VIVALDI’S WOMEN is an all-female ensemble, based in Oxford and London, UK. It aims to recreate the sound of the original Figlie di Coro, the women musicians at the Ospedale della Pietà who performed at Mass and Vespers from behind grilles in the high choir galleries. The group was formed in 2005 by musical director and musicologist Richard Vendome to make the prize-winning documentary "Vivaldi's Women" and other programmes for the BBC, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Jerwood Project. It has also made programmes for SKY Arts. As was the practice at the 18th century Pietà, Vivaldi's Women are aged 11 to 70, some singing tenor or bass at actual pitch. The detective work of Vivaldi scholar Micky White gives us a comprehensive picture of the daily life of this remarkable institution during the 18th century, the heyday of its musical tradition.
The Pietà was one of four Venetian ospedali, each with a different function: the Mendicanti housed the poor and homeless; the Ospedaletto (or Derelitti) was a home for orphans; the Incurabili housed those with incurable diseases; the Pietà was a home for abandoned and unwanted babies - not, as some think, a convent or a school for girls. Boys learned a trade such as stone cutting, weaving or shoe making, and left equipped with a skill at the age of 16. Girls had three options: to marry, to become nuns, or to stay there for the rest of their lives.
There were two groups: the Figlie di Comun (non-musicians) did the sewing, embroidery, silk and cotton weaving, took care of various tasks in the institution and sold some of the work they produced; the Figlie di Coro were the élite of the Pietà, numbering about sixty in Vivaldi's day, enjoying separate rooms and a privileged diet. The senior musicians were given the title Maestra di Coro, and the head of the household was the Priora. The skills of the coro attracted listeners from across Europe and a visit to the Pietà became a feature of the Grand Tour; Sunday Vespers was the main attraction of the week at the Pietà, lasting for well over two hours.
Vivaldi's job was to direct and compose music for girls who showed musical promise, about one in ten, to sing and play instruments during services and music events at the Pietà. He started his career there as Maestro di Violin in September 1703, aged 25, six months after he was ordained priest. In 1714 he was invited to succeed Francesco Gasparini as Maestro di Coro, but refused the post; a short time later, however, he was appointed to the specially created office of Maestro dei Concerti. It was during this early period he wrote his first sacred works, including the well-known Gloria. Although he was away from Venice pursuing his other musical interests from time to time, Vivaldi's association with this noble institution lasted throughout his working life. The psalm "In exitu Israel" is one of several pieces he wrote for the Pietà in 1739, two years before his death.