Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Aug. 2003        

1. Mozart & the Neapolitan Comic Opera (directly below)
                            2. Mozart in Naples (here)

MozartIn a letter to his sister in May of 1770, Mozart wrote from Naples that…

"An opera composed by Jommelli begins on the 30th. We have seen the king and queen at Mass in the royal chapel at Portici, and we have seen Vesuvius, too… Madame de Amicis is singing at the opera. We have been to visit her. Caffaro is the composer of the second opera, Ciccio di Majo of the third…".

A few weeks later he wrote, again to his sister, that

"… the opera here is by Jomelli; it is beautiful, but too discreet and old-fashioned for the theater. Madame de Amicis sings incomparably… The theater is handsome. The king …always stands on a stool at the opera to appear a little taller than the queen. The queen is beautiful and courteous…" 

Mozart was only 15 when he wrote those letters; he was in Naples with his father as part of a tour of Italy to further his musical education. Naples was of extreme interest to any composer of that period because it was the home of the fine conservatories as well as the most beautiful theater (San Carlo) in Europe. Also, it was the birthplace of the most popular form of musical entertainment of the eighteenth century, the Comic Opera. 

If your view of opera is that is necessarily entails death by consumption, jumping from high places, getting stabbed by your lover or, in the case of much of Wagner, being pecked to death by mythologically huge swans, you will be happy to know that such has not always been the case. Those of you with funny bones will appreciate that the record for the longest encore ever played at the end of an opera was a repetition of the entire work! It was in 1792 and the work was a comic opera entitled The Clandestine Marriage by the Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa. It was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna, and as noted, the Emperor liked it so much that he ordered dinner for everyone before having the company do the whole thing again.

By the early 1700s, opera, the musical theater, in Europe had reached somewhat of an impasse. It was musically confusing, unable to decide on priorities between plot and music, often sacrificing everything to mere vocal virtuosity. And it was often dreary, still based, as it was, on the same Greek mythological themes that had given rise to the original melodramas of Monteverdi a century earlier. The balance between the importance of music versus the importance of text had shifted from text (where it been in the late 1500s) to music; that is, after a century of the powerful musical influence of Monteverdi, there was no doubt by 1700 what was more important —music.

One thing had to happen to keep melodrama from dying of all melo– and no drama: restore meaningful text; give people stories they could enjoy. One way to do this was to restore the literary value of the typical tales of classical mythology. This happened in the person of Metastasio, the greatest Italian librettist of the 18th century and one of the finest Italian poets of that century. His Didone Abbandonata from 1724 marks the rebirth of real poetry in the Italian libretto.

Another way was to turn to more modern stories and set them to music. Enter the Neapolitans, who began livening up evenings at the opera by inserting light–hearted little interludes called "intermezzos" between the acts of the more serious stuff. They broke up an evening of Achilles or Ajax or Opheus with a few minutes of fluffy domestic farce set to delightfully singable melodies. Alessandro Scarlatti's Il trionfo dell'onore, given 18 times at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in 1718, is chronologically the first comic hit of this newer light-hearted fare. 

From there, an entire school of composers dedicated themselves to such music. (Also see other composers and the series on obscure composers). In 1733 Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress) was produced. In 1749, some years after the composer's death, the opera swept Italy and France, literally revolutionizing the musical theater. (In 1741, the Comic Opera as comic intermezzo had ended when King Charles III decided it was inappropriate to have such folderol break up Greek tragedy. Put that stuff in a separate theater, he said. They did, and the independent Comic Opera was born.) In 1760, Niccolò Piccinni wrote the music to La Cecchina on a text by the great Venetian playwright, Goldoni. That text was based on a very popular English novel, Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, from 1740, by Samuel Richardson. Many years later, Verdi, himself, called La Cecchina, the "first true comic opera"—that is to say, it had everything: it was no longer simply an intermezzo; it had a real story that people liked; it had dramatic variety; and, musically, it had strong melodies and even strong supporting orchestral parts including a strong, almost "stand-alone" overture (i.e. you could enjoy it as an independent orchestral piece).

From then until the end of the century, many of Europe's best-loved composers were Neapolitans working within the framework of the comic opera: Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cimarosa, among others. Mozart had come to Naples to listen to the music of these composers and to learn from them. He spent  a short but thoroughly enjoyable time in Naples, taking in the sights and, of course, the sounds. He attended the opera, and he gave piano recitals of his own, during one of which, so the story goes, the young genius was required by the public to take off a ring he was wearing just to show that it wasn't magic and that he could still play without it! 

Like every other musical form that Mozart touched, he perfected the comic opera, too. His own works have so overshadowed the music of his Neapolitan contemporaries that of the literally hundreds of comic operas produced in Naples in the latter part of the 18th century, perhaps the only two still in the standard repertoire of opera companies elsewhere are two mentioned above: The Clandestine Marriage and The Servant Mistress.

