Piccinni, Niccolò

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Piccinni, Niccolò (1728-1800): Italian Composer.

Niccolò Piccinni was one of the most celebrated opera composers in the second half of the 18th century, successfully synthesizing elements of both Italian and French operatic traditions. Showing extraordinary talent as a youth, Piccinni studied music in Naples under the tutelage of two venerable composers, Leonardo Leo and Francesco Durante. In 1754, he made an attempt at writing opere buffa–the favorite operatic genre of Neapolitan audiences. But in 1756 he turned his attention to the more serious genre of the oper seria. Zenobia proved a hit, and its success led to numerous more lucrative operatic commissions–first in Rome (with its own partisan traditions of opera), and later throughout Europe. Piccinni was unusually facile as a composer–even given the standards of his own day–and he was able to write by the end of his life no less than 130 operas.

In 1776, Piccinni moved to Paris with the promise of a generous pension from the court. Quickly making friends with the numerous partisans of Italian opera who were active in Paris (especially Marmontel, Jean-François), Piccinni tried his hand at writing operas geared towards a French audience. With Marmontel’s help, he adopted a libretto of Quinault (the venerable librettist of Lully) and produced his first major French triumph with the performance of Roland in 1778.

But not all of Piccinni’s subsequent operas received the same acclaim. (His version of Iphigénie en Tauride–although composed before Gluck, Christoph Willibald’s more famous setting–was staged long afterwards, and received invidious comparison in the press.) His comic operas were by and large more favorably received. But by the late 1780s, tastes were clearly changing, and Piccinni’s music had fallen out of favor, usurped by the works of his countrymen, Sacchini and Salieri.

With the advent of the revolution, Piccinni left Paris, having lost his royal pension. He returned to Naples in 1791. But due to an unfounded suspicion of Jacobin sympathies, Piccinni was placed under house arrest in 1794. Only in 1798 was he finally released from this confinement, and the embittered composer quickly left his homeland again to return to Paris. But by then, Piccinni was too old and ill to reestablish himself. Although he did get an honorary appointment at the newly-founded Conservatory of music, he soon fell ill and passed away in 1800.

Piccinni’s music is widely celebrated for its expressivity and sentimentality. Not surprisingly, this quality is heard prominently in his comic opera, La buona figliuola (1760)–an adaptation of Richardson, Samuel's Pamela by Goldoni, Carlo. His arias are filled with tender lyricism, supported by affective harmonic accompaniments. Many of Piccinni’s most famous melodies were published or copied in collections that enjoyed wide circulation throughout Europe.

Yet for all of his famed expressivity, Piccinni’s music also had real dramatic integrity. Especially in his French operas, he showed a knack for dramatic pacing and timing. This is most evident in his oper buffa finales, with their quick contrasts of texture, tempo, and mode (foreshadowing Mozart). But it is also found in his more series adaptations of the French tragédie en musique–such as in his resetting of Atys. Piccinni was an expert in using the chorus and ballet–favored features of the French opera–as well as scoring his works using the rich instrumentation afforded by the opéra orchestra.

For a brief period in the late 1770s, Piccinni found himself dragged into a quarrel among partisans of Italian and French music. Known as the battle of the “Gluckists and Piccinnists,” and sometimes considered to be a second act of the more famous “Querelle des Bouffons” that had erupted in Paris in the early 1750s, the dispute was really an artificial one. Piccinni did not oppose Gluck’s celebrated operatic reforms; their differences, such as they were, centered more on matters of style. In any case, Piccinni was much too gentle natured and modest to engage in pamphlet polemics. The battle was carried on by a few vocal partisans–particularly Marmontel. But in retrospect, it is clear that both Gluck and Piccinni had far more in common in their respective attempts to mediate and combine French and Italian styles.

Further Reading:

Robinson, M. F. Naples and Neapolitan Opera. 1972.

Thomas Christenson