Adriana's father is intent on seeing her married to a wealthy, prominent member of Venice's patrician class-and a handsome, charming suitor, whom she knows she could love, only complicates matters-but Vivaldi is a priest, making their relationship forbidden in the eyes of the Church and of society. They both know their affair will end upon Adriana's marriage, but she cannot anticipate the events that will force Vivaldi to choose between her and his music. The repercussions of his choice-and of Adriana's own choices-will haunt both of their lives in ways they never imagined.
Spanning more than 30 years of Adriana's life, Alyssa Palombo's The Violinist of Venice is a story of passion, music, ambition, and finding the strength to both fall in love and to carry on when it ends.
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The Violinist of Venice
A Story of Vivaldi
By Alyssa Palombo
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Alyssa Palombo
All rights reserved.
The gondola sliced silently through the dark water of the canal. My hired gondolier pressed the craft close against the wall of one of the buildings that lined the waterway, allowing another boat to pass us.
"Ciao, Luca!" he called to the other gondolier, his voice echoing loudly off the stones of the narrow canal, causing me to start.
I drew the hood of my cloak closer about my face, hiding it as we passed the other gondola.
We drew up to a bridge, and I spied a set of stone steps leading up to the street — the street. "Stop," I said, my voice low from within the hood. "Let me out here, per favore."
The gondolier obliged, bringing the boat close to the steps and stopping so that I could gather my skirts and step out, giving me his hand to assist me. I pressed some coins into his palm, and he nodded to me. "Grazie, signorina. Buona notte."
I started down the street, peering at the houses, looking for the one where the man I sought was said to reside. I crossed a bridge over another small canal, the water beneath looking deep enough to swallow both my secrets and me and leave no trace of either.
Just beyond the bridge I found it. I took a deep breath, banishing the last of my nervousness, pushed open the door and, without knocking, boldly stepped inside.
The room I entered was not large, and appeared even smaller by its clutter. Sheets of parchment covered the table a few paces in front of me, some written upon, some blank, and many with bars of music scrawled on them. A harpsichord sat against one wall, scarcely recognizable beneath the papers heaped on it. I counted three instrument cases throughout the room that each looked to be the right size to hold a violin, or perhaps a viola d'amore. A lit lamp sat on the table amongst the papers, and another on the desk against the wall to my right. These, plus the slowly dying fire in the grate to my left, were the only sources of light in the dim room.
At the desk, bent over a piece of parchment, quill in hand, sat a man in worn-looking clerical robes. He looked up, startled, and I was able to get my first good look at him. He had hair as red as the embers in the hearth and wide dark eyes that, when they caught sight of me, narrowed on my face in anger, then bewilderment. From what I had heard, he was only in his early thirties, yet the strain of childhood illness and — or so I guessed — the trials that life had seen fit to deliver him had given him the weary demeanor of a still older man. And yet beneath his somewhat haggard appearance there was a spark of liveliness, of fire, that made him appealing all the same.
"Who are you? What do you want?" he demanded, scowling as he rose from his chair.
I took another step forward into the room, pushing my hood back from my face. "I seek Maestro Antonio Vivaldi," I said. "The man they call il Prete Rosso." The Red Priest.
"Hmph." He snorted derisively. "You have found him, although I do not know that I rightly deserve the title maestro anymore. After all, I have been sacked."
"I know," I said. All of Venice knew that about a year ago, Maestro Vivaldi had been removed, for reasons largely unknown, from his position as violin master and composer at the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà, the foundling home renowned for its superb, solely female orchestra and choir. He had spent the past year since his dismissal traveling throughout Europe — or so the gossip said. Having heard of his return, I took the first opportunity I could to seek him out. "I was thinking that as you are currently out of a job, you might be willing to take on a private student."
His gaze narrowed on me again. "I might be," he said.
Clearly he was expecting me to bargain. The corners of my mouth curled up slightly into a smile as I reached beneath my cloak and extracted a cloth purse that was heavy with coins. I closed the remaining distance between us and handed it to the maestro. His eyes widened as he felt its weight, and grew round with disbelief as he opened it and saw how much gold was within.
"I trust that will be sufficient for my first month of lessons," I said, "as well as your discretion."
He looked back up at me. "Who are you?" he asked again. When I failed to answer immediately, he went on. "If you can afford to pay me so much, then surely you can afford to have some perfumed, mincing fop or other come to you in the comfort of your own palazzo and teach you. Why come here — in the middle of the night, no less — to seek me out?"
