The Elf and the Red Priest

Written by Liam Sternberg
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Venice, 1704: This is the fictionalised story of the violinist Anna Maria della Pietà, (c. 1696-1782) in the years when Antonio Vivaldi was Master of Violin at the orphanage of the Pietà in Venice where she lived. Sternberg is a musician, and it shows. His novel is populated by myriad characters familiar to the student of baroque music: Benedetto Vinaccesi, Francesco Gasparini, Ludovico Ertman, Mauro D’Alay, Giuseppe Tartini, Anna Girò, Faustina Bordoni and others.

Sternberg’s prose can be delightful (‘What a spirit this harpsichord had, a crisp attack like biting through celery stalks), but is sometimes too elaborate (‘she had worked out an architecture of proof’) or simply too modern, as in ‘scheduling conflicts,’ ‘formulated a general strategy,’ ‘fixed duration’ or ‘maybe we should hire this guy.’ He is in his element when describing a performance at what is now the Teatro Malibran, for his research is impressive, but less adept at keeping the thread of a plot, always a challenge when retelling actual events, especially when dealing with such a vast dramatis personae. Besides Anna Maria herself (the Elf of the title), it is sometimes hard to distinguish between different characters, particularly her fellow orphans.

The Pietà comes across as an eccentric boarding school, a sort of musical Hogwarts (this is no criticism), but Sternberg conveys no real sense of the tensions that must have existed between the choir orphans and their fee-paying figlie di spese companions, nor indeed between those who were musically gifted and those other little girls put to lace-making and spinning (the boy orphans, trained up to trades, are not mentioned at all).

I’d recommend reading this book with the composers of this most fruitful period in Venice’s musical history playing in the background.