Francesco Feo: Cantatas vol. 2


  • Artist(s): Elisabetta Pallucchi, Lorenzo Tozzi, Lucia Casagrande Raffi, ROMABAROCCA ENSEMBLE
  • Composer(s): Francesco Feo
  • EAN Code: 7.46160915111
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Chamber, Vocal
  • Instrumentation: Alto, Cello, Double-Bass, Ensemble, Soprano
  • Period: Baroque
  • Publication year: 2023
SKU: C00675 Category:

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The handwritten collection of Neapolitan composer Francesco Feo’s works (1691-1761), in the holdings of the British Library in London, makes up – for its quality and quantity – a rather unique corpus within the framework of cantatas with a moral and religious inspiration in the seventeenth century. This miscellaneous collection represents part of the private collection of a Neapolitan book collector, Gaspare Selvaggi; it was bequeathed in 1843 to the British Museum, which acquired it thanks to the mediation of Spencer J. A. Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton. This happened after 1819, when Giuseppe Sigismondo, the then archivist of the Neapolitan Real Collegio di Musica, tried unsuccessfully to persuade that institution to buy the entire collection for 4,000 ducati. The collection consists of a large number of works with a spiritual content: 15 cantatas for solo voice and continuo, partly in autograph handwritten scores, and some of which are realized in two different settings, 9 for two voices, one for three voices, and some sacred works.

Musicologist Lorenzo Tozzi has already excerpted a selection from that corpus, transcribing and recording it in world premiere with his ensemble: Francesco Feo – Cantatas Vol. 1 – Il peccato, La mmorte, La morte del giusto e del peccatore, Il giudizio. Here, in vol. 2, and concluding the virtual itinerary sketched in the first album, four more are found: Il Giudizio universal, L’inferno, L’Eternità and Il Fine dell’uomo. In spite of their rather uncertain dating, they are still recognizable as pertaining to the period between 1725 and 1736, when the musician was in the service of one of the numerous religious institutions in Naples.

Born in Naples in 1691, at thirteen Francesco Feo was admitted to the Conservatorio di S. Maria della Pietà dei Turchini as a paying “figliuolo”. The contract, drafted by a notary, included the duty for him to serve for five years at the institution, where he was a fellow student of Leonardo Leo and Giuseppe De Majo. He studied singing and composition with Andrea Basso and Nicola Fago; he remained there until the age of twenty, when he resigned in order to care for his sister Caterina, who was widowed, and for her three children – Giacinto, Gennaro, and Teresa Manna. Feo and his nephews, who became excellent musicians in turn, would constitute one of the most important musical families in the Neapolitan eighteenth century.

Having learnt the “job”, he went on teaching from 1723 onwards at the Conservatorio di S. Onofrio at Porta Capuana. During those teaching years, he became famous as one of the most skilled music teachers of his generation. In 1739, after Francesco Durante’s resignment, he became the First Master at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo, where he remained until its final closing in 1743. Later he abandoned public teaching, and focused exclusively on private tuition, founding a school of singing which issued soloists of renown. He had a number of famous pupils, including Nicolò Jommelli and his own nephew, Gennaro Manna. He was bound by deep friendship to Pergolesi, to whom he gave assistance when he fell seriously ill. This brought him the honour of receiving the autograph manuscript of the world-famous Sequence Stabat Mater. Currently it is in the musical holdings of the Abbey of Montecassino; Feo bequeathed it – in the absence of direct heirs of his – to his nephew-in-law, Giuseppe De Majo, who had married Feo’s niece, Teresa Manna.

Along with his activity as a teacher, as a composer he produced a great number of theatrical works. His debut took place in his early twenties, with the dramma per musica “L’amor tirannico ossia Zenobia”, performed at the Theatre of San Bartolomeo (the most ancient Neapolitan theatre, paving the way for the San Carlo Theatre). At the beginnings of his career as a composer, the Neapolitan operatic stage was still dominated by Alessandro Scarlatti, whose success was undermined by the competition of Francesco Mancini, Domenico Sarro and Nicola Porpora. The sacred dramma “Il martirio di S. Caterina”, written in 1714, was followed, the next year, by the opera “Siface, re di Numidia” (1714), on lyrics by a debutant who would later become poet laureate, i.e. Pietro Trapassi, aka Metastasio. Another dozen theatrical works followed suit, while Feo tirelessly went on writing numerous sacred works. In 1734, the Bishop of Naples commissioned him a work whose success was such that it would be performed for two decades in a row in several cities, i.e. L’Oratorio di San Francesco di Sales.

