Michael McCooe: Composer – Pergolesi

Born in 1710, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was an Italian composer, organist and violinist, specialising in opera and traditional church music. During his tragically short life, Pergolesi lived in anonymity, but his fame grew substantially throughout the century following his death in 1736. Pergolesi’s Intermezzo La Serva Padrona, became one of the most celebrated works of the 19th Century.

Rising star

Pergolesi grew up in the Papal States – now Ancona Province, Italy. After completing musical studies in his native hometown, Pergolesi was sent to the respected Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesu Cristo, in cosmopolitan Naples, to advance his studies during the 1720s. During his time at the Conservatory, Pergolesi started developing a reputation as a skilled violinist and composer.

Evidence suggests that Pergolesi left the Conservatory around 1731, when he received his first commission to produce an opera. The year later, Pergolesi produced his first opera buffa (comic opera) – a genre in which he served as an early pioneer, in Lo Frate ’Nnammorato, as well as a mass (thought to be his Mass in D), which were both well-received but met with minimal commercial success.

Peak and decline

Pergolesi then composed extensively. In 1733, he was commissioned to write Il Prigionier Superbo, to commemorate the Empress of Austria’s birthday, a work which has now gained great popularity. Pergolesi produced his Mass in F in 1734, which when performed in Rome brought considerable interest and led to another opera commission in 1735, resulting in the commercial failure L’Olimpiade.

1735 was not a complete write-off for Pergolesi. During 1735 comedy opera Il Flammio, his last stage effort, was produced in Naples, earning him one final success. Pergolesi contracted tuberculosis in 1736 and after moving to a Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli, he died. It is important to note that in his last year, Pergolesi created Stabat Mater, which would bring him to fame after his death.

Posthumous success

Stabat Mater, is extremely indicative of Pergolesi’s signature style. It illustrates the Italian composer’s ability to handle large choral and instrumental forces, while maintaining balance. First published in London during 1749, Stabat Mater was heralded for introducing a new gallant take into traditional church music, going on to become the 19th Century’s most frequently printed musical composition.

But La Serva Padonra is now Pergolesi’s most iconic work. La Serva Padonra, which chronicles the story of a witty servant girl who plots to marry her elderly master, was the comic intermezzo slotted between the acts of Il Prigionier Superbo. After Pergolesi’s demise, La Serva Padonra enjoyed runaway success in Europe, even being upheld as an example of Italian operatic genius during a famous dispute which took place in 1752. It is the ultimate example of Pergolesi’s mastery of comic characterisation.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.