Venice is no longer the supreme city of music, as she was in the eighteenth century, when four celebrated conservatoires flourished there, when her choirs and instrumentalists were unrivalled, and when the priest Vivaldi, suddenly inspired with a melody in the middle of celebrating Mass, instantly rushed off to the Sacristy to scribble it down. Music, nevertheless, often sounds in the city. The strains of great symphonies rise, in the summer season, from breathless floodlit courtyards; twelvetone scales and electronic cadences ring from the International Festival of Contemporary Music, which recently brought Stravinsky himself to conduct an opera in the Scuola di San Rocco; the noble choir of St. Mark's, once trained by Monteverdi, sings seraphically from its eyrie among the high mosaics of the Basilica. The gondoliers no longer quote Tasso to one another, or sing old Venetian love songs (most of the popular tunes nowadays are from Naples or New York): but sometimes an ebullient young man will open his heart and his lungs together, and float down the canal on the wings of a throaty aria.
To hear the bells of Venice it is best to come at Christmas, when the air is mist-muffled, and the noises of the city are deepened and richened, like plum-duff. A marvellous clash of bells rings in Christmas morning, noble bells and frenzied bells, spinsterish bells and pompous bells, cracked bells and genial bells and cross reproving bells. The bells of San Trovaso sound exactly like Alpine cowbells. The bells of the Carmini sing the first few notes of the Lourdes hymn. The bells of Santa Maria Zobenigo are rung 'with such persistency', so one Victorian visitor recorded, 'that the whole neighbourhood must be driven almost to distraction'. The bells of the Oratory of the Virgin, near San Giobbe, so annoyed the monks of the neighbouring convent that in 1515 they went out one night and razed its little campanile to the ground: they had to rebuild it at their own expense.
The great bell of San Salvatore rings in an exciting dissonance, its notes being, so I am assured, E flat, D flat and B flat. The great Marangona bell, rescued from the ruins of the old Campanile of St. Mark, no longer sounds, but hangs there in the belfry looking frail and venerable: but the big new bell of St. Mark's is alone permitted to sound at midnight, and also rings, to an erratic timetable, at odd intervals during the day. There is a little bell that strikes the hours on the north-western corner of the Basilica, beneath a small stone canopy; and this seems to act as a kind of trigger or stimulus to the two old Moors on the Clock Tower, who promptly raise their hammers for the strike. All these bells, and a hundred others, welcome Christmas with a midnight flourish, and for long echoing minutes after the hour you can hear them ringing down again, softer and softer across the lagoon, like talkative old gentlemen subsiding into sleep.
And there is one more sound that evokes the old Venice, defying the motor boats and the cacophony of radios. Sometimes, early in the morning, as you lie in bed in the half-light, you may hear the soft fastidious splash of oars outside, the swish of a light boat moving fast, the ripple of the waves against the bulwarks of the canal, and the swift breathing of the oarsman, easy and assured.