During the 18th century, Naples hosted one of the most original, brilliant and above all revolutionary musicians of the time: Giovanni Battista Draghi, known as Pergolesi.
The artist’s life was a bright meteor. In fact, Pergolesi suffered from a spinal defect(spina bifida) and he died at the age of twenty-six because of serious health problems from which he had been affected since birth. However, after his death, his fame spread all over Europe and around the events of the life of this artist were born stories and anecdotes that made his figure a real legend.
He inspired poets and artists of the following century as well as great musicians who were literally dazzled by the talent of the most important exponent of the Neapolitan school of that time.
Pergolesi’s rising star
Giovanni Battista Draghi was born in Jesi (in the Marche region) in 1710. In spite of his real baptismal name, the young man (and his whole family) was called Pergolesi from an early age because of the origins of his grandfather who was a shoemaker from Pergola. The young man studied the organ and the violin at the Conservatory of his hometown where he was noticed for his talent.
Already in 1725, at the age of fifteen, he moved to Naples to continue his studies and his musical career. Thanks to the patronage of the Marquis Cardolo Maria Pianetti, in fact, he was accepted at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo, where he distinguished himself as an excellent violinist of the Neapolitan musical school.
Such was his mastery that only four years later he had even become head of the paranza (a title assimilated to first violin), which means that he was in charge of leading and coordinating a small instrumental group of the orchestra (called paranza). It is said that his talent during musical performances was so exceptional and profitable that the young man never had to pay the tuition fee for his studies at the Conservatory.
He graduated in 1731, performing during the final essay a work he composed: the sacred drama The wonders of divine grace in the conversion and death of St. William Duke of Aquitaine.
His fame among the theaters of Naples and Pozzuoli
During his studies, Pergolesi had already worked on another of his compositions: La fenice sul rogo, or the death of Saint Joseph, thanks to which he was immediately commissioned the opera seria La Salustia, to be performed at one of the major theaters of Naples, the San Bartolomeo. The work, however, suffered many vicissitudes, including the sudden death of the protagonist that delayed the staging occurred in fact in 1732.
Meanwhile, the artist was hired as a chapel master by one of the elected of the Neapolitan municipality, the Prince of Stigliano Ferdinando Colonna, and he composed for him other serious and liturgical works.
He composed for the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples, the opera buffa Lo frate ‘nnamurato whose first version was accompanied by a short intermezzo without title, on a libretto by G. A. Federico. Later it was also performed at the San Bartolomeo theater. It was in this theater that in 1733, the famous Serva padrona was performed as an interlude to the opera seria Il prigionier superbo. Later, with a document of 1734 signed by the Prince of Stigliano and others, he was recognized as substitute and successor of the chapel master of the City of Naples, Domenico Sarro.
Pergolesi was then called to Rome by the Dukes of Maddaloni to conduct the Mass in F major in honor of Saint John Nepomuceno. He returned to Naples and was hired at the service of the House of Maddaloni by Duke Domenico Marzio VIII Carafa. To him was presumably dedicated the Sonata in F major, a work for cello and continuo, attributed to Pergolesi.
As a result of the success in Rome, in 1735 he was called back in the capital and he was commissioned the opera Olimpiade, performed at the Tor di Nona theater in Rome, on a libretto by Metastasio. It seems that the opera was not understood by the public and the musician was attacked and offended during the performance.
So Pergolesi returned to Naples, where he was appointed as supernumerary organist at the cappella regia. Here he composed his Salve regina in C minor, while for the Teatro Nuovo, he finished the Flaminio on a text by Federico in 1735.
Finally, from the Confraternity of San Luigi di Palazzo under the title of the Vergine dei dolori, Pergolesi was commissioned his last and perhaps most venerable work: the Stabat mater, completed in the Monastery of the Capuchin Fathers in Pozzuoli.
Pergolesi’s famous musical scherzo and his bond with Pozzuoli
In 1736, when he was just twenty-six years old, Pergolesi died of tuberculosis at the Monastery of the Capuchin Fathers in Pozzuoli. Yet it is said that until his last day, the talented young artist was committed to the composition of his famous music to such an extent that the Stabat mater, his last work, was finished on the very day of his death.
It is said, in fact, that through music the great artist found love and the joy of living. So to the Capuchin fathers, the young man left a nice musical joke: the Venerabilis barba capuccinorum, for tenor and bass. The joke concerned the fact that no razor could touch the venerable beard of the Capuchin friars. A copy of the work is now preserved in Naples at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella and in the collection of the Accademia degli Spensierati in Florence.
As a proof of the pride and of the heartfelt respect that the citizens of Pozzuoli have for this great artist, today you can meet a bust of Pergolesi exposed in the city park of the small villa Italo Balbo. The artist was buried in the cathedral of the city, the Cathedral of Saint Proculus Martyr.
Pergolesi and the Prince of Sansevero
In the service of the Prince of Stigliano Ferdinando Colonna, Pergolesi met not only the Duke of Maddaloni but also another important noble figure of the time: Prince Raimondo di San Severo. Thanks to the great success and inestimable value of his works, the artist was commissioned to compose a serenade for the wedding of the Prince of San Severo with his noble bride Carlotta Gaetani of Aragon.
The date of the wedding was fixed for the first day of December 1735, and the artist had already begun to work on the composition when his health worsened and Pergolesi had to give up work to take refuge at the Monastery of the Capuchin Fathers of Pozzuoli.
For what concerns the music, of which he managed to compose the first part, only the libretto was found. Many were the musical works of Pergolesi that were lost, as well as those written under his example but attributed to anonymous. Lost music that is still being studied today to try to fully understand the great genius of this artist.
In 2008, at the Cappella Sansevero, the third centenary of the birth of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was celebrated by performing the Cantata per lo sposalizio del Principe di San Severo. This musical performance was articulated by proposing not only “Il tempo felice” (that is, the first part of the serenade composed by Pergolesi), but also other pieces proposed precisely to celebrate the friendship between this artist and the enlightened patron Prince Raimondo di Sansevero.
Pergolesi’s majestic and echoing fame
After his death, Pergolesi’s fame reached Paris, where his opera Serva padrona was reproduced in 1752. With it fame spread but also an aggressive criticism nicknamed the querelles des bouffons, a controversy between the more conservative faction of French theater composers who rejected the new musical currents of the Neapolitan school of which Pergolesi was the greatest exponent and which were being confirmed throughout Europe.
This revolutionary current was supported by important illuminists, first among whom was Rousseau. It was Rousseau himself who judged as perfect the composition of the Stabat mater, whose text was reworked even in a part of a Bach’s composition.