Cimarosa was 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).
Cimarosa was born in Aversa near Naples
and was admitted to the Conservatorio 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.
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.
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,