The years of the Conservatory
Once arrived at Naples Pergolesi found that plurality in the different levels was a characteristic of the musical Neapolitan culture: aspects of the folkloric Southern traditions introduced by the huge number of emigrants from the country, recent aspects derived from their cultivated translations made by musicians from the town, and so on to more erudite and solemn expressions created by professional musicians in a sacred or secular context, coexisted and intersected without efforts. The same variety can be found also inside the theatrical tradition, especially in comic opera, where a substratum related to popular festivities and to tumbler and comic’s recitation can be still recognized in the intermezzo and musical comedy in Neapolitan dialect. Conservatories were a meeting point for these different cultural layers, and it is representative the fact that pupils were ‘’utilised’’ in a big variety of social contexts: from church services to processions, from patronal festivities to civil celebrations, from street to churches, bourgeois houses, aristocratic salons, theatres. It is not surprising that Pergolesi soon assimilated that variety of languages (in the same way he learned Neapolitan dialect perfectly) and benefited of it in his works.
Pergolesi started studying at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in 1723. It was the only institute (between the four Neapolitan Conservatories) under the ecclesiastic authority. Atmosphere there was extremely rich of stimulus and suggestions, but life should be really hard due to the rigid schedule and to the kind and quality of work students had to do to ensure their instruction and maintenance. Probably Pergolesi paid an admission tax, but not an annual fee, because registers proved his remarkable activity for the institution, at the beginning as cantor and then as violinist. In 1729 Pergolesi was called “capoparanza”, that means director of a group of six, twelve or even more students, that used to sing in different hosting places. He studied violin with Domenico De Matteis, composition until 1728 with the old Gaetano Greco and from 1728 with the erudite and brilliant Francesco Durante. The few months spent with Leonardo Vinci, master in Neapolitan comic opera and very sensitive to the new Metastasian poetry, had been decisive for his future.
Pergolesi spent about seven years at the Conservatory, until 1731. In this year, a sacred drama in three acts, Li prodigi della Divina Grazia nella conversione e morte di S. Guglielmo duca d’Aquitania, was represented in S. Agnello Maggiore Monastery Cloister. It was a traditional opera, a sort of final composition text, to demonstrate students’ acquired technical and stylistic maturity. From its structure, exemple of a genre that found his roots in Baroque tradition, a Neapolitan character emerges: Capitan Cuosemo, who expresses himself in a dense dialect, a lively gesticulation and a very comic repertoire, creating a background for the main serious and devotional action. This is the first Pergolesi’s approach to comic opera. Pergolesi’s style, that the composer will refine with a popular characters’ delineation, appears here in an extremely dense and sanguine dimension, that reflects the picturesque and plebeian reality of Naples’ alleys and squares that has deeply impressed his imagination. Probably it belongs to this period a circumstantial motet, found and titled In hac diem tam decora. A very different style characterizes another sacred composition that tradition erroneously attribute to Pergolesi’s debut: La Fenice sul rogo, ovvero La morte di San Giuseppe oratorio, probably performed in Filippinis’ oratory, a place close to Pergolesi since his Conservatory’s years. Here, in an extremely refined context, enriched by the use of unusual instruments, as traversal flute, “English way” viola, and archlute, used in a concert version, Pergolesi reveals his idea of religion as an extreme humanization of the sacred, as a subtle psychological introspection of religious experience: that sort of behaviour, once refined and transfigured, can be recognized even in his last compositions Salve Regina and Stabat Mater. From a stylistic point of view, these compositions prove Pergolesi’s close adherence to the most progressive Neapolitan music tendencies and his great interest for musical theatre: Pergolesi’s models are Vinci’s, Leo’s, Hasse’s, De Majo’s drama and comic opera scores that were an hit on contemporary stages. All these demanding works marked the birth of a new and great composer.