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entry Mar 2008

Obscure composers (3)

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The right side of the facade of San Carlo bears the names of three librettists: Alfieri, Goldoni and Metastasio. On the left are the names of three composers: Pergolesi, Iommelli (also "Jommelli') and Piccinni. This gives you a good idea of how prominent those composers were at the beginning of the 1800s. Additionally, by the turn of the century Paisiello and Cimarosa had joined the ranks of prominent Neapolitan composers.

Among lesser-known composers of roughly the same period (that is, mid-to-late 1700s) we find Tommaso Traeta (1727-1779). He was a student of Porpora and Durante; his enjoyed success at San Carlo with his opera, Farnace, and then worked for theaters in Reggio Emilia, Venice and Rome. He was also invited by Catherine the Great of Russia to her court at St. Petersburg, as were both Paisiello and Cimarosa a few years later. (I am left wondering just how many Neapolitan composers went off to teach music to the tone-deaf Czarina. There does not appear to be a book called "Neapolitan Composers at the Court of Catherine the Great." Darn.) In any event, musicologists rate Traeta with Iomelli as being one of the finest composers of serious opera of the day (serious, as opposed to the popular comic opera).

Giacomo Insanguine (1740-95) was nicknamed "Monopoli" after his hometown in Puglia. He studied at the Conservatory of Sant'Onofrio a Capuana in Naples and became an instructor there in 1767. From 1781 until his death, he was the choir master in the cathedral of Naples. His most successful opera at San Carlo was in 1770: Didone abbandonata (Dido Abandoned). The libretto was by
—guess who—Metastasio* and, by one count, has been set to music by 50 different composers, most of them in the 1700s. Insanguine had the misfortune of being bad-mouthed by Paisiello, who called him "maestro delle pezze". Pezze are "rags"; thus, Paisiello was calling Insanguine worthless, implying that his reputation came from reworking the music of others.

Giuseppe Gazzaniga (1743-1818) was from Verona, but studied music in Venice and then in Naples as a pupil of Porpora and Piccinni. His opera, il Barone di Trocchia, was first presented at San Carlo in 1768. He composed about 50 operas, including a version of Don Giovanni in 1787. He also composed significant sacred music and became later in life the musical director of the cathedral in Crema, a town in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. His life and works were the subject of a detailed study by the prominent 19th-century German critic Karl Crysander.

Niccolò Zingarelli (1752-1837) was from Naples and studied at the conservatory of Santa Maria di Loreto. He composed over 30 operas, the first of which, Montezuma, was performed at San Carlo in 1781. He travelled widely, going to France and then leaving at the time of the revolution. He returned to Italy to be the choir master of the Milan cathedral and later of the Sistine Chapel in Rome where, notoriously, he refused to perform a Te Deum for the birth of Napoleon's son. He was arrested and packed off to Paris where Napoleon, a big fan, promptly released him. He returned to Naples in 1813 to teach; he then replaced Paisiello as the choir master at the Naples cathedral. Bellini was among his pupils in Naples. A look at Zingarelli's dates is revealing and perhaps goes a long way towards explaining why Zingarelli is little known and seldom heard today. He lived to the age of 85; he was born four years before Mozart (!) and lived long enough to hear all of Rossini's operas and see him become the most popular composer in Italy. He was surrounded by—and outlived—the great inventors of European musical Classicism and Romanticism, including Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. Tough competition.

*Metastasio. It is difficult to calculate how many operas have been composed to the libretti of Metastasio. Many hundreds would be plausible and if I find out that it's over one thousand, that won't surprise me. The text to Didone abbandonata was so good, it is said to have rejuvenated Italian opera in the 1720s, a time when opera was suffering from too much good music and not enough good stories and text. As noted under the entry for Dominico Sarro (return to part 2), la Clemenza di Tito was also set to music 40 or 50 times. Other such libretti include Alessandro nell'Indie. Among those who set that one to music are Leonardo Vinci (1729) , Baldassare Galuppi (1738), David Perez (1745), Antonio Sacchini (1763), Niccolò Piccinni (1774), and Johann Christian Bach (1762). One gets the impression that using Metastasio must have been some sort of conservatory exercise.  After all, there were four conservatories in Naples with students and young composers hanging from the rafters just dying to have their music performed at San Carlo. It was best not to saddle them with shaky text; give them a good libretto to work with and see what they come up with. There is a separate entry on Metastasio.

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