A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Pergolesi, Giovanni

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PERGOLESI, Giovanni Battista, though born at Jesi in the Roman States, Jan. 3, 1710, was domiciled and educated at Naples, and ranks, by his style and his sympathies, among Neapolitan composers. Various dates between 1703 and 1707, and various places, have been given for his birth. Quadrio alone, in his 'Istoria della volgar poesia,' has stated the real truth, but all doubt on the subject was removed by the Marquis de Villarosa, who in 1831 obtained a copy of Pergolesi's baptismal certificate, signed by the priest of the Duomo where the original exists, and attested by the Confaloniere of Jesi, establishing beyond dispute that the composer was born there, in 1710.[1]

It is not known how he came to be taken to Naples, but he was at an early age admitted to the Conservatorio dei Poveri in Gesu Cristo, to study violin-playing under Domenico de Matteis. He first attracted notice by the original passages he invented for his instrument, not only fanciful gruppetti and ornaments, but strange chromatic progressions, based on new harmonies, and quite unlike anything known then and there in that style of music. When an account of this reached the ears of Matteis he desired to hear these things, and having heard them, asked the youth who had taught him these new modulations and harmonies. On being assured that he had learnt them from no one, his next question was, 'Could he write them down?' The result of which was that on the following day the boy brought him a specimen of his powers, thrown into the form of a little sonata. Matteis then placed him under Gaetano Greco, professor of counterpoint at the Conservatorio, and after his death he was taught for a short time by Durante, and then by Francesco Feo. His progress was rapid, but he speedily shook off to a great extent the contrapuntal yoke of his masters, and wrote in a style of his own, more melodious and more directly expressive than theirs, while of their science he retained just so much as could be made strictly subordinate to these objects and no more. The first composition of his that we know was a 'sacred drama,' 'La Conversione di S. Guglielmo,' written while still a student. It was performed, with comic intermezzi, in the summer of 1731, at the Cloister of S. Agnello, for the 'honest recreation' of the younger members of the congregation at the church of the PP. Filippini, where Pergolesi during his school years was wont to go every day to play an organ sonata, or 'voluntary,' between two sermons. Fétis says that this composition shows no indication of genius. This may be so, but it is still remarkable. A sense of dramatic contrast is evinced in the music given to the Angel and the Demon, who represent the good and evil principles respectively; the former of whom sings in the florid style of Porpora, while the Demon's airs are bold and broad. One especially energetic song he has, expressive of defiance, in which his admissions of temporary defeat and his intentions of ultimate triumph, are illustrated by flights of scales on the violins, upwards or downwards, according to circumstances; an attempt at note-painting, boyish perhaps, but still daring at that time.

After leaving the Conservatorio he received lessons in vocal composition from Vinci, whose style was more akin to his own than that of his former teachers, and, it is said, from Hasse, who, if this is true, must have learnt more from his pupil than he could teach him. His first opera, 'La Sallustia,' was produced in the winter of this year, 1731, at the Fiorentini theatre, and many novel effects were introduced in the orchestral parts. Villarosa says it deserved the highest approval; but it seems to have had a mere succès d'estime. This was also the case with an intermezzo, 'Amor fa l'uomo cieco'; while 'Recimero,' a serious opera, produced at the S. Bartolomeo, failed outright. It would have gone ill with Pergolesi if he had not found a friend in the Prince of Stegliano, first equerry to the King of Naples, who, perceiving his rare abilities, helped him and got employment for him. For this friend he wrote the thirty Trios for two violins and bass, twenty-four of which were afterwards published at London and Amsterdam. It was probably due to the Prince that when, after a terrible earthquake at Naples, a solemn mass was voted to the patron saint of the town, Pergolesi was commissioned to compose the music, a task he performed by writing a mass, with vespers, for ten voices and double orchestra. Soon after this he wrote another mass, also for double chorus of five voices and two orchestras. Leo, whom he invited to hear his work, was astonished, both at the beauty of the music and the short time in which it had been composed, and publicly praised the youthful maestro. To this mass Pergolesi subsequently added a third and fourth choir, and it was performed, entire, at the church of the Filippini.

