A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Paisiello, Giovanni
PAISIELLO, Giovanni, eminent composer of the Italian school in its pre-Rossinian period, was the son of a veterinary surgeon at Tarento, and was born May 9, 1741. At five years old he entered the Jesuit school at Tarento, where he attracted notice by the beauty of his voice. The elements of music were taught him by one Carlo Presta, a priest and tenor singer, and he showed such talent that his father, who had intended to educate him for the legal profession, abandoned this idea, and succeeded in obtaining admission for him to San Onofrio, at Naples, where he received instruction from the veteran Durante, and afterwards from Cotumacci and Abos.
During his five years of studentship, Paisiello's powers were exercised on church music, but, at the end of this time, he indulged in the composition of a dramatic intermezzo, which, performed at the little theatre of the Conservatorio, revealed where his real talent lay. The piece pleased so much that its composer was summoned to Bologna to write two comic operas, 'La Pupilla' and 'Il Mondo a Rovescio'; which inaugurated a long series of successes in all the chief Italian towns. 'Il Marchese di Tulipano,' written for Rome, enjoyed for years a European popularity. At Naples, where Paisiello finally took up his abode, he found a formidable rival in Piccinni, and later, when Piccinni had departed to Paris, in Cimarosa. The enthusiastic reception met with by his own operas, and by 'L'Idolo Cinese' in particular, was insufficient to set him at ease while his own supremacy was at all in danger. He seems all his life to have regarded every possible rival with jealous dislike, and on more than one occasion to have stooped to intrigue, not only to ensure his own success, but to defeat that of others.
In 1776, on the invitation of the Empress Catherine, who offered him a splendid salary, Paisiello left Naples for St. Petersburg. Among a number of operas written there must be mentioned 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia,' one of his best works, and to which a special interest attaches from its effect on the first representation of Rossini's opera of the same name. Coldly received when performed at Rome (after Paisiello's return from Russia), it ended by obtaining so firm a hold on the affections of the Roman public, that the attempt of another composer to write a new 'Barber' was regarded as sacrilege, nor would this audience at first give even a hearing to the famous work which finally consigned its predecessor to oblivion.
After eight years in St. Petersburg, Paisiello returned to Italy, stopping at Vienna on his way back, where he wrote twelve 'symphonies' for Joseph II, and an opera 'Il Re Teodoro,' containing some of his best music. He was now named Chapelmaster to Ferdinand IV. of Naples, and during the next thirteen years produced several of the works by which he became most widely known, notably 'I Zingari in Fiera,' 'Nina, o la Pazza d'Amore,' and 'La Molinara.' In 1797, on the death of General Hoche, Paisiello wrote a Funeral March, to order, for Napoleon, then General Buonaparte, who always showed a marked predilection for this composer's music, and now gave preference to his work over one by Cherubini.
When, in 1799, the Republican government was declared at Naples, Paisiello accommodated himself to the new state of things, and was rewarded by the post of 'Director of the National Music.' At the Restoration he naturally found himself out of favour with his old patrons, and lost his former appointment. After two years he succeeded in getting it back again, but this had hardly come about when the First Consul demanded the loan of his favourite musician from the King of Naples to organise and direct the music of his chapel. Paisiello was accordingly despatched to Paris, where Buonaparte treated him with a magnificence rivalling that of Catherine of Russia, and an amount of favour that excited frantic jealousy in the resident musicians, especially Méhul and Cherubini, who did not care for Paisiello's music, and whom he spited in return by bestowing on their enemies all the patronage at his disposal.
He was occupied chiefly in writing sacred compositions for the First Consul's chapel, but in 1803 he gave an opera, 'Proserpine,' which was not a success. This probably determined him next year to beg for permission to return to Naples, on the plea of his wife's ill-health. It was granted, although unwillingly, by Napoleon, who desired him before leaving to name his successor, when he surprised every one by designating Lesueur, who was then almost unknown, and in destitute circumstances.
On Paisiello's return to Italy he was endowed with a considerable pension, was re-established in his old place at Naples, and was maintained in it by Joseph Buonaparte, and after him by Murat. But the favour he enjoyed under Napoleonic dynasties inevitably brought him once more into trouble when the Bourbons returned. He then lost all the pensions settled on him by the various crowned heads he had served. He retained, it is true, his salary at the Royal Chapel, but this, after the luxury he had known, was poverty. Anxiety had undermined his health, and he sufered a fresh blow in the loss of his wife, in 1815. He did not long survive her, dying June 5 in the same year [App. p.738 "in the following year"].
As a man Paisiello does not command our sympathy, although by his industry and devotion to Art he merits esteem. Spoiled by success, he lacked generosity towards his rivals. Spoiled by prosperity, he had no endurance and no dignity in misfortune. Like many others of his time, he was a most prolific writer. He composed about a hundred operas, and at least as many other works, of different kinds. If novelty is not aimed at, or is only occasionally expected, the art of penning easy, flowing melody seems capable of being cultivated into a habit. Expression, within certain restricted limits, was Paisiello's strong point. All his airs are remarkable for simplicity and grace, and some have considerable charm, such as 'Nel cor piu non mi sento' in the 'Molinara,' long known in England as 'Hope told a flattering tale,' and destined to survive still longer owing to the variations on j it written by Beethoven. Some of his music ia tinged with mild melancholy, as in 'Nina' (a favourite part of Pasta's), but it is never tragic;; or with equally mild bonhomie, as in the 'Zingari in Fiera,' but it is never genuinely comic. It has great purity of style. No bravura songs for prime donne, such as figure in the works of Hasse and Porpora do we find in these operas. No doubt his simple airs received embellishment at the hands of singers; we know that the custom prevailed, at that time, to such an extent as to determine Rossini to write down all his own fioriture for himself. This may account for the degree of repetition to be found in Paisiello's pieces, and which, to our ears, seems insufferably tedious. In his work the principle of 'exposition, illustration and repetition' is non-existent as to its second stage. His only method of expanding his theme to the desired dimension was numerous verbatim repetitions, with a short alternative phrase between, producing the feeling of a continual series of rondos, and which, for variety of effect, must have depended on the singer. Trios, quartets, etc. enter largely into his works, and he was among the first, if not the first, to introduce concerted finales into serious opera. In his orchestration he arrives at charming effects through very simple means; it is distinguished by clearness and good taste, and by the independent parts given to the instruments.
The mild light of such men as Paisiello paled before the brilliance of Rossini. His music is practically obsolete, yet it must not be put aside with that of many so-called composers who merely illustrate the passing fancies of their day. It is music. Not immortal music; for art that is immortal is always young, and this has become old-fashioned. Yet like many a quaint old fashion it has a certain beauty of association now, because it possessed actual beauty once. No one would willingly call it back into an existence where it would find itself out of place. Yet much of it may repay attention on the part of those who may care to turn aside for a moment from the intricate path of modern art, and examine the music which stirred the admiration and moved the heart of a past generation of men and women like themselves.For a complete list of Paisiello's compositions the reader is referred to Fétis's 'Biographie des Musiciens,' ed. 1870. They embrace 94 operas; 103 masses and other church pieces; 51 instrumental ditto.
[ F. A. M. ]