The contemporary Neapolitan composer and musicologist Roberto de Simone has dedicated much of his activity to reviving a number of these 'lost' Neapolitan comic operas. They are generally well-received, but music that has to be revived will probably never again find a permanent place in the musical consciousness of the public. In a certain sense, we have become addicted to the passions of Romanticism. We will never be able to listen to this delightful music of the 18th century without first filtering it though our knowledge of 19th and 20th century music. We'll never appreciate it the way Mozart did when he was here. He heard it fresh, and he liked it. It was something he could work with.

[There is another entry on Mozart here, a light-hearted fantasy.] [And this.] [And this, on Mozart in Naples, below]

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supplementary entry #1  - added March 8, 2020

                                                                    Mozart in Naples
                       by Luciano Mangiafico

On December 13, 1769, Leopold Mozart and his 13-year-old son Wolfgang left Salzburg for a working trip to Italy. Leopold hoped his son would develop his talents, learn Italian, make contacts, and find a position financially befitting his musical abilities. There was great potential! Who knows? —perhaps meet the royal family of Naples, even become Kapellmeister [lit. "Master of the Chapel" the one in charge of all the music] at a court.

[ed. note: Readers should realize that "Italy" as used here means the vaguely homogeneous cultural conception that northern Europeans had at the time. They meant the whole Italian peninsula. In reality, that peninsula was made up of a number of different political states,  a result of the fragmentation after the fall of the Western Roman Empire centuries earlier. They were separate nations not necessarily on friendly terms with one another. The kingdom of Naples was one of these states. The capital of the kingdom was the city of Naples.]

That capital had long been a cradle of opera, turning out fine composers and performers. It was a leading innovator in both vocal and instrumental music. In most places in northern Europe and, indeed, even in some places in northern Italy young musicians were apprenticed to one master, but in Naples training was along standards tested over time. It was a system where pupils received long, rigorous instruction by a whole series of master teachers. Music was taken seriously as an art form; young musicians could look forward to at least some degree of artistic and financial success. Importantly, performances were not tied solely to the courts or to the church.

Naples and Venice were at the time the major musical centers on the peninsula. They both fostered a "conservatory" system. If you ask, Why 'conservatory'? What were they 'conserving'? Children! A conservatory was a church-run orphanage committed to raising children, teaching them a trade and making them self-reliant. Music was a good trade to learn. Naples had four such conservatories:

Santa Maria di Loreto, founded in 1537;
I Poveri di Gesù Cristo (1589);
(3) Sant’Onofrio a Capuana (1578); and
La Pietà dei Turchini (1583)

[ed. note: Technically, there was a fifth conservatory, San Sebastiano, (at what is now Piazza Dante).  It was short-lived (the early 1800s) but served long enough to be a venue for some of the music of Donizetti.]

Great names of Neapolitan music
Cimarosa, Durante, Porpora, A. Scarlatti, G.B Pergolesi, Jommelli, Paisiello, Piccini, Provenzale  all came from these institutions. Training lasted from eight to ten years (!) but those who graduated were superb musicians composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists.

[editorial note: At least the facade (from 1715) of the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo (image, left) looks more or less like it used to centuries ago. It is now a shelter for the homeless and hungry. If you go through a side entrance, you are in the courtyard of the old monastery,  again a working religious institution. And I mean working! Sisters of the order of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) scurry about, heeding the injunction to help those who need help They even have a long-term shelter with room for about 20 residents at any given time. It is on via dei Tribunale across from the large white church of the Girolamini. You didn't just study music, either. They worked on the total education of the child, so when you finished your violin or piano lessons, you went to lessons in "grammatica". That instructor in this conservatory was none other than philosopher Giambattista Vico! Other conservatories from the 1500s have not been so lucky. The image on the right used to be the Santa Maria di Loreto conservatory. The chunk (or slab!) of wall with the window in the center of the image is what is left of it.  The area is near the train station and port, both victims of severe bombing and even ground combat in WWII.  There is more information on the conservatories here and here. jm]
On May 8, 1770, Leopold Mozart and his son left Rome (capital of the Papal States, one of the other "political states" mentioned above) on the road for Naples, traveling in a convoy of four carriages, with night stops at monasteries. They got to Naples on May 14 and stayed until June 25, a total of 42 days. They brought a letter of recommendation for Prime Minister Bernardo Tanucci and called on him right away. They visited the Royal Villa of Portici; Wolfgang played the organ in the Palatine Chapel; and they got a glimpse of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria Carolina (a daughter of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa). They played at the home of English Ambassador William Hamilton and met the Austrian Ambassador Count Ernest Rietberg von Kaunitz. They also played at the home of Colin McKenzie, Lord Fortrose, a Scottish expatriate nobleman living in Naples. Indeed, there is a painting of that occasion (now in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh) showing among the orchestra Leopold Mozart at the piano and young Wolfgang at a portable keyboard. Later, father and son played a private concert sponsored by Lady Hamilton and were even paid for it. (I have no idea whether that sum was "befitting" Wolfgang's talent, but it was a start!)
photo info: The large image of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is a well-known copy and "rendering" of an equally well-known original attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli (1706–1770), an Italian painter of the Rococo and early Neoclassic period. The creator of this later version is sourced simply as "the painter, Bode." Young Wolfgang is 14 years old here. The image of his father, Leopold (1719-1786), is by an unknown artist. The painting is dated 1780.
They attended the first performance of Niccolò Jommelli's new opera Armida Abbandonata at the Teatro San Carlo. In a letter home, Wolfgang wrote that he liked both the music and the performance, but felt the subject and its treatment were, as he wrote to his beloved older sister, "Nannerl"  “… too discreet and old-fashioned for the theater. Madame de Amicis sings incomparably… The theater is handsome. The king …always stands on a stool at the opera to appear a little taller than the queen. The queen is beautiful and courteous…"
There is an oft-told story about Wolfgang's concert at the conservatory of the Pietà dei Turchini, that says as much about Neapolitan audiences as it does about Wolfgang: He played the harpsichord with such dexterity and passion that the superstitious crowd thought he was being aided by something magical in the ring he wore on his left hand. Not wanting to be “fatti fessi d’o guaglione” (fooled by a boy), they yelled for him to take off the ring. He did and kept playing like an angel. They broke into cheers.

