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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Jan. 2003
Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801)
the most highly regarded Italian composer of his
day (this, just in case you have been tricked by
the film Amadeus into thinking that this
honor belongs to a Viennese court composer by the
name of Salieri).
was born in Aversa near Naples and was admitted to
di S. Maria di Loreto in 1761 where he
made rapid progress as a violinist, keyboard
player, singer and, above all, a composer. He left
the conservatory in 1771. He first gained a
broader reputation by his contributions to the opera
buffa, the Neapolitan music form that had
become the rage of Europe ever since Pergolesi's La
Serva Padrona decades earlier. Cimarosa's
early works such as Le stravaganze del conte,
Le magie di Merlina e Zoroastro, Il
ritorno di Don Calandrino, Le donne
rivali, and Il pittore parigino
belong to the rather large body of light-hearted
and neglected music from the 18th century, much of
which has simply been historically overrun by
works in the same vein by Mozart
and Rossini, as well as
by the changing tastes in music when all of art
was swept into the great age of Romanticism.
In 1785 Cimarosa was appointed second organist of the Neapolitan royal chapel and also held an appointment at the Ospedaletto conservatory in Venice. In 1787 Cimarosa accepted the position of maestro di cappella at the St. Petersburg court of Catherine II. On the way to Russia, Cimarosa made the acquaintance of the Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany, who later, as emperor (1790-92) would be helpful to him during his stay in Vienna. He also met Caroline, the Vienna-born wife of King Ferdinand of Naples—a woman who would loom large in his own future in another few years.
Cimarosa stayed in St.
Petersburg until 1791. He was one of a long line of
Italian composers employed by the Czarina. He
returned to Vienna where he was appointed
Kapellmeister by Leopold II. He wrote a number of
comic operas there, most notable of which was Il
matrimonio segreto, based on The
Clandestine Marriage, a farce by Colman and
Garrick from 1766. It was enormously successful and
is, today, still one of the very few Neapolitan
comic operas in the standard repertoire of opera
companies in the world. It usually runs in Naples
every two or three years.
monument to Cimarosa in the city of Aversa,
He returned to Naples in 1796 and became the first organist of the royal chapel. He immediately became embroiled in the politics of the day, that is, the republican fervor sweeping Europe in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. When the Neapolitan Republic was declared in 1799 and the royal family fled from Naples to Sicily, Cimarosa lent his skills to the cause of the new Republic and composed a patriotic hymn that became the "national anthem" of the Republic.
When the Republic fell and the Bourbons returned to power in Naples, Cimarosa tried to make things right by composing some music for his old acquaintance, Queen Caroline, and her husband, King Ferdinand. Both king and queen, however, were hell-bent on revenge, and Cimarosa was one of the one-thousand "Republicans" put on trail for treason. He spent four months in prison and was spared execution probably by the intervention of his friends, Cardinal Ruffo and Lady Hamilton, and by his own plea at his trial that we was merely a composer. Yes, he had composed that Republican hymn, but he had also written music in honor of the royal family. That's what composers do: you pay them, they compose music. Whatever the reason, the "hanging judges" of the Bourbon tribunal let him go with exile. Cimarosa moved to Venice where he died in 1801. Despite rumors that Queen Caroline of Naples had him poisoned, he most likely died of natural causes.
Though now overshadowed, Cimarosa enjoyed vast renown during his lifetime. His 60 stage works were performed in all the major European capitals. He was praised by the likes of Goethe and Stendahl. His music was vigorous, yet elegant and delicate—of the kind that is today termed "Mozartean"—particularly the orchestral passages in, say, Il matrimonio segreto. Ironically, that work was premiered in Vienna in 1792, the same year that Mozart died there. It is, perhaps, an understandable quirk of history that relegates fine artists such as Cimarosa to obscurity in comparison to their larger-than-life contemporaries; in this case, that would be Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Tough competition, indeed.to music portal