Fétis remarks that at this time Pergolesi, disgusted with his ill success, had ceased to write for the theatre, and was now led back to it by his artistic bent. But as all the works yet enumerated seem to have been produced in 1731, his disgust cannot have lasted very long, and we can only suppose that the composition of some of them was considerably antecedent to their performance. In the winter of this same year he wrote his celebrated intermezzo, 'La Serva Padrona.' This little operetta, which retains its freshness and charm at the present day, must, when produced, have been unique of its kind, and has served as the foundation of every comic Italian opera written since, up to Rossini's time. Part of its success on the stage is, no doubt, due to the humorous, neatly-written libretto; this however would not have survived commonplace music any more than fine music can secure a long lease of life for an utterly dull libretto. There are but two characters, and the orchestra is limited to the string quartet, but the action is so sustained, and the music so varied, that there is not a dull line in it. Servilely imitated as it has been ever since, it has, itself, the ring of young music. The oppressed master who complains, threatens, blusters, flinches, hesitates, is lost, and finally has to give in, eat his own words, and chanter après to the end of the story; the uppish servant who defies her master, frightens him with her shrewish tongue, cajoles him, deceives him by the most transparent of artifices, then, when she has worked on his feelings enough, turns on him and shows him what a fool he has been, and gets her own way all the same; the mock heroic, the deprecatory, the pathetic and the buffo—these things may have been as well combined and much farther developed since Pergolesi's day, but at that time there was nothing like them. The recitatives are full of animation and spirit. The one blot on the piece is the inevitable Da Capo in the airs, which Pergolesi, with all his genius, was still too much a child of the time to set aside.

The success of the 'Serva Padrona' appears to have been very limited, but was the greatest that ever fell to Pergolesi's lot. His next operas, the 'Maestro di Musica' (very popular at a later date), and 'Il Geloso schernito,' seem to have met with little or no recognition. 'Lo Frate innamorato,' a buffo opera, in Neapolitan dialect, was performed at the Fiorentini theatre in 1732. The San Bartolomeo produced the 'Prigionier superbo,' and repeated the 'Serva Padrona.' For this theatre, in 1734, he wrote 'Adriano in Siria,' an opera in three acts, and an intermezzo 'Livietta e Fracolo'; 'La Contadina astuta' also belongs probably to the same time. In this year he went to live at Loreto, as chapel-master there.

After writing, in 1735, a buffo opera, 'Flaminio,' which met with much success when played in 1749, thirteen years after his death, he undertook a work of another kind, the beautiful and pathetic 'Stabat Mater,' for soprano and contralto, destined to become perhaps the most widely known of all his works. The circumstances which led to its composition were these. Every Friday in March, for many years past, had the Confraternity of San Luigi di Palazzo performed the 'Stabat Mater' of Alessandro Scarlatti. Weary of always repeating the same music, the brethren made up their minds to ask Pergolesi to compose a new Stabat. The luxury was not ruinous. Ten ducats (about 35s.) was the price agreed upon, and this was paid in advance to the composer. Just after its commencement, however, the task had to be suspended for a while. His fame, hitherto solely confined to Naples, seems now to have spread as far as Rome, for he was engaged to compose an opera for the Tordinone theatre in that city. This was 'L'Olimpiade'—the book Metastasio's, the music in its composer's happiest vein. It was, however, received with apathetic indifference, while 'Nerone,' an opera composed for the same house at the same time by Egidio Duni, greatly Pergolesi's inferior, had a brilliant success. Even Duni himself keenly resented this lack of appreciation by the Romans, saying plainly that the failure of 'L'Olimpiade' was due to its being too good for the public, avowing himself 'frenetico contro il pubblico Romano,' and doing all he could, but in vain, to bring about a reaction in its favour.

Pergolesi went back to Loreto much discouraged by his theatrical experiences. He set to work again at the Stabat Mater, but his health, which had been feeble for some time, became worse, and consumption set in. A change of climate was declared imperative j he returned to Naples, and went to the sea at Pozzuoli. Here, though growing steadily worse, he did not desist from his labours. He wrote the Cantata for a single voice, 'Orfeo e Euridice,' and the beautiful 'Salve Regina,' also for one voice, with two violins, viola and organ, both among his happiest inspirations, the latter in particular unsurpassed in purity of style, and pathetic, touching expression.

His old master, Feo, who loved him tenderly, came to visit him during his illness, and, finding him working at the Stabat Mater, entreated him to lay it aside, telling him that he was unfit for any exertion. Pergolesi answered that he had been paid ten ducats for a composition which would not be valued at ten bajocchi, and that he could not but fulfil his agreement. Not many days after, Feo found him sinking, and scarcely able to say that the Stabat was finished and sent off. He expired on March 16, 1736, having just completed his 26th year, and was buried in the precincts of the cathedral of Pozzuoli, where, nearly a century afterwards, a monument to his memory was erected by the Marquis de Villarosa and the Cavaliere Corigliano.

