Natasha: The challenge for me while writing ‘The Song of Hartgrove Hall’ was depicting music as a non-musician – I had to read everything and anything I could. I wanted readers to be able to imagine Fox’s music. Alyssa, you on the other hand are a renaissance woman – a musician and a writer. Was that a help or a hindrance while writing about music? Oh yes, and what instrument do you play?
Alyssa: As a musician I related to Fox intensely, so I would certainly say you succeeded! It was definitely a help – I didn’t have to research terminology or music theory, but even more than that I know what it feels like to connect deeply with a piece of music that you are practicing or performing, and I know what it feels like to be in a music lesson with a teacher who just says “Do it again” until you get it right, and I drew on that so much while writing this novel. I didn’t know very much about Venice or Vivaldi when I first started writing this – I researched as I went – but I do know music, so that was my initial way in to these characters and their story. Adriana’s love of music and her feelings about it ended up being the most autobiographical aspect of the novel and of her character. I don’t write music myself, though, so to write those parts of the novel I thought a lot about my own experiences with the creative process and how that might translate to writing music.
I myself am a classically trained mezzo soprano – and so the only part of writing about music in this novel that was a hindrance was when Adriana talks about singing and vocal music. She doesn’t know anything about it from a technical perspective, so I had to sort of “forget” my knowledge to write those parts. I also play a little piano, and as part of my research for this novel I did take violin lessons. I was rather terrible at it, but had a ton of fun and learned a lot!
Natasha: Venice is a character in your novel as much as Vivaldi and Adriana. Have you ever been to Venice? It’s a city that has inspired artists, musicians and writers for centuries. I can imagine that sometimes it must have felt rather intimidating. I live in Wessex and sometimes I write about the same places as Thomas Hardy which can be a joy and also a little overwhelming. How did Venice’s creative history inspire you?
Alyssa: I’ve been to Venice twice now; I went for the first time before starting the last full draft of the novel. I had gotten to the point where I knew that I had to see it for myself to accurately depict it in the novel, because there’s simply no other place like it in the world. It was a challenge to write about it just for that reason – I wanted to get a strong sense of it across on the page without bogging down the story with too much description, and I hope I’ve succeeded! And I think it makes sense that Vivaldi’s music, which to me is so distinctive, was created in such a unique place.
As you say, Venice’s creative history is daunting at times. I remember at one point while I was there thinking of Lord Byron visiting Venice and feeling a bit intimidated that I was drawing inspiration from the same place as such a great writer.
Natasha: Was Adriana based on a real person or is she purely imaginary?
Alyssa: Adriana is my own invention. I had come across the idea in a few places that Anna Giró (the opera singer with whom Vivaldi was close in his later years, and who was a real person) was actually his daughter and not his mistress, as was supposed at the time. This, to me, begged the question of who her mother would have been. So The Violinist of Venice is a “what if?” novel. And in truth it was nice having a fictional character for my protagonist, because I could have her life take whatever course I chose – although once she was on the page Adriana pretty much charted her own path!
Natasha: How did you create the character of Vivaldi? Of course he was a real person but you still needed to find your Vivaldi, the man you could write about. How much do historians know about the man beyond his remarkable music?
Alyssa: Vivaldi’s biography is still rather spotty. Part of this is due to the fact that his music fell quite out of fashion not long after his death and more or less became buried. He was “rediscovered”, so to speak, many years later once music historians noted his influence on J.S. Bach. As such, a lot of information about him wasn’t preserved as it might have been, and some of his music remains lost to this day. There are certain years in his life that we have very few details about – such as the window of time during which he and Adriana have their affair in the novel. With that said, I still had plenty of information to work with, and was able to structure the novel around certain events in his life – when he was reinstated as maestro at the Pietà, for instance, or the date that Orlando furioso premiered at the Teatro Sant’ Angelo.
This is a completely flawed method of characterization and I own that, but I also listened to a great deal of his music and tried to imagine what sort of man I thought would write such beautiful and passionate works. Any artist puts something of him- or herself into their creations, so I combined these imaginings with what history told me about the man – that he was mercurial and had a temper, that he didn’t take his responsibilities as a priest very seriously, and that he could be a grasping businessman, among other things – and created the character that I wrote about.
Natasha: Adriana is a very modern woman in her ambition, desires and also in her boldness and willingness to take risks, but she’s trapped by the restrictive mores of eighteenth-century Venice. Is this how you see her?
Alyssa: Yes, very much so. Eighteen century Venice was a society on the brink of change – or, really, on the brink of collapse – and I think that in a lot of ways Adriana is aware of that and is frustrated that things aren’t changing fast enough. It was an interesting time in music history for women: there were female singers in the opera, of course, and Venice had the ospedali where orphan girls were taught music, but could only perform from behind a screen where they could not be seen by the public. And convents throughout Europe, of course, have a long and rich musical history. Beyond these two extremes of the sacred world of the convent and the profane world of the public theatre, there were really no professional performance opportunities for women. But that even those opportunities existed shows that things were moving in the right direction for female musicians – just not fast or soon enough for Adriana. I often like to think that if Adriana was around today she would be playing electric violin in a symphonic heavy metal band.
On the social side of things, Venice at that time was extremely decadent and had rather loose morals; something that really interested and surprised me was how much sexual freedom women were occasionally permitted – not as much as the men, of course, but still. Adriana’s friend Giulietta is an example of this. But pushing back against all this was, of course, the Catholic Church and its influence over how society saw and treated women, and those more traditional values. Adriana gets trapped in the middle of this conflict and is, I would argue, also trapped by some of the same double standards that still affect women today.
Natasha: What are you working on now? Will it feature music?
Alyssa: The novel I’m working on now, which I hope will be my third, is a bit of a jump from Italy: it’s set in the young United States in the late 1700s. It does, indeed, feature music in that music is again something my heroine and hero share, but it is not so heavily a part of their relationship or of the story as in Violinist. I think I’ll be including music in my work as much as possible for my whole life, as other than writing it is my biggest passion.
Like most 18th century Venetians, Adriana d’Amato adores music—except her strict merchant father has forbidden her to cultivate her gift for the violin. But she refuses to let that stop her from living her dreams and begins sneaking out of her family’s palazzo under the cover of night to take violin lessons from virtuoso violinist and composer Antonio Vivaldi. However, what begins as secret lessons swiftly evolves into a passionate, consuming love affair.
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.