Much of our journeys abroad center on harried tours of this monument and that landmark, scarcely giving us time to soak in the history or appreciate what gave these age-old icons rise. To help balance out this tour blitzing, then, we recommend buying a ticket to a classical music performance in Italy; not only will you be able to soak in the rich history of the venue, but you’ll take in the country’s storied past through its exquisite music. To help, we’ve assembled this quick-hit guide to the best classical music venues in Italy.
Wait, though — who were the major Italian composers?
Italy has long been considered the center of the music world, producing exceptional talent and hosting world-class performances. While the country still produces outstanding music, the classical stars of yesteryear always shine brightly; here are a few of Italy’s most well-known classical composers:
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
A multitalented instrumentalist, composer, and priest, Monteverdi was a pioneer in the development of modern opera. His style transitioned over the course of his life, beginning with Renaissance-like madrigals that transformed into more bombastic Baroque tones. These avant-garde stylings earned him some backlash from the musical community during his life, though it was precisely this innovation that vaulted him to musical celebrity in the years following his death. Works of particular note include the operas “L’Orfeo” and “L’Arianna,” as well as a collection of vespers and madrigals.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Full-on Baroque, Vivaldi rose to fame for his numerous concertos, choral works, and operas. Like Monteverdi, Vivaldi also served as a Catholic priest, utilizing church choirs to realize his musical visions. While he never secured royal support for his work, dying in poverty at age 63, Vivaldi nonetheless composed several pieces that are still celebrated in musical halls all over the world, including “Four Seasons” and the ecclesiastical piece, “Gloria.”
Gioachino Rossini (1797-1868)
As the Baroque period ended, Italian musicians turned their attention predominantly to opera. At the forefront of the country’s operatic movement was Gioachino Rossini, a musician from Pesaro whose parents were musicians themselves. First commissioned to write operas at the young age of 18, Rossini spent decades composing world-class works, including “Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville),” “Guillaume Tell (William Tell),” and “La Cenerentola (Cinderella).” Unfortunately, Rossini withdrew from the world of opera early, spending the last 40 years of his life only dabbling in composition and performance.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Often hailed as the greatest composer of Italian opera, Puccini was a gifted musical storyteller and master of the aria. Music ran in his blood; Puccini’s great-great-grandfather established the family as a musical phenom in their hometown of Lucca, Italy, with several of his offspring composing operas or leading church choirs. For his part, Puccini stuck to composition, focusing first on the romantic style typical of the late 19th century and later introducing the verismo style, designed to capture the real life circumstances of each opera character. He did this with aplomb, gifting the world with major works like “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.”
Ok, so where are the best classical music venues in Italy?
With its soaring, cavernous churches; towering palaces; and numerous opera houses, Italy has no shortage of classical music venues. There are a few, however, that the masters come back to time and again to showcase music in its finest form. Here’s a look at these greats:
La Fenice Opera House (Venice)
Opened in 1792, La Fenice was known in the 19th century as the spot for opera premieres. The theater was destroyed three times by fire, but rebuilt following each disaster, largely with the original stylings in mind. With five towering stories and a distinctly neo-classical design, La Fenise is iconic among the world’s opera houses. It seats more than 1,100 patrons and has hosted giants of the music world, including Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi. Come in formal attire for opera performances, and wear boots if the curtain draws during high tide; the opera house is located in one of Venice’s lower-lying areas, prone to flooding.
Palazzo delle Prigioni (Venice)
With its countless historic buildings, plazas, and outdoor venues, Venice has converted several older structures with exceptional acoustics to musical venues. Case in point: this palazzo, which once served as a primary prison of the city. Completed in 1614 and attached to the neighboring Ducal Palace, the prison housed several nobles of significance who cheekily countered their Venetian rulers. This colorful past, coupled with the unique, alcove-rich construction, makes for perfect intimate performances.
Museo del Duomo (Florence)
A dome-capped cathedral built in the 15th century, this massive structure was the work of architect Filippo Brunelleschi who won the right to design the cathedral in a rabid competition. These days, the “duomo” serves as a museum which hosts periodic concerts for students in the city. To give these wide-eyed pupils a showcase of all styles and genres, the calendar features top musical artists who perform pieces rarely seen elsewhere. Open to all, the concerts are free but tickets go quickly. More information can be found here.
The Accademia in Rome is one of the oldest dedicated musical institutions in the world, taking shape in 1585. Much of its role in the first several centuries of its existence centered on ecclesiastical music; papal bulls periodically noted the importance of music to holy life with the most notable instituting Gregorian chant as the form of church music. This was in conflict with more secular styles, however. Tension between church-centric and lay music continued for at least a century until political and cultural changes opened the door to progressive styles of music performance and education. Today, the Accademia is both venue and school, teaching instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers the art of music across several genres. The venues at the Accademia are as impressive as its history; three of them open to the public for concerts throughout the year, the largest of which is open-air and seats some 3,000 music lovers.
Teatro Massimo Bellini (Sicily)
At the southernmost point of Italy lies Teatro Massimo Bellini, an opera house built in 1890 with seating for 1,200 patrons. The venue might never have been constructed had it not been for a disastrous earthquake in 1693 that required the city to rebuild. The outside showcases a mix of Sicilian and baroque styles, while the inside is designed very much like La Fenice in Venice. Not surprisingly, the opera house has staged almost all of Bellini’s work, though various ballets, concerts, and operas now fill the calendar — including a recent run of Puccini’s greatest works.
For more information on these and other venues showcasing the classical music of Italy — as well as information on performance tickets — visit classictic.com.