Spontini, Gaspare (Luigi Pacifico)

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Spontini, Gaspare (Luigi Pacifico)

Spontini, Gaspare (Luigi Pacifico), significant Italian opera composer; b. Majolati, Ancona, Nov. 14, 1774; d. there, Jan. 24, 1851. His father, a modest farmer, intended him for the church and gave him into the charge of an uncle, a priest at Jesi, who attempted to stifle his musical aspirations. Spontini sought refuge at Monte San Vito with another relative, who not only found a competent music teacher for him, but effected a reconciliation so that, after a year, he was able to return to Jesi. In 1793 he entered the Cons. della Pietà de’ Turchini in Naples, where his teachers were Tritto (singing) and Sala (composition). When he failed to obtain the position of maestrino there in 1795, he quit the Cons. without permission. He rapidly mastered the conventional Italian style of his time; some of his church music performed in Naples came to the attention of a director of the Teatro della Pallacorda in Rome, who commissioned him to write an opera. This was Li puntigli delle donne, produced during Carnival in 1796. He served as maestro di cappella at Naples’s Teatro del Fondo during Carnival in 1800, and that same year went to Palermo to produce 3 operas. Returning to the mainland in 1801, he produced operas for Rome and Venice before going to Paris in 1803. After eking out an existence as a singing teacher, he found a patron in Joséphine. He first gained success as a composer in Paris with a revised version of his La finta filosofa (Feb. 11, 1804); it was followed by La Petite Maison (May 12, 1804), which proved unsuccessful. All the same, the poet Etienne de Jouy now approached Spontini to write the music to his libretto La Vestale, a task previously turned down by Boieldieu, Cherubini, and Méhul. In the meantime, Spontini brought out 2 more operas without much success: Milton (Nov. 27, 1804) and Julie, ou Le Pot de fleurs (March 12, 1805). However, he won appointment as composer of Josephine’s private music in 1805; for her he wrote several occasional pieces, including the cantata L’eccelsa gara (Feb. 8, 1806), celebrating the battle of Austerlitz. Thanks to Josephine’s patronage, La Vestale won a triumphant success at its premiere on Dec. 15, 1807, in spite of virulent opposition. Spontini’s next opera, Fernand Cortez (Nov. 28, 1809), failed to equal his previous success, although the second version (May 8, 1817) won it a place in the repertoire. In 1810 he was awarded the prix décennal for having composed the finest grand opera of the preceding decade; that same year he married Céleste Erard, daughter of Jean-Baptiste Erard, and accepted the post of director of the Théâtre-Italien. Although his artistic policies were successful, his personality clashed with those of his superiors and he was dismissed in 1812. On Aug. 23, 1814, his opera Pelage, ou Le Roi et la paix, celebrating the Restoration, was successfully produced. The following month he was named director of Louis XVIII’s private music and of the Théâtre-Italien, although soon after he sold his privilege to the latter to Catalani. Having become a favorite of the Bourbons, he was made a French citizen by the king in 1817 and was granted a pension in 1818. In spite of his favored position, his grand opera Olimpie proved a dismal failure at its premiere on Dec. 22, 1819. The next year he went to Berlin as Generalmusikdirektor, scoring an initial success with the revised version of Olimpie on May 14, 1821. However, his position of eminence quickly waned. He had been placed on an equality with the Intendant of the Royal Theater, and there were frequent misunderstandings and sharp clashes of authority, not mitigated by Spontini’s jealousies and dislikes, his overweening self-conceit, and his despotic temper. Partly through intrigue, partly by reason of his own lack of self-control, he was formally charged in criminal court with lèsemajesté in Jan. 1841. On April 2, 1841, while he was conducting the overture to Don Giovanni, a riot ensued and Spontini was compelled to leave the hall in disgrace. In July 1841 he was sentenced to 9 months in prison, and soon thereafter was dismissed as Generalmusikdirektor by the king, although he was allowed to retain his title and salary. In May 1842 his sentence was upheld by an appeals court, but the king pardoned him that same month. He then went to Paris, where illness and growing deafness overtook him. In 1844 he was raised to the papal nobility as the Conte di San Andrea. In 1850 he retired to his birthplace to die. Spontini’s importance to the lyric theater rests upon his effective blending of Italian and French elements in his serious operas, most notably in La Vestale and Fernand Cortez. His influence on Berlioz was particularly notable.