As you might expect, the Mozarts went out of their way to meet well-known composers such as Jommelli and Paisiello, and even made friends with the famous castrato singer Gaetano Majorano, known as "Caffarelli". The royal Kapellmeister (and, importantly, also the manager of San Carlo), even offered Wolfgang a commission to write an opera for San Carlo. The timing conflicted with Mozart’s commitment for an opera he had promised to Milan and he had to turn down the opportunity. Important, however
his contacts were increasing.

Father and son were typical Grand Tourists while waiting for what they hoped would be an invitation to play before the royal family. They went to Lake Avernus, Herculaneum, Pompeii, Caserta, the Roman baths at Baiae, the Grotta of Pozzuoli, the Tomb of Virgil, the Royal Palace of Capodimonte, and climbed Vesuvius.
[editorial note: AND !! they also played typical Alpine bumpkin-billy tourists by defacing the walls of at least one monument with their signatures. The graffiti is still legible (image, right). The complete story is here.]                                         photo credit: Fulvio De Marinis        

That royal invitation never came. There may be two reasons: first, the queen may have heard from her mother (the Empress Maria Theresa) in Vienna that the Mozarts were quarrelsome and annoying. Indeed, Daddy Leopold was often overly insistent on peddling his prodigious Wunderkind; second, the 18-year-old king of Naples, Ferdinand, was not a music lover. He was a vulgar lout and liked to hunt, chase women, and hang out with fishermen down at the port, where he felt at home.

Papà Mozart in his letters home expressed mixed feelings about Naples: he loved the pulsing vitality of the city, the fertile land, the scenic countryside, but he hated the noise, filth, and unruly superstitious populace. Finally, on the afternoon of June 25, he and his son left Naples by post-coach, traveling 27 hours straight and getting to Rome on the evening of June 26. The trip to Italy, and Naples in particular, had been profitable for young Wolfgang. He always valued the experience. A few years later, when he was not doing well financially, he wrote his father from Munich:
“When I reflect on it, in no country have I received such honors, or been so esteemed, as in Italy, and nothing contributes more to a man's fame than to have written Italian opera, especially for Naples… Once I have written for Naples I shall be sought after everywhere. As papà well knows, there is opera buffa in Naples in spring, summer, and autumn. I might compose a few just for practice, not to be totally idle. True, there is not much to be had by that, but it would mean more to my honor and reputation than a hundred concerts in Germany…”
Such was the high regard of the world of music for Naples!


-D’Alessandro, Domenico Antonio. I Mozart e la Napoli di Hamilton: Due quadri di Fabris per Lord Fortrose. Napoli:                         Grimaldi & C. Editori, 2006.
-Davenport, Marcia. Mozart. New York: Avon Books, 1979.
-Eisen, Cliff et al. In Mozart's Words, (off-site here). Version 1.0, pub. HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.
-Eisen, Cliff, and Simon P. Keefe. The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
-Melograni, Piero, and Lydia G. Cochrane. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
-Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vol. 1, March 2004. (off-site here).
-Sadie, Stanley. Mozart: The Early Years 1756-1781.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
-Scialo, Pasquale, editor. Mozart a Napoli. Napoli: Alfredo Guida,1991

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