Review: Water Music by Christine Balint

Venice’s “musical orphanages” have fascinated people for centuries. These institutions, which began in the sixteenth century, provided refuges for orphaned girls and other marginalised folk and evolved into highly prestigious musical academies. Vivaldi was one of the teachers at the “ospidali”, and some of the women went on to become celebrated composers and musicians in the own right.

It’s this time and era that Christine Balint brings to life in this delicate novella. Lucietta is 16 years old and about to enter the Derelitti where she will complete the musical training she has pursued throughout her life, under the patronage of a mysterious biological father. Lucietta is an orphan, raised by a fisherman and a wet nurse, and enjoying the privilege of education not afforded to her adopted brother. She wonders about her biological parents, who her mother was.

At the Derelitti, “an orphanage, a hospital, a refuge, a music school, a church”, Lucietta continues to practice violin, learns the liturgy, matins and vespers which the girls at the school perform for the Mass goers. It’s a gentle plot, phrased as elegantly as the sonatas Lucietta learns to be performed in front of Venice’s gentility. There’s an interesting wateriness and fluidity to the geography, with the Derelitti’s many rooms and corridors seemingly shifting and rearranging in Escher-esque ways. It’s a place where you might feel the musical spirits of the past.

The Derelitti is confinement; once Lucietta walks through the grille that divides the institution from the outside world she can’t return through it. Other girls there have been relegated because they can’t be married off, because of disability or circumstance. Their hair is shorn and they put on coverings that leave only their face on show. But Lucietta finds there is freedom here, to form friendships with girls her own age, to pursue an artform and career that she loves, to not have to marry and become confined to a palazzo.

Water Music investigates the production of art and the lives of its producers. Balint ably evokes the “terrifying enterprise” of performance, and particularly in ensembles, where timing is not just everything but split second reflexes might uphold or undo a piece. In Venetian society of the time, music was made by “unwanted, unmarriagable girls through centuries. Here in this vast echoing building, their souls lost to time. Their music remaining.” In Water Music, Balint brings some of those lost souls back to life so we can hear their music once more.

Gay rating: not gay.


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