remembered at all today by the average
concert-goer, Paisiello is the one who wrote "the
other Barber of Seville" (in 1782 —which might
make Rossini's Barbiere from 1816 the
"other" one. But there are many others! For a list, see this link.) History knows
best, I suppose. Paisiello was born in Taranto and
attended the S. Onofrio music conservatory in
Naples from 1754 to 1763. He composed opera for
northern Italian theaters at first and then returned
to Naples in 1766 where he wrote both comic opera
and opera seria for the various music
theaters, including San Carlo.
[Also see this entry on
the original music
In 1776 Paisiello
accepted an invitation from Catherine II of Russia to be
her maestro di cappella, becoming one of a
number of Italian composers in the late 18th century to
move north and take on the daunting challenge of
teaching the tone-deaf czarina something about music.
(Another Neapolitan to do so was Domenico
Cimarosa.) It was in St. Petersburg that Paisiello
composed The Barber of Seville, a comic opera
based on one book of a trilogy by Beaumarchais (pen name
of Pierre Augustin Caron, 1732-99). (Mozart's opera on
the other comic masterpiece from the same trilogy, The
Marriage of Figaro, is from 1786.) Interestingly,
modern Russian musicians are likely to think of
Paisiello rather than Rossini if
you mention The Barber of Seville; Russian
companies still perform it and even travel abroad with
it. One such company from Moscow performed it to
splendid reviews in Naples in the late 1980s.
Paisiello was clearly not happy in Russia and returned to Naples where he became the favorite composer of King Ferdinand as well as the official court composer. His Barbiere was performed in Naples in 1783 and developed into a mainstay of the Neapolitan comic opera form. He received a regular salary in return for composing music as needed by the court. He then suffered some sort of a mental breakdown and his output slowed considerably. Henceforth he devoted much of his artistic energies to religious music, and in 1796 he was appointed maestro di cappella of the Naples Cathedral. By that time, it is fair to say that he was one of the best-known Italian composers of his day, an honor perhaps shared with his Neapolitan contemporary, Cimarosa.
The political events of the 1790s touched Paisiello just as they did Cimarosa. Paisiello, the King's favorite, did not flee from Naples to Sicily with the royal family when revolutionary forces, supported by the French army, proclaimed the Neapolitan Republic in early 1799. He stayed behind and, like Cimarosa, composed music for the Republic. When the Republic fell, Paisiello's role was scrutinized and he was pardoned. He left for Paris at the request of Napoleon who commissioned various works from him, including music used in Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804.
When the French army then invaded Naples and sent the royal family packing once again to Sicily, Paisiello again stayed on, first as composer to the court of the new king, Napoleon's brother, Joseph, and then Joseph's replacement, Murat. He was undoubtedly the privileged musician in the Naples of his day, enjoying the favor of the monarch as well as, from afar, that of the emperor, himself. At Bonaparte's ultimate departure from the scene in 1815, King Ferdinand, again on the throne of Naples, granted an amnesty to former supporters of the French. This included Paisiello, who died in June of 1816.
At least once
fictional representation of the life of Rossini, an
Italian film from the 1930s, puts Paisiello at the
first performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville.
The performance was a disaster due to roughneck
Neapolitan hecklers who did not like the idea of the
young northerner, Rossini, reworking one of their
favorite Neapolitan comic operas. In the film,
Paisiello apologizes to Rossini for the behavior of
the public. There is no historic evidence that episode
ever took place, but it's a good story.