Church music had declined with the growing secularization of life, and had suffered infection from operatic forms. Instrumental music was prospering, partly through the improvement of the pianoforte, but still more with the increasing popularity of the violin. Virtuosi like Pugnani, Viotti, and Nardini conquered Europe with a bow. Muzio Clementi, who went from Italy to live for twenty years in England, toured the Continent as organist and pianist, competed with Mozart in Vienna, and may have profited from Mozart’s comment that his playing was too mechanical. He was the most successful piano teacher of the eighteenth century, and he established the nineteenth-century style of piano technique with his famous series of exercises and studies, Gradus ad Parnassum—steps to the home of the Muses from whom music took its name. Gaetano Pugnani inherited his master Tartini’s violin artistry, and passed it on to his pupil Giovanni Battista Viotti, who traversed Europe triumphantly. Viotti’s Violin Concerto in A Minor can still be enjoyed by our old-fashioned ears.
Like so many Italians, Luigi Boccherini left a land crowded with musicians to seek an audience abroad. From 1768 till his death in 1805 he charmed Spain with his cello as Farinelli had charmed it with his voice and Scarlatti with his harpsichord. For a generation his instrumental compositions rivaled those of Mozart in international acclaim; Frederick William II of Prussia, himself a cellist, preferred Boccherini’s quartets to Mozart’s.80 In his sixty-two years he composed ninety-five string quartets, fifty-four trios, twelve piano quintets, twenty symphonies, five concertos for the cello, two oratorios, and some religious music. Half the world knows his “Minuet”—a movement from one of his quintets; but all the world should know his Concerto in B Flat for violoncello and orchestra.
Europe surrendered without a struggle (again excepting Paris) to the bel canto of Italy. From a dozen cities of the Magic Boot prima donnas like Cate-rina Gabrielli and castran like Gasparo Pacchierotti poured across the Alps to Vienna, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Hamburg, Brussels, London, Paris, and Madrid. Pacchierotti was among the last of the famous emasculates; for a generation he rivaled Farinelli’s career. He held London captive for four years; his acclaim there still echoes in Fanny Burney’s Diary,81 and in her father’s General History of Music82
Italian composers and conductors followed the singers. Pietro Guglielmi wrote two hundred operas, and moved from Naples to Dresden to Brunswick to London to conduct them. Another Neapolitan, Niccolò Piccini, has come down to us disfigured by his unwilling contest with Gluck in Paris; but Galiani described him as un très honnête homme —a thoroughly hoaorable man.83 His opere buffe were for a decade the rage of Naples and Rome; even the Serva padrona of Pergolesi won no such popularity as Piccini’sLa cecchina (1760). Jommelli, Pergolesi, Leo, and Galuppi had set to music Metastasio’s Olimpiade; Piccini did likewise, and, by common consent, excelled them all. In 1776 he accepted a call to Paris; the wild war that ensued there must wait its geographical turn; through it all Piccini carried himself with complete courtesy, remaining friends with his rivals Gluck and Sacchini even though their partisans threatened his life.84 When the Revolution drowned out this opera buff a Piccini returned to Naples. There he was placed under house arrest for four years because of sympathy with France; his operas were hooted from the stage, and he lived in a poverty disgraceful to his country. After Napoleon’s conquest of Italy he was again invited to Paris (1798); the First Consul gave him a modest sinecure, but a paralytic stroke broke him down in body and spirit, and he died in Paris in 1800.
Antonio Sacchini was born to a fisherman at Pozzuoli, and was being trained to succeed his father when Francesco Durante heard him sing, and carried him off to Naples as pupil and protégé. His Semiramide was so well received at the Teatro Argentino in Rome that he remained with that theater for seven years as its composer of operas. After a stay in Venice he set off to conquer Munich, Stuttgart, … and London (1772). His operas were applauded there, but hostile cabals damaged his popularity, and his dissolute habits ruined his health. Moving to Paris, he produced his masterpiece, Oedipe a Colone (1786), which held the boards of the Opéra through 583 representations in the next fifty-seven years; we can still hear it, now and then, on the air. He adopted several of Gluck’s reforms; he abandoned the Italian style of making an opera a patchwork of arias; in Oedipe the story controls the arias, and the choruses, inspired by Handel’s oratorios, lend grandeur to both the music and the theme.
