There are only few assured biographical details on Pergolesi. He was born in 1710 in Jesi, in a poor family, probably afflicted by serious hereditary diseases; within a few years the musician loses his entire family. He learned to play the violin in his hometown and at around the age of thirteen he was sent to perfection his musical studies in Naples, in one of the four conservatori of the city, the ‘Poveri di Gesù Cristo’. Here he had among his teachers Gaetano Greco, Francesco Durante, and for a short time, Leonardo Vinci. He started as a composer with an oratory written for the fathers of Saint Philip, La fenice sul rogo (March 1731), which was followed, a few months later, by the sacred drama in three acts Li prodigi della Divina Grazia nella conversione e morte di San Guglielmo Duca d’Aquitania: in this second work there is a funny character speaking in the Neapolitan dialect, Captain Cuosemo, the creation of this character highlights for the first time Pergolesi’s vivid sense of humor. The positive impression made by these first works (along with good protection in the official circles) led, the same year, to the commission of an opera seria for the most famous theater of Naples, the Saint Bartholomew. The libretto chosen was an old work of Apostolo Zeno, L’Alessandro Severo (represented in Venice in 1716), which was revised with the new title of Salustia. After a laborious preparation marred by the death of the protagonist, the famous Nicolò Grimaldi, the work was staged only in the second half of January, 1732, apparently with limited success, since it was withdrawn at the beginning of the following month. But Pergolesi’s fame must have been already established, in-fact, in September of the same year, he staged at the Teatro dei Fiorentini his first commedia musicale, Lo frate ‘nnamorato, based on a libretto by Gennarantonio Federico, who was going to become his favorite librettist. The work’s success is witnessed by further representations (in a new slightly modified version) in 1734 and, strikingly, in 1748, twelve years after the death of the composer.
In this same year Pergolesi’s social and artistic ascent is reflected by two events. First he was employed by Stigliano’s Prince Ferdinando Colonna, who occupied a key position in the vice-royal court. Second, the city of Naples gave him the task to compose a mass and a vesper in honor of St. Emidio, under whose protection the city was set after a series of disastrous earthquakes. After only two years of activity Pergolesi had experimented the main compositional genres: teatro serio, teatro comico and religious music. In November of 1732 Pergolesi entered as backup organist in the Royal Chapel. In the written relation in which his hiring was recommended were mentioned the great expectation with which the Neapolitan musical world followed his career as a composer, the success that greeted the representation of Lo frate ‘nnamorato and, above all, «the Royal Chapel need of composers working in accordance with the modern taste» (il «bisogno che tiene la Cappella Reale de soggetti che compongono sopra il gusto moderno»). In other words, Pergolesi was seen as an exponent of the so called ‘pregalante’ style (by now detached from the Baroque style) soon to spread throughout Europe.
The great fame held by the musician was also confirmed by the commission, for the following theatrical season, of a new opera seria, Il prigioniero superbo (also based on a revision of an earlier libretto by Francesco Silvani). This work was staged on August 28th, 1733 and was a gratifying success mostly thanks to its intermezzi La serva padrona (based again on a brilliant libretto by Gennarantonio Federico). The highest appreciation shown by the Neapolitan establishment to the musician is demonstrated by his engagement, in February 1734, as deputy maestro di cappella of the Faithful City of Naples, with the right to succeed to the in office musician, the old and famous Domenico Sarro.
In the meantime important events were perturbing the Kingdom of Naples: on May 10th, 1734 Carlo di Borbone, after a flash war, made his entry in Naples and the 16th of the same month was crowned king; the Austrians (who occupied Naples since 1707) were forced to retreat in southern Italy and Sicily. A large part of the Neapolitan nobility, and particularly those related to the Asburgo, retired in the neutral zone of Rome, awaiting the final outcome of the war. Among the reluctant nobles that didn’t want to accept the new political situation there was the Prince of Stigliano, for whom Pergolesi was working, together with other nobles that had granted their protection to the musician, such as the Duke Caracciolo d’Avellino (who even escaped to Vienna) and the Duke Marzio IV Maddaloni Carafa. The latter and his wife, Anna Colonna, invited Pergolesi to Rome in May 1734. The great cartoonist Pierleone Ghezzi, intrigued by this young Neapolitan maestro di cappella, sketched, on that occasion, the only authentic representation of Pergolesi that was handed down to us; at first he painted only the face, later (in a second drawing) he added the whole figure by heart. The two portraits show us a stocky young man, with a strong featured profile, vaguely negroid; in the second one, showing the full figure, the left leg is numb, as is typical of polio victims. This picture is very far from the many idealized images of pure fantasy that have been created from the eighteenth century to the present day. In Rome, in the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina (home of the National Boemian Chapel), Pergolesi conducted his Mass in F major (a reworking of the previous Mass for St. Emidio) in a beautiful and magnificent execution for soloists, four choirs and two orchestras, inside a function in honor of St. Johann Nepomuk (the patron saint of Bohemia). It was basically an overtly political act, an open declaration of loyalty to the Austrian Empire from the Maddaloni family. The execution of this mass in Rome was a great success for Pergolesi and constituted his first artistic establishment outside of Naples’ boundaries, but it also represented a fatal crack in his relations with the new Borboni government.
