Giovanni Battista Pergolese

The measure of a life is not its length, but is productiveness, and the best of a life’s work is in its quality, not its quantity. The history of the fine arts is rich in the names of those who ended a great careers before they had rounded out two score years, and many of the world’s triumphs in the open conflicts of battle on land or sea and of labor in the struggles of peaceful times were won by men who had not long left their boyhood behind them.

Eminent among these young men, whose work and fame are to be permanently preserved and esteemed, is Giovanni Battista Pergolese, the span of whose life hardly exceeded a quarter of a century, and the number of whose compositions appears small in proportion to the influence he exerted and the new impulse he imparted to the musical world.

Yet during his lifetime he was unappreciated and unsuccessful, and was a person of so little consequence that many details of his history are difficult to discover, while others which might now be interesting and instructive, are absolutely unknown.

The very year and place of his birth are disputed. Some authorities claim that he was born in 1704 at Casoria, in the immediate vicinity of Naples; bu the best are agreed upon the date of January 3, 1710, and name Jesi, a small town near Ancona, as the place. On the other hand, Fetis, after much examination, comes to the conclusion that he was born at Pergola, a town near Urbino, whence his surname of Pergolese, his family name being Jesi – and sets down that the year was 1707. On this point he is evidently wrong, as he would thus make the composer older by three years at the time of his death than he is generally stated to have been.

Of his boyhood nothing is known, but he must have shown in an unusual degree of musical talent so common in Italy, because he is found at about ten years of age as a charity student in Naples, and under the protection of the Duke of Maddaloni and Prince of Stigliano, the latter being first equerry to the King of Naples. Here again accounts differ. On the one hand it is claimed that the boy was received into the Conservatory Dei Poveri di Gesu Cristo, while on the other it is argued with much probability that he was taught at San Onofrio. If the latter be accepted as the truth, the contradiction can be explained by the fact that his teacher, Gaetano Greco, was originally at the former institution, but spent his later years in connection with the latter.

As the lad showed small aptitude for vocal music, he was first set to learn the violin of Domenico Mattei, who soon discovering the nature of his talent, sent him to Grecco. This eminent master, himself a distinguished pupil of the great Allesandro Scarlatti, found Pergolese to be well worth cultivating and devoted himself to him with loving care. But in about two years Greco died, and Pergolese then received instruction from Durant, the famous master of counterpoint, whose methods are still followed in the royal conservatory at Naples, and from Feo. During this period his attention was concentrated upon the science of music and composition, and it is recorded that by the time he was fourteen years old, he had written some things of considerable consequence.

The effect of his training in the  reserved, scholastic and almost conventional Neapolitan methods and of the influence about him was naturally such as to render his style severe, classic and almost formal; but no such limitation could be set to the expansion of his spirit, and no sooner was he free from academic constraint and ready to choose his own way in the world, than he began to express himself more vividly and to turn toward the theatre as his true field.

His first composition was, so to speak, a compromise between the lessoning of the past and his ambitions for the future, for it was a drama with a flavor of oratorio. It was called “San Guglielmo d’ Aquitania,” and was produced at the Fiorentini, which stood in the second rank of Neapolitan theatres, and was not then, as subsequently, confined to the representation of comedy. The opera had only a qualified success with the public, being judged to have too much science and too little melody; but it sufficed to make his talent evident to his noble patrons, who then exerted their influence to get him hearings at other theatres.

Thus encouraged, he wrote “Sallustia,” an opera-buffa; “Amor fa l’ Uomo Cieco,” an intermezzo, at the suggestion of the Prince of Stigliano; and “Ricimero,” a grand opera. These were performed at San Bartolomeo and other secondary theatres, and were all failures.

Disappointed and almost disheartened, Pergolese decided to give up the stage, and for two years he devoted himself to instrumental music, composing about thirty trios for strings, chiefly for the Prince of Stigliano and other friends. But his disposition was not to be longer controlled, and in 1731 he produced “La Serva Padrona,” a light opera which made an instant success and has attained a justly high reputation all the world over. Being in the vein again, he followed this with “Il Maestro di Musica,” “Il Geloso Schernito,” “Lo Frate Innamorato,” “Liveietta e Tracolo,” “Il Prigioniero Superbo” and “La Contadina Astuta.” These were mostly composed upon Neapolitan texts, were full of gaiety and brightness, and had temporary success in the San Bartolomeo, the Nuovo and other theatres; but their local dialect and the fact that they belonged to the less important classes of opera, prevented their obtaining any wide currency.

In May, 1734, Pergolese was called to Rome to become the chapel-master of the church of Santa Maria di Loreto. Regarding this nomination as a promotion in his art as well as a recognition of his ability, he set himself seriously to work upon something which should at once confirm any good opinion of his powers and demonstrate his gratitude.

