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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi  (1710-36)

PergolesiI have it on good authority from an enthusiastic student at the Naples Conservatory that the library in that institution is now totally on-line, properly cataloged and up to date. It is no longer the case, he assures me, "that there are shoe boxes in the basement with undiscovered manuscripts of Pergolesi". 

"Not that there ever were," he adds. 

I certainly hope not. Pergolesi is in the forefront of important European musicians of the early 1700s, and his influence on the development of subsequent musical form in that century is far beyond what one might have expected from a scant 26 years of life. He was born in Jesi, a small town not far from Ancona in central Italy. The original family name was "Draghi". “Pergolesi” is a toponym, derived from his family's ancestral home, the town of Pergola in the Marche region of Italy. Thus, members of his family were originally Someone-from-Pergola, in much the same way as was Leonardo da (from) Vinci. His parents' marriage registration lists his mother as “Donna” Anna Vittorio Giorgi” and his father as Francesco Andrea, a sergeant in the army. Pergolesi’s three siblings all died in early infancy or early childhood. His parents also died young. He received early musical training at home and then was sent to the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples, one of the four such institutions in the city before they were consolidated into a single conservatory early in the 19th century. His teachers at the conservatory wrote of his great skill, particularly as a violinist.

History remembers Pergolesi largely for his contribution to what would become the most popular form of entertainment in 18th century Europe, the opera buffathe comic opera. His first effort was Lo frate ’nnamorato (“The Enamoured Monk”), performed at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples on September 27,  1732. It was successful and is one of the few such works from that period still performed. It was not, however, the one that "started the ball rolling," so to speak. That honor goes to La serva padrona (“The Maid Mistress”), composed as an intermezzo within a larger work of his, Il prigioniero superbo (Here, superbo means “haughty” or “arrogant”—thus, "The Haughty Prisoner”), performed for the first time in September 1733. La serva padrona was quickly picked up in the repertoire of touring companies, and it was one such performance in 1752 in Paris that drew the praise of Rousseau and set off the so-called "War of the Buffoons," pitting the supporters of traditional French opera against those of the newer opera buffa. By general consensus, the opera buffa came out on top and defined "musical comedy" as a discipline worthy of serious musical consideration—as Mozart and Rossini would later confirm. 

Pergolesi wrote sacred music extensively; his Stabat Mater is still performed, and, indeed, even crops up unexpectedly as background music in film scores (In 2001, Space Odyssey, the large space ship creeps slowly towards Jupiter accompanied by the delicate opening three-voice soprano pyramid of the Stabat Mater.)(*note below!) Pergolesi was in Naples when the Bourbon prince, Charles III, moved in to reestablish the Kingdom of Naples as an independent state after a few decades as an Austrian vice-realm, and Pergolesi's music was among that chosen to celebrate the event at various masses held throughout the city. He spent the last few months of his life in a Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli and died there of tuberculosis in 1736. Today, a plaque on the church commemorates him. 

note: (Oct. 19, 2010) That sentence about the Stabat Mater in the score of 2001 is WRONG! Rather than just delete it, I thought I'd leave it in because it's a funny mistake. (Perhaps not so funny to Derek Blackwell of radio station KBCS in Seattle who broadcast that tidbit to listeners without checking. (My apologies to him!) What can I say? Yes, I'm normally infallible, but this time...Maybe it's a quirky tribute to the power of Pergolesi's music even to weave false memories into one's brain. I was positive. I could hear it just by imagining that scene in my mind's eye. I even recall it being in the credits. I guess that the "delicate opening three-voice soprano pyramid of the Stabat Mater" embedded itself such that I hear it everywhere. (It really would fit in that scene in 2001, but, alas...hold on...there's someone at the door....you'll never guess what my doorbell sounds like...)

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