Even to those
interested in the history of music it may come as a
surprise to learn that there was music in Naples
before Alessandro Scarlatti,
the composer often cited as the beginning of the
“Neapolitan school” and even described as “the inventor of classical music and the
harmonic system later perfected by Mozart.” (That
glowing praise is from an encyclopedia the name of
which I forgot to write down. Sorry.) Maybe it’s a
fair description, maybe a bit overblown. In any event,
there was music in Naples before that, and his name
was Francesco Provenzale.
Nobel laureate for literature in 1915, French writer
Romain Rolland, supposedly rescued Provenzale from
obscurity in a 1905 work entitled A History of
Opera in Europe before Lully and Scarlatti, in which he called Provenzale “the real
founder of the glorious Neapolitan school” and
compared him to J.S. Bach.
(A few years later, a German musicologist, Hugo
Goldschmidt, compared Provenzale to Mozart. See
“sources,” below.) Well, those rescue attempts didn’t
work very well because Provenzale is still so obscure
that he is not even listed(!) in the
3,000-page 1956 Garzanti Il Mondo della
Musica (The World of Music).
(There is no one between baritone Aldo
Protti and Giacomo Puccini.)
Provenzale is not even mentioned in the same
encyclopedia’s section on “The Neapolitan school.” And
the only street named for Provenzale in Naples is
about four feet long and so far out of town that it
might as well be in the 1600s.
Tracing the history of opera, in general, one tends to jump from Monteverdi to A. Scarlatti (if one is in a hurry). Monteverdi, of course, was from the north. He wrote his first opera —the first opera— Orpheus, in 1607, and his last, The Coronation of Poppea, in 1647. The first was an experiment with a new musical form; the last, with the music fully at the service of the psychology of the drama, was a full-blown model for later grand opera. Scarlatti was born in Palermo (Sicily) in 1660 and moved to Naples in his twenties. He wrote opera, sacred music, comic opera and symphonies until his death 65 years later. His influence was enormous.
Provenzale was unfortunate enough to exist in time between those two giants, but he was not a lightweight. He was born just three years after the first opera theater, San Bartolomeo, opened in Naples. At the time, of course, the music was imported from the north. Provenzale wound up as one of the early contributors to a home-grown repertoire of opera and other musical forms before Scarlatti and held some extremely important positions in the world of music in Naples. He was the maestro of the Real Cappella (Royal Choir); he was the head of two of the four music conservatories (Santa Maria di Loreto and Santa Maria della Pietà dei Turchini); and he was the official composer to the Spanish vice-royal court of Naples.
Between 1652 and 1678, Provenzale composed six operas, only two of which survive: Il schiavo di sua moglie (His wife’s slave) (1671) and La Stellidaura vendicata (The Revenge of Stellidaura) (1674). Interestingly, they are somewhere between the concepts of “serious opera” (based on classical Greek mythology) and “comic opera”: that is, the first one features Hercules against the Amazons (and you don’t get much more classical than that!) but also has a Neapolitan character in the cast; and the second one is written partially in Calabrian dialect. (Some critics say that this “anticpated” the dialect opera buffa, the comic opera of Scarlatti and his generation.)
Provenzale wrote significant sacred music and employed dialect even there —for example, in La Colomba Ferita (The Wounded Dove), a work dealing with the life of the patron saint of Palermo, Saint Rosalia. As composer to the vice-royal court for many years, he wrote much of the “official” music required of the day. This included sacred music still highly regarded, such as his Missa defunctorum (Requiem mass) composed probably for the death of Phillip IV of Spain in 1666 and used, as well, on other occasions for the rest of the century. It must have seemed archaic even in 1666, sounding hauntingly like the great Flemish polyphonies of the early Renaissance. Perhaps for a requiem, that was appropriate. It may also serve as an indicator of why Provenzale is not regarded as the beginning of anything new in music in Naples (that honor belongs to Scarlatti). Even his “anticipation” of dialect was not revolutionary. It might even be said to have been retrograde or at least parochial since most theater of the day was in dialect and not “Tuscan” (one day to be known as “Italian.”) The real revolution would be to write Neapolitan comic opera in Italian (which is what Scarlatti did in 1718 with Il trionfo dell’onore).
So why is Provenzale obscure? Perhaps because, as a culture, we equate greatness with innovation, with moving forward. Provenzale was merely a solid link to the past. Maybe that’s not good enough. Provenzale was born in Naples and died there.