Giovanni Paisiello


Flute quartets Op.23 Armonia delle Sfere C00003

(b Roccaforzata, nr Taranto, 9 May 1740; d Naples, 5 June 1816)

Paisiello received his education first at the Jesuit school in Taranto and then, between 1754 and 1763, at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio, Naples. At about the time he left the S Onofrio he attracted the attention of a young nobleman, Giuseppe Carafa, who appointed him musical director of the small opera company he was then forming. It was due to Carafa that Paisiello acquired his first commissions to write works for the Teatro Marsigli-Rosi, Bologna, in 1764. The second of these, I francesi brillanti, failed at its first performance but was more successful when it was transferred to Modena two weeks later. This led to a commission from Modena for some new music for an opera originally by Guglielmi, La donna di tutti i caratteri. Paisiello’s revision, Madama l’umorista, contained much new music; its success led in turn to requests for new operas for other north Italian theatres.
Paisiello regarded himself as Neapolitan, and preferred living and working in Naples to anywhere else. In 1766 he returned to Naples; as a freelance composer his chief activity was setting comic operas for the Nuovo and Fiorentini theatres, where his chief rival was Piccinni. But he was also happy to accept commissions for heroic operas for the S Carlo. The three operas (Lucio Papirio dittatore, Olimpia and the so-called Festa teatrale in musica) staged at the S Carlo between June 1767 and May 1768 appear to indicate that the court, and in particular the King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, approved of his music. However, the royal approval seems to have been withdrawn, possibly because of Paisiello’s unusual behaviour over his marriage to a widow, Cecilia Pallini. In the summer of 1768 he signed a contract to marry her but then tried to withdraw from it, using various excuses. Pallini successfully appealed, and Paisiello was confined in prison until the marriage was solemnized on 15 September. He received no further recognition from the court until 1774, when his short Il divertimento de’ numi was performed at the royal palace, and no further commission came from the S Carlo until mid-1776.
Paisiello was unable to fulfil this commission because in 1776 he received and accepted an invitation from Catherine II of Russia to become her maestro di cappella in St Petersburg for three years at an annual salary of 3000 roubles. He left Naples for Russia on 29 July. His duties in St Petersburg included composing all the theatrical pieces ordered by the court and directing the court’s orchestra and opera company. His new patroness maintained her small Italian opera company less out of personal affection for opera than with an eye to its political prestige value. Her relative indifference to music explains perhaps why Paisiello composed fewer stage works in Russia than he had done in a comparable period of time in Naples. In recompense he had time to write a number of keyboard pieces for other ladies of the court; most were for his pupil, the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, the empress’s daughter-in-law. Catherine liked him enough to renew his contract in September 1779 for another three years at an increased salary of 4000 roubles. And in 1781 she offered him a further four-year contract from September 1782, the date when his existing contract was due to expire. Paisiello accepted this latest offer, although he was starting to have second thoughts about staying in Russia much longer. His relationship with the court became strained in November 1783 after he had quarrelled with the newly formed committee of court theatres. Using his wife’s ill-health as an excuse, he asked to be granted permission to return to Italy. Rather than lose her maestro altogether, Catherine granted him paid leave for a year. Once out of Russia, however, he made no attempt to return.
One reason why Paisiello did not go back to St Petersburg was his nomination by King Ferdinando of Naples on 9 December 1783 as compositore della musica de’ drammi of the Neapolitan court. This was the result of a determined campaign by Paisiello to persuade the king, through the intercession of friends and intermediaries, to give him an official court position. During his campaign Paisiello sent his latest scores to Ferdinando through the diplomatic mail. His nomination was announced 17 days after Il barbiere di Siviglia (one of the operas he had sent from Russia) was performed before the Neapolitan court at the Palace of Caserta on 22 November 1783.