"That is quite a lengthy tale, padre," I answered. "Suffice it to say that I have heard that there is no better violinist in all of Venice than yourself, and that is why I have gone to such lengths to find you."
He frowned, not satisfied with so vague an explanation, but he let the matter rest. "You wish to learn the violin, then?" he asked.
I nodded. "I used to play, years ago ..." I shook my head. "It has been a very long time." Five years, to be exact; five years since my mother had died and taken all the music in our house with her.
Vivaldi nodded absently, then turned to remove a violin and bow — which I took to be his own — from a case that sat open on the floor next to the desk. He handed them to me. "Show me what you know," he said.
Oh, it had been so long since I'd held a violin in my hands, had felt the smoothness of the wood beneath my fingers, had smelled the faint, spicy scent of the varnish. I had not practiced before coming to see the maestro, thinking it best not to tempt fate before I could secure his help. I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling of being reunited with an old friend I had believed I might never see again. Then I began.
I started with the simplest scales: C major and A minor. My fingers were stiff and clumsy on the strings, but after playing each scale twice, the old patterns and habits began to return. When I felt more comfortable, I began to play a simple but pretty melody I remembered playing when I was younger. My memory was imperfect; there were several points where I forgot what note came next and simply skipped ahead to the next one that I could recall. It was rather unimpressive, but it was all I could think of to play. When I came to the end, I began again, this time improvising to repair the sections I'd forgotten. So intoxicated was I with simply playing a violin again that I forgot Vivaldi's presence altogether, until he lightly placed a hand on my shoulder to stop me.
"Good," he said, more to himself than to me. "Good; not bad at all. I can tell that you have a natural talent. And you certainly play with passion." He smiled, and the expression transformed his face. "I shall teach you. I assume you have an instrument of your own?"
I nodded, thinking of the untouched violin I had stolen from my brother Claudio's room. It had been given to him as a gift and was of the finest craftsmanship, though he had never played or shown any interest in learning. "Yes, I do," I answered. "Though it will be ... difficult for me to bring it here with me."
The maestro waved this aside. "I have one that you may use. You wish to come here for your lessons, then?"
"Yes," I replied quickly. "Yes, if that suits."
"Very well," he said, his eyes bright with curiosity. "Shall we say two days hence, around midday? If that is agreeable to you?"
I thought for a moment. I could perhaps get away unnoticed for a time then. "Yes, that is agreeable."
"Though I do not suppose you will tell me the reasons behind such need for discretion?" he asked.
I smiled. "As I said, that is quite the long story, padre, and one that would be better saved for another time." Or never.
"I see," he said.
"Two days hence, then," I said, moving toward the door.
"Wait," he said, and I stopped. "May I at least learn your name, signorina?"
I glanced at him over my shoulder. "Adriana," I said. I could not risk him recognizing my surname; so, before he could press me further, I pulled my hood over my face again and stepped outside into the late April rain, leaving him to think what he would.CHAPTER 2
In the two days before I was to return to Maestro Vivaldi's house for my first lesson, I tried to practice as much as I was able, which was unfortunately not a great deal. The morning after my visit to the maestro, I ordered all of the servants to keep away from my rooms and not disturb me, claiming I had a pounding pain in my head and must rest in absolute silence. It was a display worthy of an opera house diva, and I was obeyed, which was all that mattered. When I was certain no one would hear, I took my brother's violin from its hiding place beneath my bed — which I acknowledge as being less than creative — and played all the scales and arpeggios I knew. I forced myself to play them until they were technically smooth and pitch-perfect before allowing myself to move on to the melody I had played for Maestro Vivaldi.
The next day, not being able to use the same excuse, I took every chance I could to barricade myself in my bedchamber and silently practice my fingering, as well as shifting positions. What had taken me years to learn as a child came back to me quickly, as though the knowledge had lain sleeping in my mind, waiting for me to call upon it again.
When the day of my lesson came, I feigned a return of my headache after my maid had dressed me, begging to be left alone again for the afternoon. As soon as she was gone, I slipped on my hooded cloak and a Carnevale half mask of white lace — Easter had long since passed and Carnevale resumed again — and slipped out of my rooms. I carefully locked the door behind me — my heart swelling in my throat at the thought of my father finding out — and trembling with fear, with excitement, made my way down the back staircase and out the rear door into the street that ran behind the palazzo. I saw no one, and I was certain no one saw me.
