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, 16 January 2018

Niccolò Piccinni – opera composer

Writer drawn into 18th century Paris rivalry


Niccolò Piccinni was one of Italy's most  popular composers in the 18th century
Niccolò Piccinni was one of Italy's most
popular composers in the 18th century
The composer Niccolò Piccinni, one of the most popular writers of opera in 18th century Europe, was born on this day in 1728 in Bari.

Piccinni, who lived mainly in Naples while he was in Italy, had the misfortune to be placed under house arrest for four years in his 60s, when he was accused of being a republican revolutionary.

He is primarily remembered, though, for having been invited to Paris at the height of his popularity to be drawn unwittingly into a battle between supporters of traditional opera, with its emphasis on catchy melodies and show-stopping arias, and those of the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, who favoured solemnly serious storytelling more akin to Greek tragedy.

Piccinni’s father was a musician but tried to discourage his son from following the same career. However, the Bishop of Bari, recognising Niccolò’s talent, arranged for him to attend the Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio in Capuana in Naples.

He was a prolific writer. His first opera, a comedy entitled Le donne dispettose (The mischievous women) was staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples in 1755 and after he had formed a working partnership with the acclaimed librettist Pietro Metastasio his catalogue of works was already well into double figures when the success of one particular composition won him popularity across Europe.

La buona figliuola (The good daughter), also known as La Cecchina, was essentially an opera buffa – a light-hearted comedy – for which the libretto was written by the famous playwright Carlo Goldoni.

Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, wrote the libretto for Piccinni's first major success
Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, wrote
the libretto for Piccinni's first major success
It premiered at the Teatro delle Dame in Rome in 1760 and was so popular it enjoyed a two-year run, acquiring such a reputation as a crowd pleaser that it was soon attracting packed houses in every capital city in Europe.  What set it apart was that it was a comedy with dramatic elements and a soft sentimentality designed to touch the emotions of the audience.

The public enthusiasm for the story was such that a commercial spin-off industry developed around it almost in the manner of box-office successes of today, with fashion houses and shops trading on the La Cecchina name.

The new sentimental style caught on with other composers, eager to match Piccinni’s success, but at the same time there was a backlash among conservatives, who felt music, and opera in particular, should be about strength and manliness and saw this brand of modern Italian music as rather effete, promoting effeminacy and cowardliness rather than courage and moral virtue.

Among those composers who had their support was Gluck, the German who had found favour with the Hapsburg court in Vienna.  Gluck moved to Paris in the 1770s and when Queen Marie Antoinette invited Piccinni to live and work in the French capital, the directors of the Academie Royale de Musique, as the Paris Opera was then known, saw the commercial potential in pitting the two against one another.

They invited each to compose his own interpretation of the same texts and deliberately encouraged the Parisian public to fall into one or the other of two camps – the Gluckists and the Piccinnists. The antagonism between some factions became quite ugly.

The Piccinni statue in his home city of Bari
The Piccinni statue in his
home city of Bari
The irony was that Piccinni admired Gluck and while in Paris, excited by the chance to compose pieces of greater substance, he collaborated with the celebrated French dramatist Jean-Francois Marmontel on several projects that he hoped would advance the cause of operatic reform that Gluck and his intellectual supporters were proposing.

The French Revolution in 1789 – two years after the death of Gluck - brought to an end Piccinni’s time in Paris and he returned to Naples, where he was given a warm welcome by King Ferdinand IV, whose wife Maria Carolina was the ill-fated Marie Antoinette’s sister, only to fall out of favour when his daughter’s marriage to a French democratic republican brought him under suspicion of connections and sympathies with the revolutionaries whose influence Ferdinand feared.

The king’s attitude towards any suspected republicans in Naples had been uncompromising and many were rounded up and shot. Piccinni was spared that fate but remained under house arrest for four years.

His fame long since faded, he spent the years after his release eking out an uncertain living in Naples, Venice and Rome before returning to Paris in 1798, where he was received with enthusiasm but struggled to make much money, although with the support of friends he was able to settle in the comfortable suburb of Passy, where he died in 1800 at the age of 72.

Piccinni’s life is commemorated with a statue in the Piazza della Prefettura in his home city of Bari in Puglia.

Porta Capuana in Naples used to be part of the city's  ancient Aragonese walls
Porta Capuana in Naples used to be part of the city's
ancient Aragonese walls
Travel tip:

Capuana is the area of Naples close to Porta Capuana, a now free-standing gateway that was once part of the Aragonese walls of the city.  Situated roughly between the city’s main railway station and the Duomo.  The Conservatorio di Sant’Onofrio, which was in time absorbed into the Naples Conservatory, used to be close to the Castel Capuano, originally a 12th-century fortress which has been modified several times.  Until recently, the castle was home to the city’s Hall of Justice, also known as the Vicaria, comprising legal offices and a prison.

The pretty Via Margutta in Rome, close to where the Teatro delle Dame stood in the 18th and early 19th centuries
The pretty Via Margutta in Rome, close to where the
Teatro delle Dame stood in the 18th and early 19th centuries
Travel tip:

In the 18th century, Rome’s Teatro delle Dame vied with the Teatro Capranica for the right to be called the city’s leading opera house, staging many premieres of works by the leading composers of the day. Built in 1713 specifically to stage opera seria – as opposed to opera buffa – and remained a major venue until the early 19th century, when it was used more often for public dancing, acrobatic shows and plays in local Roman dialect.  Completely destroyed by fire in 1863, it stood where Via Aliberti joins Via Margutta in an area of pretty, narrow streets close to Piazza di Spagna in the direction of Piazza del Popolo.






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