He had no sooner ceased to live than he became the object of an interest only equal to the indifference shown him in his lifetime. It was currently asserted that his death was due to poison—a report for which there was no foundation. The failure of his health was slow and gradual, the result of natural causes, and partly, perhaps, of excesses to which disappointment and depression may have rendered him prone. But public curiosity, once awakened, knew no bounds. Unlike most other Italian composers of his century, who, the objects of unmeasured admiration during their lives, are now forgotten, or recalled occasionally by way of a curiosity, Pergolesi's renown was entirely posthumous. Rome revived the despised Olimpiade, and found that it was good. All Italy was bent on possessing and performing, not his best works only, but trivial farces and intermezzi, probably written as 'pot-boilers.' The Serva Padrona was introduced into France in 1750, and made a furore [App. p.746 "before the successful performance of 'La Serva Padrona' in France it had failed there in 1746"]. It, and the Maestro di Musica, were translated into French, and have been popular in Paris ever since. Rousseau, Marmontel and d'Alembert extol his truth, simplicity and pathos, asserting that he restored music to nature, and freed her from the conventional trammels of an arid science. Chateaubriand, on the contrary, finds him too artificial, and, contrasting his sacred music with Gregorian plain-song, says he would have done better if, instead of displaying such a wealth of resources, he had confined himself to imagining a simple cantilena, to be repeated with each strophe. Villarosa remarks that, had he done this, the Stabat Mater would have had the character of French couplets.

The fact is that unjust indifference reacted in a somewhat exaggerated enthusiasm. He did not restore music to nature. He was one of the earliest, and perhaps the most gifted, of a distinguished group of composers who worked, or at any rate began by working, towards that object. Emotion predominated over intellect in his artistic nature, and his science is but slight. Nor did he show much invention in contrapuntal form. Certain devices that suited him he adopted and used repeatedly, but the phrases and forms which are peculiarly his own stand apart from these. His masses for double chorus show a sense of effect which, had he lived longer, might have manifested itself in other styles of composition. But it must not be supposed that a double 5-part chorus means, with Pergolesi, 10-part writing, the division into two choirs being, more often, than not, for purposes of effect. The same is the case with his 'double orchestras.'

His orchestra is simplicity itself, consisting often of the string quartet only, sometimes with oboes, and horns or trumpets. There is, a song in 'Adriano in Siria' with a curious florid oboe dbbligato. He writes for the violins in a way that shows his feeling for the instrument and his knowledge of its expressive powers. The concluding portion of a Kyrie in one of his masses is quoted on the opposite page. It is a very early and a beautiful instance of combined vocal and instrumental effect, and seems to suggest an imaginative power in its composer far beyond what he actually realised in his works.

Pathos and sweetness are more characteristic of his compositions than passion or great dramatic force. His sacred music is said to lack devotional fervour, and often to be more suited to the stage than to the church, there being no definite line to be drawn between his styles of writing for the two, and the same ideas often recurring in each. Variety of expression was in its infancy, and the same thing might be urged against many of Pergolesi's predecessors—with this difference, that their dramatic works seem more suited to the church than to the stage. He undoubtedly repeated himself very much; certain melodic and harmonic sequences and progressions he had a fondness for, and used them in all his works indiscriminately. It seems beyond question that all composers of that time and school no more thought it necessary even to appear to write always what was new, than we should to say something quite original every time we opened our mouths. Just as an ingenious contrapuntal device may be used again and again by its original discoverer, and adapted to the requirements of the working out of various fugues, so when a composer like Pergolesi chanced on a characteristic idea that pleased him, he introduced it wherever it served to illustrate or to adorn his subject, quite without reference to the work in which it may first have appeared. The difference between the two things had not come to be perceived, nor was it fully recognised before Beethoven. Such ideas, so used, were in time added to the general vocabulary, and adopted by others as the setting or background for their own ideas, and have often become known to posterity in this form only. Yet from their first inventor they come with a freshness that can be better felt than described, and three or four of Pergolesi's best works appear to present in a concentrated form what has since been spread by others over hundreds of operas and masses. It is impossible not to trace their influence in the works of Jommelli, of Cimarosa, of Haydn (in oratorio), and of Mozart. Yet there remains a something which is still essentially Pergolesi's own.

