Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista

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Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista (1710-1736): Italian Composer.

Despite his short life, Pergolesi was one of the most celebrated and influential composers of the entire 18th century, and his stage works–particularly his opere buffa and intermezzi–became lightening rods for polemical debate long after his death.

Born in Iesi to parents with modest noble connections, Pergolesi was a sickly child, and rarely in good health. (He reportedly walked with a severe limp his whole life.) Nonetheless, he showed great musical talent as a youth, and learned violin and singing from a local choir director. He entered the famous conservatorio dei Poveri in Naples at some point shortly after 1720, and apparently stayed there for the next ten years studying under a roster of leading music tutors and composers. By 1731, the precocious youth had left the conservatory and was already receiving commissions for varieties of sacred and stage works from Neapolitan aristocratic families. Employed by the local court in 1732, he began working on his first commedia musicale (Lo frate ‘nnamorato), which enjoyed immense success. In rapid succession, Pergolesi produced a number of other masterful sacred and stage works that further solidified the young composer’s fame. A commission in 1735 from Rome for a Metastasian oper seria (L’Olimpiade) helped further his career, although the production of the opera was problematic and its initial reception mixed.

In 1736, Pergolesi was again in poor health from consumption. Moving to a monastery to recuperate, he composed some of his finest sacred vocal music (including the Stabat Mater). He never recovered, however, and died on March 16 of that year at the age of 26.

It was more the posthumous reception of Pergolesi’s music later in the century that proved to be of such historical importance, and was indeed unprecedented for its day. During his lifetime, Pergolesi’s music was known mainly by a rather narrow strata of Neapolitan and Roman audiences. Shortly after his death, some of his sacred cantatas were published and gained wider attention. But only after his comic operas and intermezzi entered the repertoires of various traveling troupes of Italian players that his enduring fame was guaranteed. La serva padrona–an intermezzo composed in 1733 on a story by G. A. Federico (a leading Neapolitan comedy writer)–proved to be one of Pergolesi’s most popular works. It received no less than two dozen separate productions in the decade after Pergolesi’s death throughout Italy and Germany. (An intermezzo is a short comic opera with a cast rarely exceeding three characters and compromising about a half-dozen individual arias and one or two duets that is traditionally sung in between the acts of the more weighty oper seria.)

La serva padrona is especially notorious in the history of music as the work that sparked the famous “Querelle des Bouffons” in 1752 when a troupe of Italian singers (called the “Bouffons”) performed it in Paris. Pergolesi’s music was acclaimed by critics such as Grimm, Baron Friedrich Melchior von and Rousseau, Jean-Jacques for its appealing lyricism and folk-like simplicity. In contrast to the perceived complexity and turgidity of the French tragédie en musique, with its many classicist conventions, thick harmonizations, and lengthy recitatives, Pergolesi’s music–and the delightful story of the clever servant girl duping her doddering, lecherous master-- must have struck many French listeners as revolutionary in its freshness and accessibility. Almost alone, Pergolesi’s music became the symbol of the Italian “Coin du Riene” in the battle between partisans of French and Italian music. So great was the prestige of Pergolesi’s music, that numerous works became attributed to him throughout the 18th century (often by unscrupulous publishers ready to capitalize upon his fame)–a problem that has bedeviled musicologists to this day in trying to sort out his authentic compositional output.

Further Reading:

Troy, Charles. The Comic Intermezzo: A Study in the History of Eighteenth-Century Opera, 1979.

Thomas Christenson