Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista

1710-1736

 

Also spelled Pergolese. The family name was originally Draghi, but coming from Pergola, they were called Pergolesi. Giovanni was born in the little town of Jesi, near Ancona, in the eastern part of Italy, where his father was a surveyor and his grandfather a shoemaker. They are said to have been very poor; but the boy studied music under Santini and Mondini in his native town until he was sixteen. Then he was sent to finish his education at Naples. There he continued his violin lessons under Matteis, and studied counterpoint under Greco, Durante and Feo. He is said to have attracted much attention by improvising harmonic and chromatic passages on his instrument, for at that time harmony was as yet comparatively unknown. At the close of his student life he wrote an oratorio, La Conversione di San Guglielmo d'Aquitania, picturing the struggle between good and evil as personified in an angel and a demon. This was sung with his comic intermezzo, II Maestro di Musica, at Sant' Agnello Maggiore in 1731. So great was the success of this performance that the Prince of Stigliano immediately took the young composer under his protection and through his influence Pergolesi's first serious opera, La Sallustia, was produced soon after with considerable success at the Teatro Nuovo, though his intermezzo, Nerino e Nibbia, was a failure. For the same theatre he wrote his next work, the serious opera Ricimero. It failed completely, and, greatly discouraged, he turned to other kinds of composition, writing for his patron, the Prince, thirty terzets or trios for two violins and harpsichord, twentyfour of which were afterward published in London; and a mass for a double chorus and orchestra, which was sung as an offering to the patron saint of Naples after the earthquake of 1731. This mass, though not in strict polyphonic style, shows an effective use of chorus against chorus, and greatly enhanced the reputation of its composer. The failure of the three-act serious opera, Ariano in Seria, in 1734, was mediated by the success of the intermezzo, Livietta e Tracolo, which was afterwards played separately as La Contadina, II finto pazza, and under other titles. In 1734 he visited Rome in the train of the Duke of Maddaloni, and was recalled to that city the next year to write an opera for the Tordinona theatre. Accordingly he set Metastasio's L'Olympiade, but the music was beyond its hearers and after a few days the piece was jeered off the stage, and Pergolesi returned to Naples downhearted. After the failure of L'Olympiade, Pergolesi devoted himself to church-music, but it was not long before failing health compelled him to go to Pozzuoli. Consumption had, however, made such terrible headway that he had barely time to complete a Salve Regina and his great Stabat Mater, which, even before he wrote L'Olympiade, had been ordered for a stipend of ten ducats, something over eight dollars, to replace the one by Alexander Scarlatti so long used by the Confraternity of San Luigi di Palazzo, before death cut short his career at twentysix years of age.