8 June 2016

Tomaso Albinoni - Venetian composer

Prolific writer of operas and instrumental music

Portrait of Tomaso Albinoni
Tomaso Albinoni
The composer Tomaso Albinoni, perhaps best known for the haunting and powerful Adagio in G Minor, was born on this day in 1671 in Venice.

Albinoni was a contemporary of two other great Venetian composers, Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, and was favourably compared with both.

It is his instrumental music for which he is popular today, although during his own lifetime he was famous for his operas, the first of which was performed in Venice in 1694.  He is thought to have composed some 81 operas in total, although they were not published at the time and the majority were lost.

His first major instrumental work also appeared in 1694. With the support of sponsorship from noble patrons, he published nine collections - in Italy, Amsterdam and London - beginning with Opus 1, the 12 Sonate a Tre, which he dedicated to his fellow Venetian, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, the grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII.

It was this work that established his fame.  He followed it with an other collection of instrumental pieces, dedicated to Charles IV, Duke of Mantua, who may have employed him as a violinist. His Opus 3, a collection of  suites, was sponsored by Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

His career output numbered 99 sonatas, 59 concertos and nine symphonies.  By his seventh Opus he was writing regular pieces for the oboe and is regarded as the first composer to include the instrument in concertos. His ninth Opus was his last.

Albinoni came from a privileged background.  His family manufactured playing cards and owned several shops in Venice, allowing Tomaso to indulge his musical talents - he was a talented singer and violinist as well as a composer - as an amateur, known as a Dilettante Veneto.

Photo of opera poster
A poster advertising the premiere
of an Albinoni opera in 1716
He would have expected, at some stage, to take over the running of the family business, but after the commercial success of his 12 Sonate a Tre, his father changed the terms of his will so that the business would be placed instead in the hands of his younger brothers.  This meant Tomaso could pursue a career in music.

In 1705, Albinoni married an opera singer, Margherita Raimondi. He always lived in Venice but travelled extensively as his works were performed around Italy and later in northern Europe.  He died in Venice in 1751, apparently of diabetes.

Ironically, given his prolific output, his best loved work - the Adagio in G Minor - was written largely by someone else.

A good deal of Albinoni's work was damaged or destroyed in the bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War when it was being kept in the Dresden State Library.  The ruins were visited in 1945 by a musicologist from Rome, Remo Giazotto, who was catalogueing the composer's output.

When Giazotto later published the adagio, copyrighted in his own name, he claimed it had been based on what remained of manuscript discovered in the ruins, which consisted of just the bass line and six bars of melody from a church sonata that was possibly included in Albinoni's Opus Four, written in about 1704.

Giazotto said he had constructed the piece as a complete movement based on that fragment of manuscript, although the claim was never corroborated and no one else saw the scrap of paper.  The consensus among musical scholars is that it should be seen as Giazotto's work, yet the piece continues to be referred to as Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor.

Photo of Chiesa San Vidal
The former Chiesa San Vidal in Venice
Travel tip:

Performances of Albinoni's music form part of the season performed annually by the Interpreti Veneziani, a chamber music ensemble who specialise in Venetian music.  They perform at a former church, the Chiesa San Vidal, situated between the Accademia Bridge and Campo Santo Stefano, and sometimes at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, both in the San Marco district.  For more information, visit www.interpretiveneziani.com.

Travel tip:

The Scuola di San Rocco was established in 1478 by a group of wealthy Venetian citizens, next to the church of San Rocco. In 1564 the painter Tintoretto was commissioned to provide paintings for the Scuola, and his most renowned works are to be found in the Sala dell'Albergo and the Sala Superiore.

More reading:

Where to see Tintoretto's work in Venice

Success and sadness of Antonio Vivaldi

How Arcangelo Corelli's music influenced others

(Photo of Chiesa San Vidal by Didier Descouens CC BY-SA 4.0)


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