The last Pergolesi’s opera seria performed at St. Bartholomew, the official theater of Naples, occurred on October 25th, 1734; the title of the work was Adriano in Siria and it was based on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio, the work was paired with the intermezzo Livietta e tracollo. Despite the presence in the company of a singer of the stature of Gaetano Caffarelli, the work was not very successful. The next melodramma by Pergolesi, L’Olimpiade, was performed in Rome, at the Tordinona Theater in January 1735; simultaneously, La serva padrona was staged at the Valle Theater.
After returning to Naples Pergolesi's health had a sudden deterioration. This did not prevent him, however, to continue his activity as a composer. In the fall of 1735 at the Teatro dei Fiorentini his new musical comedy, Il Flaminio, based again on a libretto by Federico Gennarantonio, was staged. The work, judging by the numerous performances proposed again outside Naples, must have been very successful. In these months Pergolesi started working on the composition of a serenata for the marriage of the young Prince Raimondo San Severo and Carlotta Gaetani dell’Aquila D’Aragona, planned for December 1st, 1735 at Torremaggiore, near the city of Foggia. From the libretto (the music was lost) it appears that Pergolesi, due to his illness, managed to compose only the first part. We don’t have reliable information about the last months of Pergolesi’s life; probably he was hosted in the Convento dei Cappuccini of Pozzuoli, a religious institution under the protection of the Maddaloni family. It was perhaps here that he composed the four Cantate da camera published immediately after his death and - according to what the tradition refers - the Salve Regina in C minor and the Stabat Mater.
Pergolesi died on March 17th, 1736 of «tabe etica», that is, of tubercolosis, and was buried in the mass grave of Pozzuoli’s Cathedral.
In the mid-eighteenth century Pergolesi was already a myth; a myth that grew on itself soon degenerating into a legend, as the new emphasis on the genius, the personality of the creator and the passionate interest in his human story clashed with an almost absolute lack of documents and direct testimonies: from here arose endless legends about his life and his work. Pergolesi’s life burnt out in a few years of feverish work, in a social contest that looked at the musician with interest and respect but confined him, however, into a craftsmanship area. In this setting, moreover, an extraordinary creativity saw the proliferation of a huge amount of great artistic personalities that at the time of Pergolesi spread Italian music through to all the major European centers. Only a few fragments of the musician’s life have remained, memories of those who witnessed the meteor of his existence and of his extraordinary career; and of these memories, often misunderstood and distorted by writers from across the Alps, the first biographies were woven and in their turn distorted and romanticized in the nineteenth century. His works, for the most part entrusted to the manuscript tradition, lost their definition because many of his compositions were forgotten (only the Stabat Mater and La serva padrona have remained constantly in the performing tradition) and also because a huge corpus of apocrypha was touted as work of the musician.
Only recently a massive research work carried out at an international level, has recovered the real dimension of Pergolesi: the authentic image turned out to be far more fascinating than that, crystallized and one-dimensional, passed down by tradition. His music not only testifies a creative personality extremely refined and complex, but offers us, in its entirety, a time and a society observed and interpreted from all points of view: plebeian gestures and grimaces of the acrobat but also the early bourgeois sentimentality of the musical comedy (commedia musicale); the glitz and the aristocratic melancholy of the musical drama of late Baroque and metastasiano, entrusted to the pyrotechnical skill and unbridled imagination of the great castratos; the unleashed vitality and the thin psychological skirmish of the characters of the intermezzi; the feast and majesty of the great sacred compositions; the pathetic emotionalism of religious chamber music, in which the sacred is meant as a source of emotional experience and the divinity is revealed through the tension and fullness of the emotions; the stinging rhythmic dynamism of instrumental music and the stylistic artifice of chamber cantatas.
Pergolesi is all this, and more: the study of his music continues to reveal us a magical kaleidoscope of imagination and an extraordinary capacity for analysis and synthesis. Regarding his life, his human and psychological dimension, Pergolesi continues to hide, elusive, behind his creations as the mocking and melancholic Pulcinella from the brilliant balletto dedicated to him by Igor Stravinskij.
Francesco Degrada (English translation by Pascal Claro