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Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816)
contains audio link at bottom
remembered at all today by the average
concert-goer, Paisiello is the one who wrote "the
other Barber of Seville" (in 1782 —which
might make Rossini's Barbiere from
1816 the "other" one. (There are many others!
For a list, see this link.) But history
knows best, I suppose.) Paisiello was born in
Taranto and attended the S. Onofrio music
conservatory in Naples from 1754 to 1763. He
composed opera for northern Italian theaters at
first and then returned to Naples in 1766 where he
wrote both comic opera and opera seria
for the various music theaters, including San Carlo.
[Also see this entry on the original music
In 1776 Paisiello accepted an invitation from Catherine II of Russia to be her maestro di cappella, becoming one of a number of Italian composers in the late 18th century to move north and take on the daunting challenge of teaching the tone-deaf czarina something about music. (Another Neapolitan to do so was Domenico Cimarosa.) It was in St. Petersburg that Paisiello composed The Barber of Seville, a comic opera based on one book of a trilogy by Beaumarchais (pen name of Pierre Augustin Caron, 1732-99). (Mozart's opera on the other comic masterpiece from the same trilogy, The Marriage of Figaro, is from 1786.) Interestingly, modern Russian musicians are likely to think of Paisiello rather than Rossini if you mention The Barber of Seville; Russian companies still perform it and even travel abroad with it. One such company from Moscow performed it to splendid reviews in Naples in the late 1980s.
Paisiello was clearly not happy in Russia and returned to Naples where he became the favorite composer of King Ferdinand as well as the official court composer. His Barbiere was performed in Naples in 1783 and developed into a mainstay of the Neapolitan comic opera form. He received a regular salary in return for composing music as needed by the court. He then suffered some sort of a mental breakdown and his output slowed considerably. Henceforth he devoted much of his artistic energies to religious music, and in 1796 he was appointed maestro di cappella of the Naples Cathedral. By that time, it is fair to say that he was one of the best-known Italian composers of his day, an honor perhaps shared with his Neapolitan contemporary, Cimarosa.
The political events of the 1790s touched Paisiello just as they did Cimarosa. Paisiello, the King's favorite, did not flee from Naples to Sicily with the royal family when revolutionary forces, supported by the French army, proclaimed the Neapolitan Republic in early 1799. He stayed behind and, like Cimarosa, composed music for the Republic. When the Republic fell, Paisiello's role was scrutinized and he was pardoned. He left for Paris at the request of Napoleon who commissioned various works from him, including music used in Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804.
When the French army then invaded Naples and sent the royal family packing once again to Sicily, Paisiello again stayed on, first as composer to the court of the new king, Napoleon's brother, Joseph, and then Joseph's replacement, Murat. He was undoubtedly the privileged musician in the Naples of his day, enjoying the favor of the monarch as well as, from afar, that of the emperor, himself. At Bonaparte's ultimate departure from the scene in 1815, King Ferdinand, again on the throne of Naples, granted an amnesty to former supporters of the French. This included Paisiello, who died in June of 1816.
At least once fictional
representation of the life of Rossini, an Italian
film from the 1930s, puts Paisiello at the first
performance of Rossini's Barber of Seville.
The performance was a disaster due to roughneck
Neapolitan hecklers who did not like the idea of the
young northerner, Rossini, reworking one of their
favorite Neapolitan comic operas. In the film,
Paisiello apologizes to Rossini for the behavior of
the public. There is no real historic evidence that
the episode ever took place, but it's a good story.