One important fact is too little remembered. Owing to the false dates usually given for his birth, Pergolesi is commonly supposed to have lived to be 33. Between this and 26, the age at which he actually died, there is the difference of perhaps the seven best years of young maturity. When we think how small is the number of composers who would be remembered now for what they wrote before they were five-and-twenty, and bear in mind that Pergolesi's last works show no symptom of exhausted power, but the reverse, we cannot but wonder what he might have originated and achieved had he been spared to benefit by wider experience and more stimulating opportunity. His career, as it was, is a mere suggestion. Could it have been fulfilled, it seems not impossible that one Italian eighteenth-century composer might have belonged not to Italy only, but to the world.

The following list of Pergolesi's works is copied from Fétis's 'Biographie des Musiciens.'

Operas and Intermezzi.

  1. La Sallustia.
  2. Amor fa l'uomo cieco; 1 act.
  3. Recimero; 3 acts.
  4. La Serva Fadrona; 1 act. The original score published in Paris [ by Lachevardière. An edition with French words published by Leduc.
  5. Il Maestro di Musica. Also published at Paris under the name of Le Maître de Musique.
  6. Il Geloso schernito.
  7. Lo Frate innamorato. Buffa opera, in Neapolitan dialect.
  8. Il Prigionier superbo.
  9. Adriano in Siria.
  10. Livletta e Tracolo.
  11. La Contadina astuta.
  12. Flaminio; 3 acts.
  13. L'Olimpiade; 3 acts.
  14. San Guglielmo; sacred drama.

Church Music.

  1. Kyrie cum Gloria; 4 voices and orchestra (pub. Vienna, Haslinger).
  2. Mass; 5 voices and orchestra.
  3. Mass; Two 5-part choirs and double orchestra.
  4. Dixit; 4 voices, 2 violins, alto, bass, and organ.
  5. Dixit; double chorus and orchestra.
  6. Miserere; 4 voices and orchestra (Paris, Pleyel).
  7. Confitebor; 4 voices.
  8. Domine ad adjuvandum; 4 voices.
  9. Do.; 5 voices.
  10. Laudate; 5 voices and orchestra.
  11. Laetatus sum; 2 sopranos and 2 basses.
  12. Laetatus; 5 voices.
  13. Laudate; single voice with Instruments.
  14. Salve regina; single voice, 2 violins, alto, bass, and organ (Paris, Leduc, and Porro).
  15. Stabat Mater for soprano and contralto; 2 violins, alto, bass, and organ (Paris, Bonjour, also Porro; Lyons, Carnaud. Five different editions with PF. accompaniment have been published at Paris. Here also was printed Paisiello's edition, with wind-instrument parts added by him. Two German editions with German words—one, in score, Schwickert, at Leipzig; the other, with PF., Christiani, at Hamburg. Hiller adapted Klopstock's Passion to the music of the Stabat, arranged for 4 voices, with the addition of oboes and flutes.) It has been recently published in London by Mr. Hullah.
  16. Dies iræ; soprano and contralto; 2 violins, alto, and bass.
  17. Mass; 2 voices and organ.
  18. Mass in D; 4 voices and orchestra.
  19. Oratorio sacro per la nascita del Redentore.

Chamber and Concert Music.

Orfeo; cantata for single voice and orchestra. (Choron has printed the score in his 'Principes de composition des Ecoles d'Italie.')
Five cantatas for soprano with clavichord.
Thirty trios for 2 violins and violoncello, with figured bass.
Villarosa also mentions:—(1) Solfeggi for 2 and 3 voices; (2) Giasone, (3) Cantata for 5 voices; (4) A collection of cantatas or songs printed in London; (5) Confitebor, for 2 voices; and various fragments of less importance, existing in manuscript in different private collections.

 
Two movements from Psalms for 6 voices unaccompanied, and two for the same with orchestra, are published by V. Novello in his Fitzwilliam music. The Fitzwilliam Library also contains a Mass, and a Kyrie and Gloria for 10 voices. A volume in the Add. MSS. of the British Museum (No. 5044) contains 3 Psalms, a Stabat, Salve, and Mass. These are all probably included in the above list. An air in F minor for clavier is published in Clauss-Szarvady's Klavierstücke (Leipzig, Senff).

[ F. A. M. ]


  1. Memorie dei compositore di musica del Regno di Napoll, racolte dal Marchese di Villarosa, Napoli. 1840, p. 141.