The melodious conquest went on with Antonio Salieri, foe of Mozart and friend of the young Beethoven. Born near Verona, he was sent at the age of sixteen to Vienna (1766); eight years later Joseph II appointed him composer to the court, and in 1788Kapellmeister. In this post he preferred other composers to Mozart, but the story that this opposition caused Mozart’s collapse is a myth.85 After Mozart’s death Salieri befriended the son and promoted his musical development. Beethoven submitted several compositions to Salieri, and accepted his suggestions with unwonted humility.
“The most radiant star in the Italian operatic firmament during the second half of the eighteenth century”86 was Giovanni Paisiello. Son of a veterinary surgeon at Taranto, his voice so impressed his Jesuit teachers there that they persuaded his father to send him to Durante’s conservatory in Naples (1754). When he took to composing operas he found the Neapolitan audiences so enamored of Piccini that he accepted an invitation from Catherine the Great. In St. Petersburg he wrote (1782) Il barbiere di Siviglia; it had so lasting a success throughout Europe that when Rossini offered in Rome (February 5, 1816) an opera on the same subject it was damned by the public as an ungentlemanly intrusion upon territory sacred to Paisiello, who was still alive. On his way back from Russia in 1784, Paisiello stopped long enough in Vienna to write twelve “symphonies” for Joseph II, and to produce an opera, Il re Teodoro, which soon won Europe-wide acceptance. Then he returned to Naples as maestro di cappella to Ferdinand IV. Napoleon persuaded Ferdinand to “lend” him Paisiello; when the composer arrived in Paris (1802) he was received with a magnificence that made him many enemies. In 1804 he returned to Naples under the patronage of Joseph Bonaparte and Murat.
We should note, in passing, how patiently these Italians prepared their careers. Paisiello studied for nine years at Durante’s Conservatorio di San Onofrio; Cimarosa studied for eleven years in the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Loreto, and later at Naples. After long tutelage under Sacchini, Piccini, and others, Domenico Cimarosa produced his first opera, Le strava-ganze del conte. Soon his operas were heard in Vienna, Dresden, Paris, and London. In 1787 he took his turn at St. Petersburg, where he delighted the polyandrous Empress with Cleopatra. Invited by Leopold II to succeed Salieri as Kapellmeister at Vienna, he produced there his most celebrated opera, Il matrimonio segreto (1792). It so pleased the Emperor that at its close he ordered supper to be served to all those present, and then commanded a repetition of the whole.87 In 1793 he was called back to Naples as maestro di cappella for Ferdinand IV. When the King was deposed by a French Revolutionary army (1799) Cimarosa hailed the event with enthusiasm; when Ferdinand was restored Cimarosa was condemned to death. The sentence was commuted to exile. The composer set out for St. Petersburg, but died on the way at Venice (1801). He left, in addition to many cantatas, Masses, and oratorios, some sixty-six operas, which were far more applauded than Mozart’s, and which even now must be reckoned second only to Mozart’s in the opere buffe of the eighteenth century.
If melody is the heart of music, Italian music is supreme. The Germans had preferred polyphonic harmony to a simple melodic line; in this sense Italy won another victory over Germany when the German Mozart subordinated polyphony to melody. But the Italians gave melody so dominant a place that their operas tended to be a succession of tuneful arias rather than musical dramas such as the first Italian opera composers (c. 1600) had had in mind in their attempt to rival the dramatic art of the Greeks. In Italian opera the significance of the action, and often of the words, was lost in the glory of the song; this was beautiful, but if, as we used to think, art is the replacement of chaos with order to reveal significance, opera, in Italian hands, had fallen short of its highest possibilities. Some Italians, like Jommelli and Traëtta, acknowledged this, and strove to mold the music and the play into a united whole; but that achievement had to await, for its clearest form, the operas of Gluck. So, in the pendulum of life, the Italian conquest of Europe with melody ended when, in 1774, Gluck produced at Paris an Iphigénie en Aulide which subordinated the music to the play. But the conflict between melody and drama went on; Wagner won a battle for drama, Verdi captured new trophies for melody. May neither side win.