The Neapolitan musical environment
When Pergolesi reached Naples, in 1723, the town was under the Austrian domination since about fifteen years; the Hapsburg domination would last until Borbon’s reconquest of South Italy and Sicily in 1734, when Carlo III arrived at Naples proclaiming himself King of the Two Sicilies. Pergolesi’s Neapolitan time is related with a transitional context, with a moment of deep political, social and cultural transformation of the local society. It was a period characterized by an extraordinary fervour in every fields of art and knowledge: in these years Metastasio made his debut on Neapolitan stages, Pietro Giannone wrote the Istoria civile del regno di Napoli, and Giovan Battista Vico finalized his La scienza nuova. Naples became the main Italian and European centre of music’s production and exportation.
Not by chance Charles de Brosse, who visited Naples in 1739, affirmed emphatically that Naples was the real capital of music in the world. San Bartolomeo Theatre was the musical official centre, directly related with the court and seat of the most aristocratic and socially important genre: opera seria. Through the two annual seasons, one during Carnival time and the other at the end of Summer, creations of the most eminent contemporary composers appeared on the stage with sumptusous set and with the best soloists available on the very active (and even at that time too expensive) European market.
Public paid great attention to changes in taste and fashion, both in creative and interpretative sides: as soon as a voice or a score revealed a flaw, or sounded old, were immediately taken out of circulation. “Music taste changes at least every ten years”, attested astonished President De Brosses, and certainly he was not exaggerating, considering that a real feverish need of novelty pervaded Neapolitan musicians.
On San Bartolomeo theatre’s stage, eminent Neapolitan musicians, as Alessandro Scarlatti, Francesco Mancini, Domenico Sarro, Francesco Feo and Nicolò Porpora, presented their works at the beginning of the XVIII Century; composers with Venetian and Roman education, as Tommaso Albinoni and Francesco Gasparini, and even Handel, had been there hosted too. Their creations however could not bore comparison with the new generation’s ones, the Vinci’, Leo’, Hasse’s operas, that probably inspired directly Pergolesi. A composer who received a contract by San Bartolomeo Theatre represented for the Neapolitan public the best and above all the newest artist Italian musical context could offer: his works would had been interpreted by the best soloists on circulation and would had been represented with the most sumptuous sets. There are proofs that during the 1730/1740 decades it was in a difficult economical situation that neverthless could not reduce Neapolitan society competitiveness in representing the best operas on its stages. Considering that Pergolesi presented here his first melodrama, La Salustia , in 1732, when he was only 22, it is easy to imagine how much attention he attired and how much supports should have received once concluded his studies at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo.
In Naples, besides the San Bartolomeo Theatre (that would have been demolished after Pergolesi’s death to be substituted with the San Carlo Theatre, inaugurated in 1737 as the new sovereign Carlo III of Borboni’s symbol of splendour and magnificence), there were different minor theatres, patronized principally, but not exclusively, by the bourgeoisie and popular classes. In these theatres, since about twenty years, new expressions and stiles were shaped, stimulated by a sensibility no more tied to the official and pompous character of the court. The old Teatro dei Fiorentini – originally created for drama, and where since the beginning of the XVIII Century musical comedy in Neapolitan developed itself – and two others little new theatres, Teatro della Pace (quite modest) and the very beautiful Teatro Nuovo on Montecalvario, built for the new theatrical genre and both inaugurated in 1724, belonged to this category. Musical comedy, generated by a literary reform of libretto that forsook verbal formalisms and baroque music’s solemn setting in favour of a closeness to themes, atmospheres, characters, of everyday life, ennobled itself little by little becoming the real “bourgeois” counterpart to melodrama. Parallely with this formal ennobling, advantaged by a group of genial librettists and musicians, as Alessandro Scarlatti, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci, Giuseppe de Majo, the ability of the soloists and the level and competence of the public were increasing. When Pergolesi appeared on Neapolitan musical scene, aristocracy willingly protected and funded musical comedy, in the same way the court did for the pompous musical drama represented in San Bartolomeo. Aristocracy and bourgeoisie supported also a series of private musical manifestations: musicians from Neapolitan Conservatoires played serenades, cantatas, original works, different instrumental and vocal compositions for academies, salons, parties and concerts. The circulation of music was favoured by a state of mind, diffuse in that time, artistically open to new ideals of naturalness, moderation, and to Arcadia’s graceful sociality, and sensitive, with its intellectual aim and civic relationship, to a new Enlightened spirit, that postulated a new society with a modern and more efficient structure, no more based on privileges and authoritarianism. All Neapolitan Churches resounded with instruments and voices: the Real Chapel, directed by the same court and including the best composers and soloists of the town, had as own mission to prepare decorative and circumstantial sacred music that constituted the obligatory background for every official and solemn event. Close to the Real Chapel, there were the Cathedral Chapel, the Chapel of San Gennaro’s Treasure and several musical institutions related with major religion orders’ (Teatrini, Gesuiti, Oratoriani) parishes and convents: here genres as oratorio and sacred drama for music, characterized by a conjunction of devotional and traditional elements with popular aspects, were supported.