Anna Bon di Venezia

by Anja Weinberger

Truly astonishing things happen when you try to learn more about Anna Bon. Like a mirage, she appears on the horizon of music history in the 1750s, only to disappear again in the mid-1760s. During this rather short period, she must have had an impressive career. Why her further fate lies in the dark – we can only speculate. Did she marry and thus change her name? Or did she, like many women of the time, die in childbirth and the corresponding records have been lost?

I would like to take a closer look at the few known years of Anna Bon, who called herself Anna Bon die Venezia on the frontispiece of a composition.

As we have only recently come to know [1], Anna was born in Bologna in August 1738. Her mother, Rosa Ruvinetti, a successful singer, returned to her hometown for the birth, having previously travelled throughout Europe with her husband and a troupe of itinerant musicians. The little girl’s father, Girolamo Bon, was a respected stage designer, painter and librettist. The Bon family performed in princely theatres and brought modern Italian opera directly into the homes of the European aristocracy. Between 1735 and 1746, the company, known throughout Europe for its work, was engaged with brief interruptions in Russia, and little Anna therefore entered the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice at the age of four. Her grandfather also lived in this city and it was here that she would spend the next few years.

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The Ospedale della Pietà, originally an orphanage for girls, had developed over time into an important music school. The girls’ orchestra of the house enjoyed an excellent international reputation, and in individual cases parents could have their daughters admitted as pupils for a fee. However, the tuition fee was very high and only noble or wealthy families were able to afford it. In Anna’s case, a different approach was taken. The Bon family and also the management of the Ospedale relied on her talent from the very beginning and so she was probably admitted free of charge or for a small fee. This had nothing to do with charity, but was born out of the hope that well-trained and highly talented students would continue to uphold the exceptional reputation of the orchestra and the choir in the future. For numerous educational travellers of the time also came to Venice because of the excellent girls’ orchestra.

Many famous names of great teachers are written in the annals of the Ospedale. Antonio Vivaldi taught and composed here from 1703, and when Anna entered, Nicola Porpora had just become choirmaster of the orphanage. Daily life was tightly structured and the girls’ timetable consisted of instrumental and singing lessons, ear training, Latin, French, Greek, but also ornamentation, sight-reading and composition.

Anna presumably remained in Venice until she was 16, at the end of 1754. This also leaves some questions unanswered, since it was customary for the girls of the Ospedale to stay for a few years after completing their education in order to teach their pupils and thus provide for their successors. We do know, however, that Anna travelled with her parents from this time on and finally ended up with them in Bayreuth.

There, Frederick of Brandenburg-Bayreuth and his Prussian wife Wilhelmine, one of Frederick the Great’s music-loving sisters, were ruling. The margravial couple engaged the Bon family and at the same time founded an academy of liberal arts and sciences. Anna’s father Girolamo taught there and there was an excellent court orchestra. In 1756 the Seven Years’ War broke out and Bayreuth succeeded in keeping its own country out of the hostilities, Wilhelmine even tried – unfortunately unsuccessfully – to engage in peace talks. Her husband Frederick, the enlightened prince who was quite popular with the people, was a pupil of Michel Blavet and Johann Joachim Quantz. The flute was therefore often heard at the Bayreuth court and this represented a common feature with the court of Frederick the Great.

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Anna Bon participated in the flute euphoria. She composed six opus 1 sonatas for flute in 1756. The exact title of the first edition was VI Sonate da Camera per il Flauto traversiere con Cembalo o Violoncello. This is a peculiar indication of instrumentation, since it explicitly calls for harpsichord or violoncello instead of the ubiquitous b.c. instrumentation of harpsichord and violoncello. Shortly before, Anna had been awarded the title of virtuosa di musica di camera at the Margrave’s Court in Bayreuth. Naturally, she dedicated the six sonatas to her employer. And it is this edition on which she called herself Anna Bon di Venezia. The six flute sonatas were published by Balthasar Schmidt in Nuremberg.

