Italian operatic composer; born at Bari, in Naples. His father, who was a musician, wanted Niccolo to be a priest, but his musical taste asserted itself. The Bishop of Bari advised his father send him to a Conservatory. At fourteen years of age he entered San Onofrio in Naples.. He at first paid little heed to his studies, but spent his time composing; but Leo soon took him in hand, and when Leo died Durante became Piccinni's master, and grew so fond of him that he spoke of him as his son. On leaving the Conservatory he made an operatic debut with Le Donne dispettose. Le Gelosie, the next year, won equal favor, as did II Curioso del proprio danno, also in the comic vein.
In 1756 he wrote Zenobia for the San Carlo Theatre, and proved that his genius was as great in serious as in buffa composition. He continued to enhance his reputation in Italy until he had become the idol of his country. La Cecchina, ossa La Buona Figlia, was the most popular opera buffa ever written, and was played to highly enthusiastic audiences all over Europe. The next year he produced six operas, notably, Olympiade, and his success continued unabated until 1773, when his former pupil, Anfossi, caught the public ear, and Piccinni's opera failed So greatly did this affect his sensitive nature that he accepted the offers from Gluck's opponents in Paris, tendered him by the French Ambassador, and went to Paris in 1776. There Marmontel taught him the language and arranged Quinault's tragedies for his use, and in 1777 he produced Roland with great success. He gave singing lessons to Marie Antoinette, but received no remuneration, not even his traveling expenses. In 1778 he was made director of the Italian Opera, which played every other night at the Grand Opera House, and there he brought out some of his old plays, Le finte Gemelle, and La Buona Figlia in 1778, and II Vago disprezzato, and La buona Figliuola maritata in 1779. The war between his followers the Piccinnists, and the Gluckists had been raging bitterly, society dividing to uphold the old style on one hand or the reformed method on the other. The loving and peaceable Piccinni had held aloof from the struggle, keeping busy at work and the bitterness was subsiding, when the manager of the Opera arranged to have both composers set Iphigenie en Tauride. Piccinni had the promise of the first performance and set to work, but the intriguing managers had given him a wretched libretto, and though Ginguene partially rewrote it, it was enough to make even a genius fail. Meanwhile, in 1779, Gluck produced his opera with great success, and the hopes of his rival fell. The next year Gluck left Paris and Piccinni brought out Atys. In January, 1781, Iphigenie was produced, and though the opera was played for a short time it proved a failure. Adele de Pontineu also failed, but Didon, in 1783, played before the Court of Fontainbleau and later at the Grand Opera, was so popular that it was played for over forty years. Le Dormeur eveille and Le faux Lord also appeared with success in 1783, and the next year Piccinni was appointed principal teacher in the Royal Singing School. Jealousy and intrigue, however, now again sprang up, and at the outbreak of the Revolution he returned to Naples, leaving behind his scores, which were sold and scattered. At Naples he was well received until, in 1792, the marriage of his daughter to a French republican caused the report that he, too, belonged to that party. His Hercules was scoffed at and he gladly accepted an offer to go to Venice, where he produced Greselda, and II serva onorata with success. On his return to Naples he and his family were held in confinement for four years, and on their release, in 1798, they were advised by friends to return to Paris. There his wife and daughters sang his operas in the charming, simple style he loved. He was given five thousand francs for his needs and a small pension, but it was not paid regularly. A place as sixth inspector of the Conservatory was created for him, but the anxiety had been too much for him at seventy years of age, and he died at Passy, near Paris.
Piccinni was a remarkably prolific composer. Besides operas he wrote songs; romances; and much sacred music, including psalms, and masses, by which he made a meager living during the time of his confinement at Naples. His friend, Ginguene, gives the number of his operas as one hundred and sixty-three, but in the complete list of his works, in the 8th volume of the Rivista Musicale Italiana (1901), Alberto Carmetti notes one hundred and thirty-nine. Piccinni's music is charming and melodious. While his works lack the strength of Gluck's, nevertheless they show their composer to have been a man of great genius.