At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Agostino Steffani – composer

Baroque musician and cleric who features in modern literature


Agostino Steffani, depcited in a 1714
portrait by Gerhard Kappers
A priest and diplomat as well as a singer and composer, Agostino Steffani was born on this day in 1654 in Castelfranco Veneto near Venice.

Details of his life and works have recently been brought to the attention of readers of contemporary crime novels because they were used by the American novelist, Donna Leon, as background for her 2012 mystery The Jewels of Paradise.

Steffani was admitted as a chorister at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice while he was still young and in 1667 the beauty of his voice attracted the attention of Count Georg Ignaz von Tattenbach, who took him to Munich.

Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, paid for Steffani’s education and granted him a salary, in return for his singing.

In 1673 Steffani was sent to study in Rome, where he composed six motets. The original manuscripts for these are now in a museum in Cambridge.

On his return to Munich Steffani was appointed court organist. He was also ordained a priest and given the title of Abbate of Lepsing. His first opera, Marco Aurelia, was written for the carnival and produced at Munich in 1681.

Part of the score of Duetto da Camera Pria ch'io faccia by
Agostino Steffani, which is in the British Library in London
The only manuscript score of it known to exist is in the Royal Library at Buckingham Palace. He followed this with six more operas written between 1685 and 1688.

Steffani then accepted the post of Kapellmeister at the court of Hanover where he showed great kindness to the young Handel, who was just beginning his career.

He composed an opera called Henrico Leone for the opening of the new opera house, which enhanced his reputation. He composed several more operas for the same theatre and the scores were brought to London by the Elector of Hanover, George Louis, when he became King George I. They are now preserved in Buckingham Palace.

Steffani went on diplomatic missions on behalf of George Louis’s father, Ernest Augustus, when he became Elector of Hanover and this work was recognised by Pope Innocent XI who granted him high honours.

George Louis, later King George I of England
George Louis, later King George I of England
By then a respected cleric, Steffani continued to write operas using the name of his secretary, although one score that has been judged to be his work bears no name.

In 1724 the Academy of Ancient Music in London elected him as honorary president for life and in return he sent them a Stabat Mater and three madrigals, which have been considered to be in advance of the age in which they were written. Steffani also wrote many beautiful cantatas for two voices, the scores for which are now in the British Museum.

The composer visited Italy for the last time in 1727, where he met up with Handel again. Steffani died in 1728 while on diplomatic business in Frankfurt.

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, a young musicologist is hired in Venice to find the rightful heirs to fictional treasure that Steffani left in trunks that had not been opened for centuries. Donna Leon’s interest in Baroque opera inspired her to write this story, weaving fact with fiction as she takes details from Steffani’s past and creates a present-day mystery involving two avaricious Venetians who think they are heirs to Steffani’s fortune.

The Cathedral at Castelfranco Veneto
Travel tip:

Castelfranco Veneto, where Steffani was born, is an ancient walled town in the Veneto region of Italy. It is also famous for being the birthplace of Renaissance artist, Giorgione. The Cathedral inside the walls contains one of his finest works, Madonna with St Francis and Liberalis, which was painted in 1504.

The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice
Travel tip:

In Donna Leon’s novel The Jewels of Paradise, the main character, the musicologist Caterina Pellegrini, carries out a lot of her research into the life of Agostino Steffani at the Biblioteca Marciana, which is an elegant building opposite the Doge’s Palace in the Piazzetta, off St Mark’s Square in Venice.


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