A year later, six sonatas for harpsichord, the instrument that was actually hers, were published. This sonata cycle is dedicated to Ernestine Auguste Sophie, the niece of the Bayreuth Margrave. This young princess was about Anna’s age and lived as an orphan at her uncle’s court, where she was also able to make use of the diverse musical stimuli. The harpsichord sonatas clearly show that the young composer was aware of the latest changes in instrument making. At this time, the fortepiano was becoming increasingly popular in the musical world, and one was also available at the Bayreuth court. Anna’s sonatas use a wide range of notes and are thoroughly modern in their arrangement. Above all, however, it should be noted that the composition and publication of an entire sonata cycle, even the second, is unusual for a young female composer. In the Nuremberg Peace and War Courier, the publication of the harpsichord sonatas, also by the publisher Balthasar Schmidt, is announced in the autumn of 1758.

And finally we learn of the publication of her Opus 3, Sei Divertimenti a Due Flauti e Basso, which we now have on our music stand from Anna Bon. The style is very mature, the two flutes communicate with each other and do so in an extremely elegant contrapuntal manner. Beautiful modulations accompany the flute conversation and drive the musicians into astonishingly distant keys. This collection is dedicated to Carl Theodor of the Palatinate, who also assembled great musicians at his court in Mannheim and Schwetzingen. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of Anna’s or her family’s relationship to the Palatine court. It can be assumed that there were friendly or even kinship ties to musicians there and that Anna possibly hoped for a position at the then very famous Mannheim court.

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In October 1758, Wilhelmine died at the age of 51 in Bayreuth, a bitter blow for the Franconian city and the court, for the Margravine was the linchpin of musical life. The immediate result of this event was court mourning for the entire following year. Among other things, this meant that opera performances could not take place.

Perhaps this predicament explains why the Bon family first appeared at guest performances in Vienna and shortly afterwards in Bratislava. Finally, in 1762, the family entered the service of Prince Nikolaus von Esterhazy, initially for one year. Anna’s new employer was Joseph Haydn, who had just taken up a new position at the court in Eisenstadt. At this point, at the latest, it is on record that Anna also earned money as a singer. However, this can also be assumed for her stay at the Bayreuth court.

Prince Esterhazy seems to have been very satisfied with the Bons, especially father Girolamo was a great help to him in various projects. He was responsible for decorations for Haydn’s early stage works, designed costumes and was also involved in the elaborate planning for the renovation of the palace. The two ladies of the family took part in chamber music and church music. The time limit of the first contract was soon lifted and they even agreed on bonus payments. Up to this time, Anna’s name can be found again and again on pay slips. However, there is no trace of her compositions. But this only means that no compositions have been handed down to us, not that she no longer composed.

(Perhaps we should think more carefully about the fact that Anna was able to be so productive in Bayreuth and even found publishers because Wilhelmine, a woman, was in an important position at court).

And then suddenly it’s over – nothing more to be heard or seen of Anna Bon di Venezia. A faint trace still leads to Hildburghausen, where a presumably erroneous encyclopaedia entry places Anna as the wife of a court singer. This is not entirely improbable, since the duchess there is Ernestine Auguste Sophie, to whom Anna dedicated her Opus 2. But the trail ends in a rather confusing factual situation. Another equally weak trail leads to Bohemia and is similarly ambiguous.

Scholarly suspicion has long since been aroused, and musicologists have set out on a search. So far, there is nothing new to report, except that Anna’s sonata cycles have found their way into the musical canon, at least among flutists.

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Those were the few years in the life of Anna Bon that are certainly documented and traceable. We would like to know whether she actually died young or was simply lost in bureaucratic mills.

For the world of the flute, however, her Opus 1 and Opus 3 are an enrichment of the repertoire either way. It would have been interesting to see how such a gifted young composer would have written in later years. Wouldn’t it?

machine-translated from German

1 … By chance the baptismal record was found a few years ago, until then we only knew approximately Anna’s year of birth.

Literature used:
Bassi, Adriano: Guida alle Compositrici dal Rinascimento ai giorni nostri
Krucsay, Michaela: Between Enlightenment and Baroque Splendour – Anna Bon di Venezia and her Family of “Operists”

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