What is HIP?
No, we’re not referring to Tower of Power’s 1973 funk hit of that name, but instead to “historically informed performance”, a concept that has been prevalent in classical and early music for, more or less, the last half century. The idea is to get as close to a historic composer’s intention as possible, not only by using period instruments and performance techniques, but also by researching the conditions under which the music would originally have been performed.
HIP plays a big part in Early Music Vancouver’s upcoming Festive Cantatas concert, which focuses on Antonio Vivaldi’s music as it would have been heard during the Venetian composer-priest’s lifetime: performed by an all-female cast of singers and musicians from the Ospedale della Pietà convent, where he was violinmaster. Whether audience members want to carry the HIP concept into their own “performances” is another matter, as violinist and Festive Cantatas music director Monica Huggett explains, on the line from Portland, Oregon.
In Vivaldi’s time, “wealthy young men from northern Europe, the aristocrats and upper-class men, would do the grand tour, and they would go to Venice,” she notes. “And one gathers that they would be very decadent, that Venice was a very decadent place. So they would have been whoring around like mad, but then they would go to sort of repent their sins, and they would go to a concert at Ospedale and hear these young women sing. They were always saying that it sounded like angels singing—but then they’d also have awful, lascivious fantasies about these women who they couldn’t see, because they were behind a screen.”
Is Huggett suggesting that in order to enjoy a historically informed concert on Saturday, we might need to have a wild Friday night?
“If you want to have a really authentic experience,” she says, with a wicked cackle.
Ironically, given her earthy sense of humour, the 64-year-old musician says that if she had been alive during Vivaldi’s time, she would most likely have taken holy orders.
“There’s a handful of women who were successful as musicians within the context of the courts, like Barbara Strozzi and the Frenchwoman, who Louis XIV loved a lot, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre,” she points out. “But there’s very, very few women who were successful in music until a little bit later. By the time of Handel you had the female divas, but women as instrumentalists, it’s very rare. So this has opened my eyes to the fact that if I’d been born in the late 17th century, I probably would have chosen to go into a convent, because that was the only way that a) you could get an education, and b) you could be a musician. And the fact is that women were very active in the convents, performing and composing, and if you were a creative woman, that’s what you did. ’Cause you didn’t want to end up being married and having tons of children, you went into a convent, and they probably had a very rich musical life within the confines of the convent.”
Little is known about Vivaldi’s personal life as one of a handful of men within the confines of the Ospedale della Pietà; apparently the priest lived with one of his favourite female singers, but always protested that the relationship was chaste. (“Although with what’s going on now, I have no idea,” Huggett comments.) We can deduce from his scores, however, that he was never short of capable interpreters.
“They didn’t just accept any girls at the Pietà; to get in, you had to be gifted at music,” Huggett says. “I mean, when you think of Johann Sebastian Bach with the boys at Leipzig, he was constantly going on about how they weren’t good enough, and he was constantly going on about how the musicians of the town weren’t good enough. He was a cranky old fellow, Johann Sebastian.…But it seems like Vivaldi had a much happier relationship with the girls at the Pietà.”
That shows in the music that Huggett and her all-female cast will perform this weekend. “He had to churn out a lot of music, and sometimes you do get the feeling that he was churning it out,” she says. “But then certain pieces, and the Magnificat and the Gloria are among them, are masterworks.”
Early Music Vancouver presents Festive Cantatas at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (December 23).