I was foolhardy, perhaps, but the burning flame that music kindled in me, once lit, could not be ignored, for fear that it would consume me.
I was thankful that I had left myself plenty of time to get to the maestro's house, as I made several wrong turns along the way. To say that Venice was a maze of narrow walkways, streets, bridges, and small waterways running off the Grand Canal was an understatement. I had never been out, unescorted, among the common people, and it took me some time to make my way through the crowds as they pushed and shoved all about me, on their way to the markets at the Rialto, to their employment, to Mass.
I crossed the same bridge I had a few nights ago, and today the water beneath it sparkled a jewel-bright green as the sun shone on it. It was far too early in the year for the heat to bring with it the stink of the canals and all the rubbish they contained, so one could smell only the faintest hint of the sea throughout the city.
Once I arrived, I knocked twice before letting myself in, knowing that he would be expecting me. As I removed my mask, he came down the staircase at the rear of the room, dressed this time in a less worn-looking priest's cassock. His unruly red hair was neatly combed and had been tied back with a piece of black cord. "Signorina Adriana," he greeted me, smiling. "I have been looking forward to beginning your musical instruction today."
Apparently the maestro was much more personable when one did not unexpectedly burst in upon him late at night, I thought wryly. "I thank you for such kind words, maestro," I said. "I, too, have been looking forward to this day."
"How long before you must depart?" he asked, somewhat awkwardly.
"I must be back within two hours, no later," I answered.
"Very good," he said. "Let us begin, then, so that we may make the most of our time."
He produced the spare violin which he had promised for my use — not so fine as the one I had stolen from my brother, yet it was clear that this one had been played a bit more — and placed it in my hands. He began by asking me to play as many scales as I knew, and I obliged, pleased that even in the course of my limited practicing I had been able to recall most of them. After the scales, we moved on to arpeggios, and I was able to play them nearly perfectly, but for a few notes that went slightly sharp.
"Do not hold the bow so tightly," he admonished, stopping me in the middle of one arpeggio. He placed his fingers on top of mine and gently loosened their grip. He gave me a crooked sort of smile. "It is not going anywhere, you know."
I nodded and relaxed my fingers, knowing there was no way that I could explain to the maestro that, for me, each moment with the violin was a stolen one.
He stepped back and motioned for me to play the arpeggio over again. This time, the bow slid much more smoothly over the strings, and the sound that resulted was much brighter and more vibrant, and the pitch did not falter. I smiled to let him know I heard the difference.
Once we finished with the arpeggios, he asked me to return to the song I had played for him two evenings ago. "I would like to hear you play that again, if you will, signorina," he said. "As much of it as you can remember."
I obeyed, placing the bow on the strings and beginning the song. I closed my eyes briefly as I felt the music begin to fill the air around me, falling with feather-light touches onto my skin.
Not halfway into the song, he stopped me, again placing a gentle hand on my shoulder to get my attention. When I opened my eyes, he was standing quite near me. "Straighten your wrist," he said. He reached out and let his fingers encircle the slender bones of my left wrist, pressing lightly on the back of my hand, which had bent at an angle. "This must be perfectly straight in order to properly support the instrument, and make the fingering easier."
This time, the simple touch of his hand on my wrist caused a heated flush to spread from my cheeks down to my chest. My embarrassment as I realized this no doubt only caused the color that had risen in my skin to deepen.
Dio mio, I snapped at myself, he is a priest. Get hold of yourself, Adriana.
"Do you realize," he was saying, even as I struggled to compose myself, "that when you were playing the scales or the arpeggios, your wrist was perfectly straight and your posture correct? Yet the moment you began to play this song, your posture changed."
"Ah," I responded. "I had not realized, no."
He smiled and stepped back. "I thought not. Otherwise you would not be doing it, no? But I think when you are playing something more ... formal and structured, shall we say, like a scale, you hold yourself more rigidly, more controlled. Then, when you begin to play a melody, you seek to play the music itself, and not just the notes. You try to get at the emotion of the piece, at what it is saying, and in so doing allow your technique to fall away."
I bit my lip, chagrined by my lapse, but also feeling rather exposed and defenseless. How had he managed to deduce all of that from just a few measures of a melody? "My apologies. I must try to correct that in the future."
"No, no," the maestro hurriedly contradicted. "You misunderstand me. In a violin player, in a true musician, that is exactly what one wants. I can teach you to have the most superb, flawless technique imaginable, yet the emotion I cannot teach. If you cannot reach the emotion of the music on your own, then there is nothing I can do. It is this that separates the true musicians, the true artists, from the mere ... instrumentalists." As he spoke, his pale skin became slightly flushed, and it was clear to which category Vivaldi himself belonged.
I heard the words tumbling from my mouth before I could stop them. "Would you play something for me?" His lips parted slightly in surprise as he silently regarded me.
I found myself stammering, "It is just, as I told you, everyone says that you are the finest violinist in Venice, yet I have never heard you play, and I ..." I trailed off, unable to tell him what I really wanted to say: I want to hear for myself if you are all that they say you are, if you are really that skilled, that brilliant. I want to know if we are both speaking the same language, for I think we are.
The surprise vanished from his face, and with a quick nod he crossed the room and removed his violin from its case on his desk. He set the instrument into position, lifted his bow, and began to play.
Oh, the music that came pouring from the Red Priest's violin. Though he was the only one playing, the music seemed to swell and build and fill the entire room, until it sounded as though it must be coming from a full orchestra, instead of just one man. The piece he played was both rapid and lively, yet there was a passionate, desperate edge to it. And for all the music's strident sort of quickness, he played it smoothly, so that the sound was rich and full.
And what a sound it was. It did not seem possible that an ordinary violin, played by a seemingly ordinary man, was capable of singing with such beauty. And I thought that if one could somehow hear pure gold, this was exactly what it would sound like.
Excerpted from The Violinist of Venice by Alyssa Palombo. Copyright © 2015 Alyssa Palombo. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Movement One. Il Prete Rosso,
Chapter 1. The Maestro,
Chapter 2. Allegro,
Chapter 3. Appassionata,
Chapter 4. The Cross I Bear,
Chapter 5. Spellbound,
Chapter 6. Modulation,
Chapter 7. Deceptive Cadence,
Chapter 8. Improvisation,
Chapter 9. Dissonance,
Movement Two. The Point of No Return,
Chapter 10. Without Fear,
Chapter 11. End of the Dream,
Chapter 12. Mea Culpa,
Chapter 13. Adagio,
Chapter 14. What Have You Done,
Chapter 15. Largo,
Chapter 16. L'Estro Armonica,
Chapter 17. Partita,
Chapter 18. Se Tu M'ami,
Chapter 19. Opera and Concerto,
Chapter 20. Scarlet,
Chapter 21. Curtain,
Chapter 22. Serenade,
Chapter 23. Crossing the River Styx,
Movement Three. Orfeo e Euridice,
Chapter 24. Secrets,
Chapter 25. Masquerade,
Chapter 26. Rest,
Chapter 27. Shadows,
Chapter 28. Dying in Your Arms,
Chapter 29. Counterpoint,
Chapter 30. Composition,
Chapter 31. The Siren,
Chapter 32. Wild Rose,
Movement Four. The End of Time,
Chapter 33. The Child,
Chapter 34. Orchestration,
Chapter 35. Going Under,
Chapter 36. Molto Agitato,
Chapter 37. Stand My Ground,
Chapter 38. Lost,
Chapter 39. Nothing Left,
Chapter 40. Good-bye,
Movement Five. Without You,
Chapter 41. My Heart Is Broken,
Chapter 42. Sins,
Chapter 43. Chains,
Chapter 44. The Greatest Pain,
Chapter 45. Darkness Before the Dawn,
Chapter 46. Recapitulation,
Chapter 47. B Minor,
Chapter 48. Intermezzo,
Chapter 49. Performance,
Chapter 50. Long-Lost Love,
Chapter 51. For You,
Chapter 52. Consonance,
Chapter 53. Stabat Mater Dolorosa,
Chapter 54. Lullaby,
Movement Six. Key Change,
Chapter 55. Impromptu,
Chapter 56. Sol da Te, Mio Dolce Amore,
Chapter 57. Duet,
Chapter 58. Harmonies,
Chapter 59. Resonance,
Chapter 60. The Dance,
Chapter 61. Ave Maria, Gratia Plena,
Chapter 62. Ensemble,
Chapter 63. The Four Seasons,
Chapter 64. Widow's Weeds,
Chapter 65. Ways to Sing of Love,
Movement Seven. The Red Priest's Annina,
Chapter 66. Orlando Furioso,
Chapter 67. Così Potessi Anch'io,
Chapter 68. Forgiven,
Chapter 69. Ritornello,
Chapter 70. My Confession,
Chapter 71. Da Capo,
Coda. On the Other Side,
Reading Group Guide,
About the Author,