through me, wine poured into water, into my blood. Then, a single violin came forth, a sunbeam cutting through the atmosphere of sound. And as I heard this melody being played, everything else dropped away but the music.

I no longer needed to dream of my mother’s face, to wonder about her, where she was, how alone I felt …  No, in that same moment I vowed to myself that if God had allowed this music to exist, then everything else of the world I could accept and bear.

In that sacred, magical moment, I gave my soul with unbearable joy to the violin.  And then I turned the page …

(A long pause as Anna stares off into the distance, remembering.)

 

(The poet watches her with great attention, muses, and picks up his plume
to continue writing.  As Anna gazes back into her past, the poet quietly rises, bows and tiptoes out.  And then still in her fugue, Anna begins to hum as the lights go down.)