DRAMATIC: Opera: Li puntigli delle donne, farsetta (Rome, Carnival 1796); II finto pittore (Rome?, 1797 or 1798); Adelina Senese, o sia L’amore secreto, dramma giocoso (Venice, Oct. 10, 1797); L’eroismo ridicolo, farsa (Naples, Carnival 1798); II Teseo riconosciuto, dramma per musica (Florence, 1798); La finta filosofa, commedia per musica (Naples, 1799; rev. as a dramma giocoso per musica, Paris, Feb. 11, 1804); La fuga in maschera, commedia per musica (Naples, Carnival 1800); I quadri parlante, melodramma buffo (Palermo, 1800); Gli Elisi delusi, melodramma serio (Palermo, Aug. 26, 1800); Gli amanti in cimento, o sia II Geloso audace, dramma giocoso (Rome, Nov. 3, 1801); Le metamorfosi di Pasquale, o sia Tutto è illusione nel mondo, farsa giocosa (Venice, Carnival 1802); La Petite Maison, opéra-comique (Paris, May 12, 1804); Milton, opéra-comique (Paris, Nov. 27, 1804); Julie, ou Le Pot de fleurs, opéra-comique (Paris, March 12, 1805); La Vestale, tragédie-lyrique (Paris, Dec. 15, 1807); Fernand Cortez, ou La Conquête du Mexique, tragédie-lyrique (Paris, Nov. 28, 1809; second version, Paris, May 8, 1817; third version, Berlin, Feb. 1832); Pelage, ou Le Roi et la paix, opera (Paris, Aug. 23, 1814); Les Dieux rivaux ou Les Fêtes de Cythère, opéra-ballet (Paris, June 21, 1816; in collaboration with Kreutzer, Persuis, and Berton); Olimpie, tragédie-lyrique (Paris, Dec. 22, 1819; rev. as a grosse Oper, Berlin, May 14, 1821); Nurmahal, oder Das Rosenfest von Caschmir, lyrisches Drama (Berlin, May 27, 1822); Alcidor, Zauberoper (Berlin, May 23, 1825); Agnes von Hohenstaufen, lyrisches Drama (Act I only, Berlin, May 28, 1827; second version as a grosse historischromantische Oper, Berlin, June 12, 1829; rev. version, Berlin, Dec. 6, 1837). Other Dramatic: L’eccelsa gara, cantata (Paris, Feb. 8, 1806); Tout le monde a tort, vaudeville (Malmaison, March 17, 1806); Ulla Rûkh, Festspiel (Berlin, May 27, 1822). OTHER: Arias and duets, etc.; songs; some choral works; several instrumental pieces.


L. Rellstab, Über mein Verhältnis als Kritiker zu Herrn S. als Componist und General Musikdirektor (Leipzig, 1827); E. Oettinger, S. (Leipzig, 1843); D. Raoul-Rochette, Notice historique sur la vie et les oeuvres de M. S. (Paris, 1852); C. Bouvet, S. (Paris, 1930); K. Schubert, S.s italienische Schule (Strasbourg, 1932); A. Ghizlanzoni, G. S. (Rome, 1951); P. Fragapane, S. (Bologna, 1954); A. Belardinelli, Documenti s.ani inediti (Florence, 1955); F. Schlitzer, La finta filosofa di G. S .(Naples, 1957); P. Fragapane, S. (Florence, 1983); A. Mungen, Musiktheater als Historienbild: G. S.s Agnes von Hohenstaufen als Beitrag zur deutschen Oper (Tutzing, 1997).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire