The artistic career

Thanks to the success of these first works (in association with a strong protection in official circles), in 1731, the main Neapolitan theatre, the San Bartolomeo, commissioned from Pergolesi a new opera seria. An old Apostolo Zeno’s work, the Alessandro Severo, represented in Venice in 1716, was chosen as libretto and rielaborated with the new title of Salustia. Pergolesi’s debut on stage could not be more laborious: the old evirated Nicola Grimaldi, the star of the cast, died during the rehearsals and Pergolesi had to re-write all the protagonist’s arias for a new interpreter, the Roman castrato Gioacchino Conti. Pergolesi’s haste and anguish emerge from the fact that he had no time to set to music the comic intermezzo, that did not reach our time. The production had been represented only during the second half of January 1732, apparently with a meagre success. But Pergolesi’s fame should be also solid considering that in September he staged at the “Teatro dei Fiorentini” his first opera buffa “Lo frate “nnamorato” based on a libretto by G. B. Federico, who would become his favourite librettist, in September he staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini his first musical comedy, Lo frate ‘nnamorato, based on a libretto by Gennarantonio Federico. The success of the opera is proved by its revival (in a new version, slightly modified) in 1748, twelve years after the composer’s death. A contemporary document shows that during all these years its arias had been sung throughout all Neapolitan streets.
Pergolesi’s artistic and social ascent is proved by other two facts, both happened in 1748: firstly he was employed by Prince Ferdinando Colonna of Stigliano, that owned a significant position at the vice-royal court; secondly Neapolitan Municipality assigned him a mass and vesper composition in S. Emidio’s honour, under whose protection the town had been set after many disastrous earthquake. In only two years of activity, Pergolesi ventured on the main musical genres: drama, comic opera, and religious music. In November 1732 he entered as extra organist in the Royal Chapel: the note attesting his recommendation (recently found by Francesco Cotticelli and Paologiovanni Maione in Naples State Archive) referred to the Neapolitan musical environment “great expectation” concerning his career, to the “universal applause” that welcomed Lo frate ‘nnamorato, and, above all, to the “Royal Chapel need of people composing according to modern taste”. The great esteem enjoyed by Pergolesi is proved by the commission, for the following season, of a new opera seria: Il prigionier superbo (another revision of Francesco Silvani’s libretto). The opera was staged on August 28th, 1733, and received a gratifying success thanks to its intermezzo La serva padrona, again on Gennarantonio Federico’s libretto. Pergolesi’s appointment, in February 1734, as Vice Chapel Master, made by the “Fedelissima Città di Napoli”, with the right of succeeding the old and famous D. Sarro, represents the Neapolitan society’s maximum approval toward  the musician. Meanwhile great changes upset the Reign of Naples: on May 10th, 1734, Carlo of Borbone, after a very quick war, made his entrance in Naples and on May 16th was crowned as a King; Austrians had to retreat to Southern Italy and Sicily. Almost all Neapolitan nobility, especially the one closest to the Asburgo family, retreated to the neutral Rome, waiting the end of the war. Among the most reluctants to accept this new politic situation can be found the Prince of Stigliano, together with other Pergolesi’s benefactors, as Duke Caracciolo of Avellino (who even retired to Vienna) and Duke Marzio IV Maddaloni Carafa, who invited, with his wife Anna Colonna, our composer in Rome in May 1734. On this occasion, the famous caricaturist Pierleone Ghezzi, very curious about the young Neapolitan Master of Chapel, sketched the only authentic Pergolesi’s representation that reached our time: at first he painted from life only his face and then by heart (in a second drawing) he added the whole figure. These portraits show a stocky young man, with strong and vaguely negroid features; the figure shows a stiffed left leg typical of poliomyelitis victims: this is something very far from all the idealized images of Pergolesi accumulated since the XVIII Century.