As the King’s compositore Paisiello had no regular duties at court and no regular salary. Perhaps for this reason he did not reach Naples until October or November 1784, spending the summer of that year in Vienna, where he composed Il re Teodoro in Venezia (performed at the Burgtheater on 23 August). His first offering to the Neapolitan court after his return was Antigono, first given at the S Carlo on 12 January 1785. Shortly afterwards, on 7 March, the king granted him a pension, the conditions of which were reported in the Gazzetta civica napoletana of 18 March: Paisiello was in future obliged to write an annual [heroic] opera for the S Carlo and other occasional music as needed; in return he was to receive 1200 ducats annually, half from the treasury and half from the S Carlo (in effect payment for his annual opera); he was forbidden to leave Naples without royal permission; lastly, he was to receive the pension ‘even if he could no longer compose in the service of His Majesty’. Paisiello faithfully obeyed these conditions for the next five years, and wrote no operas for theatres outside Naples during that period. On 29 October 1787 the king also appointed him maestro della real camera with an annual salary of 240 ducats. This appointment put Paisiello in charge of all secular music at court. His positions as court composer and maestro della real camera, with their large pension and salary, made him the most favoured musician in the city.
In 1790 Paisiello seems to have suffered some kind of physical or mental breakdown. He had contracted to write three operas for different Neapolitan theatres during the autumn and winter season of 1789–90 when Ferdinando gave him the extra task of composing Nina, o sia La pazza per amore (performed outside Caserta on 25 June 1789). This put him behind schedule with the other works. He was able to finish the first, I zingari in fiera, basically on time for the Fondo theatre in the autumn. But the other two, for the Fiorentini and the S Carlo theatres, both of which should have been staged the following carnival, did not then appear. The late completion of Zenobia in Palmira brought him into dispute with the impresario of the S Carlo, who maintained that he had failed to fulfil his annual contract. Paisiello petitioned the king to be relieved of all further duties to the theatre and once more gained his wish. On 30 October 1790 Ferdinando ordained that he should in future receive his full pension without being obliged to write music for the S Carlo. This left him free to write operas for theatres outside Naples if he wished, and in fact he wrote three such works for Padua, London and Venice during the 1791–2 period. After 1792 his output of new operas slowed down; by 1800 it had virtually ceased, and he subsequently wrote only two complete stage works.
From about 1787 Paisiello started to receive commissions from monasteries and convents for masses and other liturgical music. This marked a change in the direction of his artistic endeavours, a change confirmed in December 1796 when he was appointed maestro di cappella of Naples Cathedral. By involving himself primarily in church music from here on Paisiello to some extent turned his back on public acclaim. His earlier successes had been almost exclusively in the realm of opera. Now he was working in musical fields that attracted less publicity. Performances of most of his late religious works were confined to a few locations in Naples, and from 1802 onwards, after he became Napoleon’s private maître de chapelle in Paris.
Paisiello’s journey to Paris followed a series of events that affected his career profoundly. In January 1799 republican forces with French military support gained control of Naples and established there the so-called Parthenopaean Republic. The king and his court fled to Sicily, but Paisiello, who was supposed to follow them, stayed behind. On 4 May he was made maestro di cappella nazionale to the republic (although he afterwards claimed he had not wanted this post) and on 23 May conducted the music at a religious ceremony attended by members of the new government. After Ferdinando’s forces recaptured Naples at the end of June 1799, Paisiello’s part in the republic’s affairs was officially investigated, and he was suspended from all court duties. Not until 7 July 1801 was he pardoned and reinstated in his former positions. This was following a general amnesty for republican sympathizers, apparently requested by the French government, announced by Ferdinando in June 1801.
