Skip to content
Siete qui: Home Festival Festival 2010 Benevoli and Pergolesi, two lucky fortunes
Benevoli and Pergolesi, two lucky fortunes PDF Print E-mail
A fortuitous inasmuch fortunate coincidence pools the biography of Roman composer, Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672) with that of Neapolitan composer (hailing from Jesi) Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Both are considered as authors of music pieces they have never written… the grandiose Mass for 53 voices and the hymn Plaudite tympani, which had greeted with magnificence the consecration of Salzburg Cathedral in 1628, were mistakenly attributed to Benevoli; they should, instead – according to the latest research – be attributed to Austrian composer Ignaz von Biber. Still, it is due to this mistake that Benevoli acquired his posthumous fame, who, at the time, was only twenty-three years old and had only occupied the post of chapel master in S. Maria in Trastevere for a short time…

The case of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi is, for other reasons, more complicated, and, in a certain sense, malicious in that it was the publishers, above all in England, who exploited his reputation after his death by uttering papers under assumed name which did not rise to the heights of the famous author of La serva padrona and Stabat Mater (incidentally I will recall that already ninety years ago the Pergolesi catalogue aroused several doubts and in 1919 Igor Stravinsky, when he was about to compose the ballet Pulcinella by processing music scores of the time, had used, believing them to be authentic, instrumental sheets of obscure composers... Recently, Mariangela Donà has identified the main source of the Stravinsky work in an author who is not even a Neapolitan but a Milanese).

Returning to Orazio Benevoli, the historiographers of the 18th century such as Father Martini and Charles Burney carry inaccurate information, but in the 17th century his music was held in great esteem. In the Letter to Ovidio Persapegi, Antimo Liberati, a renowned theoretician, affirmed that Benevoli put to the fore «his master, and all others living on earth harmonising four and six real choirs (…), and with imitations of pilgrim thoughts, and with upturned fugues, and with delightful counterpoints (…) he has well known how to win envy with his virtue, but not his poverty…». According to this witness Benevoli’s music would have above all followed the tradition of the great polyphony of Palestrina. It is not so. In the second half of the 17th century even Rome became aware of the newness of the concert style inspired by the theatre. It is by virtue of the research work done by the Centre of Ancient Music Pietà de’ Turchini if a manuscript by Benevoli kept in the library of the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory in Naples has seen the light. The manuscript contains the Salve Regina we shall be hearing this evening. It is a work which shows the “modern” side of Orazio Benevoli, who was not insensitive to the Monteverdi breeze and Roman experiences of his predecessors: from Girolamo Frescobaldi to Antonio Cesti and Bernardo Pasquini, all so active in following the dictates of the theory of the Affetti. In the Salve Regina, similar to a spiritual solo chant, there emerges the expressive linearity and the yearning of the contralto voice (darker than that of the soprano) which modulates above the strings’ texture, the Latin text of the mediaeval antiphon.

Naturally, the comparison with Pergolesi is all to the advantage of the latter. Pergolesi has undoubtedly a few more cards to play: the naturalness in the phrasing, rising and turning little by little the melody carrying it to its peak, and besides the ability to mark with “delayed” tunes the expression of grief, the lightness of instrumental accompaniment… his Salve Regina and Stabat Mater, are both theatre and religious icon: two inseparable modalities for the release of the heat of emotions, and for the ability of written music to change movement and psychological inflections (calm at times, aroused and overheated at others). It is thus understood, when hearing his works, the dignified manner in which the Neapolitan composer, destined to an early death (at 26, by consumption!) became a personification of an inimitable style – a star, we would call him today – already from the resounding success he had in Paris in 1752 with La serva padrona which triggered off the Querelle des Buffons between Lullists, namely promoters of the pompous French theatrical style and Italianists who favour the frankness of comic, or better still bizarre and popular, melodrama (among these, with unconditional adherence, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau). And finally, one understands Bach’s admiration who in the early 1740s transcribed the Stabat Mater by rewriting the text on the German version of Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünde BWV 1083.

Particularly beautiful moments of Pergolesi’s sacred masterpiece are – simply to give two examples Quae moerebat et dolebat and Inflammatus et accensus, where dramatic tension is alleviated by the aid given by the major tonality, creating motives which impress themselves in the listener’s memory.

Sandro Boccardi