Pergolesi conducted in S. Lorenzo Church of Lucina (the seat of the Cappella Nazionale Boema) his Mass in F major (a rielaboration of the previous mass for S. Emidio) in a splendid performance for orchestra during S. Johann Nepomuk’s (Boemis’a protector) celebrations: a declaration of faithfulness from the Maddaloni family towards the Austrian Empire. Although this successful Roman performance determined Pergolesi’s first artistic affirmation outside Neapolitan borders, it also represented a fatal rift for his relationship with the new Bourbon government. His benefactors, the Duke of Maddaloni (who employed him) and the Prince of Stigliano, were both soon elected Chamber Lord by Carlo III, while Prince Caracciolo, after announcing from Vienna that he was “excited at the idea of coming back”, arrived on January 4th 1735, on time to welcome in Avellino “in a very royal way” Carlo III moving to conquer Sicily. It was easy for these great nobles to get out of this difficult situation, but Pergolesi’s performance in honour of the Habsburg was not excused and considered as a subversive action. Very probably the confused and obscure mentions dating back to the late XVIII and XIX Century about persecution against Pergolesi are to be considered as a disproportionate amplification of this event. On October 25th, 1734, a Pergolesi’s opera seria, Adriano in Siria, based on a Metastasian libretto, with Livietta e Tracollo as intermezzo, was represented for the first time at the “official” Theatre of Naples, the San Bartolomeo. The opera did not receive a great success in spite of the presence in the cast of a such eminent soloist as Gaetano Caffarelli; a suggestion of the court, for the following season, preferred a Spanish young composer, Davide Perez, rather than Pergolesi. New recent documents attest how much Pergolesi’s relationship with philo-Austrian nobility had a negative influence on his career: San Bartolomeo Theatre’s impresario, Angelo Casarale, refused to pay to Pergolesi the reward for Adriano in Siria’s composition, saying as excuse that his benefactors, the Duke of Maddaloni and the Duke Caracciolo of Avellino, did not pay him the box rent during all their absence for the war; a real pretext that seems to hide a clear political motivation.
Therefore Pergolesi came back to Rome: at the beginning of January, 1735, the Olimpiade, his last opera seria, based again on a libretto by Metastasio, was staged at the Tordinova Theatre. Few contemporary reports attest an unfavourable reception of the opera, penalized by a poor setting and by the temporary closure of the theatres, as a consequence of Princess Maria Clementina Sobieski Stuart’s death.
Returned to Naples, Pergolesi’s health suffered a sudden worsening and probably already in summer 1735 the Duke of Maddaloni invited him to Pozzuoli to find relief from the tuberculosis that was mining his body. Nonetheless he continued composing and in fall 1735 the Flaminio, a new music comedy, again with a libretto by Gennarantonio Federico, was staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini. The opera had a great success considering its several representations, even out of Naples. In those months Pergolesi started the composition of a serenade commissioned by the young Prince Raimondo of S. Severo for his wedding with Carlotta Gaetani Dell’Aquila D’Aragona, planned on December 1st 1735, in Torremaggiore, next to Foggia. From its libretto (music has been lost) it appears clear that Pergolesi, because of his illness, could set to music only the first part. The last months of Pergolesi’s life are quite a mystery: he spent his time perhaps in Pozzuoli, at the Cappuccini Convent, a religious institution under Maddaloni’s protection, where he probably composed his four chamber cantatas – edited immediately after his death, the Salve Regina in C minor and the Stabat Mater. This last work had been probably commissioned by the archi-confraternity of the Vergine dei Dolori, the seat of which was the Church of S. Luigi in the Palace of Padre Minimi, as substitution of Alessandro Scarlatti’s analogous piece. He probably finished Stabat’s composition in his lasts days of life and entrusted the manuscript to the friend Francesco Feo.

