5 November 2019

Attilio Ariosti – composer

Musical friar was once a rival of Handel


Anthoni Schoonjans's portrait of Ariosti hangs in Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin
Anthoni Schoonjans's portrait of Ariosti
hangs in Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin
Baroque composer Attilio Malachia Ariosti, who in later life became a rival of Handel in London musical circles, was born on this day in 1666 in Bologna.

He became a Servite Friar, known as Frate Ottavio, when he was 22, but he quickly obtained permission to leave the order and become a composer at the court of the Duke of Mantua and Monferrato.

During his life, Ariosti composed more than 30 operas and oratorios as well as many cantatas and instrumental works.

Ariosti became a Deacon in 1692 and then obtained the post of organist at the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna.

His first opera, Tirsi, was performed in Venice in 1697 and that same year he was invited to travel to Berlin by Sophia Charlotte of Hanover, the Queen of Prussia. She was a great-granddaughter of James I of England and the daughter of the Electress Sophia of Hanover, a committed patron of the arts with a keen interest in music.

The Electress Sophia had been heir presumptive to the throne of the Kingdom of Great Britain and was waiting for the death of her first cousin once removed, Queen Anne, before travelling to Britain to claim her title.

Ariosti shared the directorship of the Royal Academy of Music in London with his rival Handel (above)
Ariosti shared the directorship of the Royal Academy
of Music in London with his rival Handel (above)
But she died herself less than two month before she would have succeeded to the British throne and her eldest son, George Louis, Elector of Hanover, became King on the death of Queen Anne, ascending to the throne as George I on 1 August 1714.

While enjoying the hospitality of Queen Sophia Charlotte, Ariosti wrote the music for a number of stage works performed for the court in Berlin. He was court composer there for six years and a portrait of him by Anthoni Schoonjans still hangs in the Charlottenburg Palace.

When Ariosti was returning to his religious order, he stopped off in Vienna along the way, where he became a protégé of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I, who made the composer his General Agent in Italy.

Ariosti later went on to enjoy success in Paris and London. While in London he shared the directorship of the Royal Academy of Music with Georg Frideric Handel and Giovanni Bononcini. He was a great success when he played his favourite instrument, the viola d’amore, in a performance of Handel’s Amadigi di Gaula.

The viola d’amore is an alto instrument of the old viol family with special strings under the fingerboard and it has a delicate, mysterious sound. It was developed around the middle of the 17th century and was particularly popular in England.

Ariosti was a versatile musician and could  also sing and write drama
Ariosti was a versatile musician and could
also sing and write drama
Ariosti became a virtuoso on this instrument and in 1724 he published A Collection of Cantatas and Lessons for the Viola d’Amour, which he sold by subscription. This publication is thought to have been the most successful sale of music by subscription during the 18th century.

Ariosti could also sing, write drama and play the violoncello and the harpsichord. But his preferred instrument was always the viola d’amore, for which he wrote 21 solo sonatas. These are usually known as the Stockholm Sonatas because the sole surviving sources for most of them are in the Statens Musikbibliotek in Stockholm in Sweden.

Experts say the Sonatas display Ariosti’s penchant for surprising harmonies, his inventive use of silence and his wit.

Ariosti’s last opera, Teuzzone, was performed in London in 1727.

There was a time when Ariosti was in competition with Handel to be the most successful composer, but his popularity did not last as long as the German’s and he eventually disappeared from the musical scene. It is not known with any certainty whether he was still in London when he died in around 1729.

A view of the Mantegna frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua
A view of the Mantegna frescoes in the Camera degli
Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua
Travel tip:

Ariosti served as court composer to Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua and Monferrato.  A lover of music, Ferdinando Carlo was the last Gonzaga to rule the Duchy. Mantua is an atmospheric old city, to the southeast of Milan, famous for its Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, where Ariosti would have lived. The Palazzo in Piazza Sordello has a famous room, the Camera degli Sposi, which is decorated with frescoes by Andrea Mantegna.  Musical performances took place in the Galleria degli Specchi, which has the dimensions to accommodate a stage and orchestra and has space for a small audience.

The portico and facade of the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi on Strada Maggiore in Bologna
The portico and facade of the Basilica di Santa Maria
dei Servi on Strada Maggiore in Bologna
Travel tip:

The Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi, where Ariosti was once the organist, is in Strada Maggiore, one of the most important streets in Bologna. The church was founded in 1346 for the Servite Community of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was designed by Andrea da Faenza, a head friar who was also an architect. It is considered a fine example of Italian Gothic architecture.

Also on this day:

1702: The birth of painter Pietro Longhi

1754: The birth of explorer Alessandro Malaspina

1777: The birth of dancer and choreographer Filippo Taglioni

1898: The birth of Francesco Chiarello, survivor of two world wars



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