Napoleon Bonaparte had been a known admirer of Paisiello from the time, in 1797, when he had commissioned from him a funeral march to commemorate the death of the French general Lazare Hoche. Now first consul of France, Napoleon started negotiations with Ferdinando towards the end of 1801 for Paisiello’s temporary release for a visit to Paris. These negotiations must have been complete by 19 January 1802, when Paisiello requested the Naples court to pay his monthly salary to his lawyer during his French visit. The composer finally reached Paris on 25 April. Napoleon seems to have taken his time deciding how best to make use of Paisiello’s talents. In July he offered him a monthly salary of 1000 francs, free housing and free carriage, in return for being at the head of the ‘music formed for the first consul’, and for composing two operas a year and a military march each month. At this stage Napoleon’s idea was clearly to turn his protégé into the leading composer of French opera. But the conditions of employment were then changed. On 25 September Paisiello received a new instruction to be present at and direct the music of the mass of the first consul’s chapel each Sunday. This allowed Paisiello to ignore the earlier conditions, namely that he produce a steady flow of operas and marches. In fact he wrote only one opera in France, Proserpine, which was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 29 March 1803 and was a failure. Otherwise he concentrated on reconstituting the choir and orchestra of Napoleon’s chapel (there had been no private chapel of the rulers of France since the abolition of the French royal chapel in August 1792) and providing music for the weekly service held there.
By early 1804 rumours were being reported and denied in the Parisian press that Paisiello wanted to return home. He finally obtained his release as Napoleon’s maître de chapelle around 10 April, when J.-F. Lesueur was appointed as his successor, but he did not leave Paris until 29 August of that year. His late departure is related to the fact that Napoleon, who had made himself Emperor in May 1804, required the composer to help prepare the music for his coronation (which took place in Notre Dame on 2 December). The coronation music included a newly composed mass by Paisiello and his older Te Deum of 1791.
His return to Naples did not cause a severence of his links with Napoleon. The latter showed his continuing satisfaction with his past maître de chapelle by making him a member of the Legion d’Honneur on 18 July 1806 and by awarding him on 31 July 1808 an annual pension of 1000 francs backdated to 23 September 1804. The composer returned the compliment by sending the Emperor each year between 1807 and 1813 one or more sacred works (most of these were in honour of Napoleon’s birthday on 15 August). Paisiello also continued to serve Napoleon in an indirect way by serving members of his family. In 1806 a French army invaded Naples, forcing Ferdinando to flee to Sicily for the second time. Napoleon’s brother Joseph was installed King of Naples in May. One of his first acts was to put Paisiello in charge of all music at court, i.e. the composer now became maestro di cappella as well as compositore and maestro della real camera. Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, confirmed Paisiello in these appointments after he succeeded Joseph on the throne of Naples in 1808. Partly because of his own merits, no doubt, but partly also because of his connections with the Bonapartes, Paisiello received other rewards as well. In 1807 he was given one of the three directorships of the music college in Naples that Joseph had just founded, a post he held until 1813. In May 1808 he gained a place in the newly created Ordre royal des Deux Siciles, which gave him the rank of ‘Cavaliere’. He also obtained honorary titles from Academies in Lucca and Livorno, and on 30 December 1809 was nominated one of the eight ‘associés étrangers’ of the Fine Arts section of the French Imperial Institute in Paris.
The composer can hardly have expected good treatment at the hands of Ferdinando when the latter returned yet again to Naples after the fall of the Bonapartes in 1815. Florimo gives the impression that the composer now lost all his appointments save that of maestro di cappella because of his previous affiliations. But in fact Ferdinando, by an amnesty published in Naples on 23 May 1815, pardoned all employees of the previous regime and promised that no action would be taken against them. So Paisiello held on to all his royal appointments until his death in June 1816. Almost inactive as a composer by now, he continued to serve up music in Ferdinando’s chapel that he had written in previous times, much of it ironically first intended for members of the Bonaparte family.

(By MICHAEL F. ROBINSON, from The New Grove dictionary of Music and Musicians)


2 thoughts on “Giovanni Paisiello

  1. Pingback: SORT BY COMPOSERS | Da Vinci Edition

  2. Pingback: PAISIELLO: FLUTE QUARTETS OP.23 | Da Vinci Edition

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