Putting aside the trivial Neapolitan libretti, he turned to Metastasio and drew from his poetry the for his “Olimpiade,” a grand opera which was brought out in 1735 at the Tordinona. At this time the composer Duni – of whom little more than the name now remains – was a composer much in favor, and was about the bring out a new work of his own, “Nero.” He had no small fear of what Pergolese might do and withheld his score until he could make acquaintance with that of the new comer. His opinion, written directly to Pergolese, with many expressions of admiration, included these words: “There are here too many details beyond the reach of the average public; they will pass unperceived, and you will not succeed. My opera will not have the value of yours; but, being more simple, it will be more fortunate.” Duni was right; the “Olimpiade” was a failure; some parts of it were hissed, although it was admitted that two airs and one duet were “deeply expressive,” and one chronicler records that some irate auditor went so far as to throw an orange at the head of the composer as he sat at the harpsichord in the orchestra. The generous spirited Duni afterwards said that he was ‘in a fury’ against the Roman public for its behavior toward his contemporary.

This defeat was a decisive one, and Pergolese turned back to his duties as a composer and director of religious music. The ensuing period was signalized by his writing, among other things, of a mass, a Dixit and a Laudate, all upon a commission from the Duke of Maddaloni, who desired them for the annual festival at the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, at Rome, where they were sung with great eclat.

The end of Pergolese’s career was not approaching. For about four years he had had frequent hemorrhages and had shown other signs of pulmonary consumption. Beside having within it the germs of this fatal disease, his constitution had been sapped and weakened by dissipation, and what one of his biographers calls squarely his “passion effrienee pour les femmes.” To save what strength and life he still had, it was necessary that he should leave Rome for a less trying climate, and he determined to return to the softer and more salubrious air of Naples. One writer says that he betook himself to a property belonging to the Duke of Maddaloni, at Torre del Greco, just at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, where the sunny exposure and the protection of the volcano from the winds of the north are thought to be extremely propitious to such invalids as he. But this stay can have been only temporary, because his final residence is known to have been in a villa at Pozzuoli, which is quite on the other side of Naples and is to be accounted a no less salubrious place of sojourn, having been sought for sanitary reasons by the old Romans.

Pergolese was hardly fit to do any work in these days, but he had accepted a commission from the confraternity of San Luigi di Palazzo, in Rome, and was determined to execute it. The subject was a “Salve Regina,” and he was to receive for it the munificent sum of ten ducats – equivalent, perhaps, to about eight dollars of the present currency. Like Mozart, laboring over this “Requiem,” Pergolese gave his last thought and his last strength to this anthem, and had hardly completed it when, on the 16th day of March, 1736, he died.

There were rumors at the time, which even had some currency years later, that he had been poisoned, the isolation of his retreat and the peculiarity of some of his symptoms suggesting the possibility of this. But, apart from the fact that his physical condition and his known habits explained his maladies and their inevitable termination, Pergolese was not a figure of sufficient importance to excite jealousy or animosity. His life had not been a public one in the full sense of the word, and in the lyric drama, where he desired most to shine, he had made but one real success – that of “La Serva Padrona.”

Hardly had the young composer’s body been buried – in the little cathedral at Pozzuoli – when a sudden and extreme admiration for his music broke out in Italy, and soon spread to other countries. Naples, in her tardy enthusiasm, justified the reproach of Dr. Burney, who wrote, “Had she known her own happiness, Naples might have boasted of possessing one of the greatest geniuses she or the world had ever produced. The first opera of Giovanni Battista Pergolese was performed at her second theatre! The young composer found not among his countrymen minds sensible of his extraordinary talents or that acknowledged the natural maxim of Horace, ‘Bonus sis felixque tuis.’ His native ladn was the last to discover, or to confess, his superior powers.”

Two years after it author’s death the “Olimpiade” was reproduced in splendid fashion at Rome and received with honor. The “Serva Padrona” was translated into other languages and heard in many European cities. It reached Paris about 1750, and although performed by inferior singers, it created so deep an impression, – subsequently increased by “Il Maestro di Musica,” – that some French authorities have not hesitated to say that this music almost revolutionized theatrical art and led to the establishment of comic opera as it has been since understood in France.

His sacred music was also introduced in the Concerts Spirituels and greatly applauded as among the chief sensations of the time. Pergolese is judged to have had his first adequate hearing in England in 1724. The poet Gray had brought home from Italy fine reports of the new music, and in that year the “Olimpiade” was put upon the stage of the King’s Theatre, then directed by the Duke of Middlesex. It had not a distinguished success, but one air, “Tremende oscure atroci,” became an established favorite in concerts with the principal Italian tenors for ten years after.