Pergolesi died on March 17th, 1736, of  “tabe ettica”, that is tuberculosis, and was buried in Pozzuoli’s Cathedral common grave. The poor musician’s possession were sold to pay the burial, funeral masses and other debts. His maternal aunt, Cecilia Giorgi, who had moved from Jesi to Naples few years before to nurse the young musician, inherited the rest of his goods, not without a dispute with another relative, the priest Giuseppe Maria Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista’s fatherly uncle. The contest ended – as explained – thanks to the good offices of Cardolo Maria Pianetti, a noble from Jesi.

Although Pergolesi, contrarily to what was affirmed by almost his biographers, received abundant acknowledgment of his genius from his contemporaries, his fame was basically restricted to Rome and Naples. After his death, the whole of Europe began to interest with increasing curiosity and enthusiasm in his compositions. In 1736 four Pergolesi’s cantatas were edited in Naples (among these one was commissioned by Maria Barbara of Braganza, Domenico Scarlatti’s patron); in 1738 a new edition was made, a singular thing considered that it was the only cantatas edition to be realized in Naples at the beginning of the XVIII Century. Lo frate ’nnamorato, Olimpiade and Flaminio had been represented many times, but but above all his intermezzos “La Serva Padrona” and “Livietta e Tracollo” obtained the greatest success with hundreds of representations in all secluded corners of Europe. Among his religious music the Salve Regina in C minor and the Stabat Mater  imposed themselves to the general attention, thanks also to a conspicuous number of performances in all greatest European musical centres, both in the original edition and in adaptation to other texts ant to other kind of revisions. At the beginning of the decade 1740-50 Johann Sebastian Bach already edited a transcription of Stabat Mater  suited for a German paraphrase of the Miserere. Also the rest of his religious music, the two masses and the psalms, were religiously copied in dozens of manuscripts, both to be performed and collected as precious specimens. At the half of the XVIII Century, Pergolesi was already considered a myth that would soon became a legend, also because the new emphasis given to his genial and creative personality, the passionate interest to his human vicissitudes, ran into an almost absolute lack of documents and direct testimonies. Pergolesi’s life burned in five-six years of feverish activity, in a social context that looked at him with interest and respect, but that nonetheless considered him as related to a craft field. In this context an extraordinary creative activity was giving birth to great artistic personalities, that, beginning from Pergolesi’s epoch, spread Italian music in all greatest European centres. Only a fragmentary remembrance of Pergolesi’s life remained in all who could attend the meteor of his existence and his extraordinary artistic career; with such memories, often misunderstood and deformed by writers beyond the Alps, his first biographies had been distorted and romanticized during the XIX century. His works, principally committed to a manuscript tradition, lacked in definition, as lots of his compositions had been forgotten (only Stabat Mater  and La serva padrona constantly remained in repertoire) and a big amount of apocrypha had been uttered. Only recently an impressive international research restored the real Pergolesi’s importance and his authentic image appears deeper and more fascinating than the one-dimensional and fossilized traditional one. His music does not testify only an extremely refined and complex creative personality, but restores a whole epoch and society observed and interpreted, as it were, from all points of view: the plebeian gestural expressiveness and the tumbler’s grimace as well as the tender bourgeois sentimentality of the musical comedy; the magnificent and aristocratic melancholy of late baroque and Metastasian music drama, entrusted to famous evirates’ brilliant technical ability and unbridled imagination; the intermezzo characters’ wild vitality and subtle psychological skirmish; the sacred compositions’ solemnity and impressiveness; the chamber sacred music’s pathetic intimism where the sacred is regarded as source of emotional experience and the divinity reveals itself through the tension and fullness of feelings; the instrumental music’s sharply rhythmic dynamism and the chamber cantatas’ stylistic devices.
Pergolesi is all these things and even more: the investigation of his music still reveals the magic kaleidoscope of an extraordinary imagination and analysis and synthesis’s ability.
As for his life, his human and psychological dimension, Pergolesi, elusive, still hides, behind his creations, as the mocking and melancholy Pulcinella in the genial ballet that Igor Stravinskij dedicated to the musician.

by Francesco Degrada

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