The sacred genre was certainly the territory where Feo was able to express his compositional potential at his best, winning over most of his prestigious colleagues, given his copious output of motets, oratorios, cantatas, psalms, lamentations, dialogues, passions, antiphons and hymns. The early eighteenth century was, in Naples, not only the undisputed golden age of serious and comic opera, but also the continuation of the old, and always lively, tradition of sacred music: that was a real “know-how”, bound to the liturgical practices of the sacred buildings.

In the payrolls found in the volumes of the ancient Neapolitan banks, the presence of Francesco Feo as a constant cooperator of several Neapolitan institutions recurs often. He was the Chapel Master at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie della pietra del pesce (1734) and at the church of Casa Santa dell’Annunziata (1727-1735); he was the master at the Congregation of Santa Maria degli Infermi nella Chiesa del Gesù nuovo; he was also found at the Church of the Deputazione delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco (1728-1736), but also active at the Confraternity of the Monte della Madonna dei poveri vergognosi (1733, 1734 and 1736) as well as at the Congregation of St. Michael Archangel (1728, 1731, 1733, 1734, 1736). This social and religious context is responsible for both the commissioning and the inspiration of Feo’s spiritual cantatas, whose quantity, as previously said, astonishes by itself.

The lyrics for Feo’s cantatas are anonymous. However, arguably, they were written by an author who was knowledgeable as concerns the poetics of sacred works – perhaps a clergyman. The lyrics for Feo’s cantatas mainly focus on the mythical-cosmological meaning, proper to human consciousness, as concerns the human being’s eternal interior struggle about the meaning of life and death, and about the speculation on the possibility of a life after life. Both the rhymed texts and those in prose become, at one and the same time, the germination and the fruit of the reaction against the unstoppable secularization of society. Against this, the Church fought with renewed vigour, also thanks to the new doctrine and pastoral method affirmed at the Synod celebrated in Naples in 1726 by Archbishop Francesco Pignatelli. Their subjects are not unheard of within the framework of a certain seventeenth-century literature of the “cantata genre”. They are forged and expressed by the powerful moral tensions reawakened by the Counter-reformation’s elan. These include Lelio Orsini’s Ogni nostro piacer quanto è mendace and Giovanni M. Casini’s O mortale, se corri appresso ai trionfi e alle vittorie: both of them were set to music by Marco Marazzoli. Other examples comprehend O voi che in aride ossa, o voi che in polve by Domenico Benigni, set to music by Giacomo Carissimi; La terra è un gran sepolcro  by Giovanni Lotti, set to music by Filippo Vismarri, and Apre l’uomo infelice by Giambattista Marino, with music by Alessandro Grandi – later set to music also by Alessandro Stradella. Their texts include moral metaphors on the shortness of life and the fleetingness of time, as in La vita caduca by Pietro Pariati (found in Duetti, terzetti e madrigali) by Antonio Lotti (1705), as well as in Antonio Caldara’s madrigals on lyrics by Antonio Maria Luchini (1733). Still other elements of reflection involve the ultimate destiny of man: a tragical fate, meditated without delusions. Once the eschatological myths of salvations are set aside, the tones become even darker and more tortured, illuminating interior struggles and interiorized pathways of faith, wavering between penance and prayer: they are two symbols of the Baroque thought and of its oppositions, such as the antithesis heaven/earth, soul and body, truth and semblance, the world’s enticing manners and spiritual worship.

Mystical intuitions and moral reflections on man’s goal are superimposed to each other in a complex system of meanings, which some kinds of music can evoke for the Baroque listener, and which, in turn, impose to the composer some particular ways of structuring his message of sounds. The history of the “cantata” genre is intimately joined to the evolution of the dramma per musica and of the oratorio. Cantatas are built on the same musical substance of the other two and in conformity to their same formal profiles; it is employed by the same composers, but with the variants of a much shorter duration and of the “chamber” destination – i. e. a strictly private dissemination.

