The Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) excelled in comic opera, and his works in this genre had a profound influence on the course of operatic history.
Born in the small town of lesi near Ancona on Jan. 4, 1710, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi received instruction on the violin from the Marchese Gabriele Ripanti and other musical training from the two priests who directed the cathedral choir and gave public instruction in music. His obvious talent led to his enrollment in the famous Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in Naples, under the patronage of the Marchese Cardolo Maria Pianetti of lesi. Pergolesi's studies there probably began in 1726, and one of his teachers was the composer Francesco Durante.
Pergolesi's career as a professional composer was launched with the opera Salustia at the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples in 1732. His first truly successful works were written later that year: Lo frate 'nnammorato was an opera buffa written in the local dialect; and a Mass commissioned by the city after a series of earthquakes won public praise from the composer Leonardo Leo. A series of dramatic and sacred works followed, including an apparently minor one, the intermezzo La serva padrona, performed between the acts of his opera seria II prigionier superbo in 1733.
Pergolesi was made deputy to the official maestro di cappella of the city of Naples, was twice summoned to Rome to direct performances of operatic and sacred works, and was for a time in the service of the Prince of Stigliano and the Duke of Maddaloni. His health failing, he went to the Capuchin monastery in Pozzuoli, completing there his Stabat Mater shortly before his death on March 16, 1736, at the age of 26.
At the time of his death Pergolesi appeared to have been a talented composer of largely local fame, but circumstances thrust him into the small group of people whose posthumous fame was greater than that achieved during their lifetime. Opera needed new directions. La serva padrona was revived in Parma in 1738, then done in Bologna, Graz, Venice, and Dresden, and soon in all parts of Europe. The freshness of its character delineation and music attracted those who were weary of the stilted conventions of opera seria. Parisians who were disillusioned with traditional French opera—among them the writers Friedrich Melchior Grimm, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Denis Diderot—rallied behind the work and made it an issue in the War of the Buffoons. This modest work received some 200 performances in the city in the 1750s.
With the fame of La serva padrona came success also for other of Pergolesi's compositions that might otherwise have remained neglected. His best pieces are characterized by freshness and liveliness and a fluid handling of solo voices. A large number of sacred, secular, and instrumental works published after his death and attributed to him are undoubtedly spurious.
Further Reading on Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
The standard work on Pergolesi is in Italian. The best source in English is F. Walker's article in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. 6 (5th ed. 1954); Walker did not merely condense other writings on Pergolesi but did considerable original research. For general background see Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera (2 vols., 1947; 2d ed. 1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Pergolesi, Napoli: S. Civita, 1986.