PERGOLESI: MYTH AND REALITY


Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s fate was certainly a special one. His life was short concentrating in five to six years of intense compositional work (he was born in 1710 and died at the age of 26 in 1736), during his existence he was well known only in Naples and Rome: his contemporaries recognized his talent but his person didn’t emerge in the rich environment of musical life of that time. After his death some of his works (the intermezzi La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo, some of the arie from the two musical dramas Adriano in Siria and L'olimpiade, some cantata and above all the Salve Regina in C minor and the Stabat Mater) spread around Europe and they immediately became cult objects for music lovers. The composer’s fame rose to international level in 1752 due to the Querelle des bouffons, during which the Enciclopedisti made of his works (in particular La serva padrona) a symbol against the official art of the Ancien Régime. Rousseau, D’Alembert, Diderot, among others, praised the features of spontaneity, clarity and simplicity of his works which seemed to embody the sensation of a disenchanted reversion from conventions and fashion to nature. «Pergolesi nacque e la veritŕ fu rivelata» («when Pergolesi was born the truth was revealed») a declaration made by Modeste Grétry, a musician of that time. After this digression, which was in itself a stretch of the meaning of Pergolesi’s art, the matching of certain aspects of his intimacy with pathetic tendencies and attitudes of pre-romantic and romantic sensibility, and the legend, formed under the influence of purely literary suggestions, of a grand et malheureux musician, brilliant and unhappy, a great artist persecuted by men and fate, eventually estranged Pergolesi from his truer aesthetic dimension transforming it into an idea or a lyric symbol of the European Romanticism and pre-Romanticism. Consequently, it ended up with an exaggerated emphasis on certain aspects of Pergolesi’s art, specially those more overtly sentimental, ignoring others, albeit no less important. Since many of his works did not justify the stereotyped image that the public had of the musician, it seemed natural to arbitrarily assign his paternity to other works, which seemed to fit better the fictitious image. This was one of the reasons - certainly not the only one - which produced a very curious phenomenon for the time, the flourishing of hundreds of apocryphal: works produced by musicians of lesser fame, or even by speculators and real counterfeiters, who were passed off as Pergolesi's compositions. Only in recent decades musicology has revealed the truth behind these false attributions, reconstituting a body of undoubtedly authentic works and bringing the biography of Pergolesi to the size of the facts, removing from it the warps of the myth.