In these cantatas, Francesco Feo’s musical grammar is efficaciously incisive, with a regular structure, which is exquisitely singing. His style is not devoid of the necessary harshness when required by the lyrics; however, it still always (and praiseworthily maintains) a detachment from the tortured subjects. It depicts persuasive aural frescoes, revealing a convincing contrapuntal skill, especially in the two-part passages in the ab antiquo imitative style. He frequently employs the sequence recitative-aria-recitative-aria (RARA), whereby the syllabic declamation has the task of introducing the subject, followed by a freer singing style with a da capo reprise.

The keys, strategically chosen, reveal a refined taste for variety in the main keys, denoting a knowledgeable and natural harmonic research. The continuo’s accompaniment frequently reveals itself as an empowerment of singing (basso seguente), whilst on other occasions it becomes a second voice with a descriptive power. The changes in time signature highlight the various stanzas of the poetic text through syncopations and diminutions in dotted rhythm; frequently, the seldom-found coloraturas in the singer’s melody are left to the performer’s virtuosity, in the da capo form.

This volume is opened by Il Giudizio Universale for soprano, alto, and continuo. It represents a dialogue of two souls, one damned and the other blessed. Surprisingly, the high voice fills the role of the damned Soul, whilst the lower register is assigned the role of the blessed Soul. (Contrariwise, the angels’ role is often realized by the soprano, as in the Blessed soul in Emilio de’ Cavalieri’s Rappresentazione di Anima et di Corpo, 1600). The cantata opens with the secco recitative of the damned soul, “Avvezze a inorridirvi” and with “Il Giudice severo”, an Arioso full of agogic sections in E-flat major, which is enriched by meaningful fragments. These are true madrigalisms, on the lines “la morte dove sta” (where an ascending chromatic scale, passus duriusculus, depicts death as a longing, as a climax), while the following line, “pietà sarebbe un fulmine” sees the continuo portraying a lightning. There follows the Anima beata’s section, with the recitative “Alma mia dove sei” and the Aria “O mia frale antica spoglia”. In this Andante in 3/8, the progression in sextuplets on the verb goder (“enjoying”) is noteworthy. The composer would frequently employ a change in rhythm as a distinctive element for denoting emotional states and/or characters. The work is closed by a recitative a due Ohimé che veggo, ohimè”, and “Che stupor che rimiro”, as well as the final duet, in time of Larghetto and in G minor, “Con quell sempre accompagnato”.

L’Inferno, for alto and continuo, in the RARA scheme, opens with about ten lines of free verse, conceived for the recitative “Deh rivestite omai”, and goes on with the Air “Un momento di contento”. Here, in G minor and with a binary time, the composer employs frequent and pathetic repetitions of short poetic fragments. For instance, “Per sempre, per sempre” is frequently repeated, with an emphatic underlining at the unison with the bass, and the soloist who, on the line “Può condurti uno solo error” engages in an “affectionate” counterpoint, dissonant against the continuo. It ascends by an octave, finishing by a suspended cadence on the word “error”. The piece closes with the recitativo “Or voi restate voi” and the Aria with da capo, “Un solo mi pento”. In this Larghetto in the ternary time, the continuo, once more, becomes one with the singing’s melodic line.

In L’Eternità for soprano and continuo (as happens with L’Inferno, a second setting of it is found in the British Library Collection), after a recitative (“Pensier, dove t’ingolfi”), comes the Aria “Alma mia, tu non sai”, in the ternary time, with dotted rhythm and a joyful pace in both the accompaniment and the singing part. It was a distractive element against the torturing doubt about one’s own destiny, “quel mai di gioia o di dolor”. In the second Air, in A minor, “Un sol mare è tutta calma”, in the binary time, the added agogic indications “dolce” and “forte” appear, exalting the contrast between Calma and Aspra tempesta, in whose figuration the basso seguente reinforces the soprano voice.

Il Fine dell’uomo, for two voices (soprano and alto) with continuo is a true dialogue one to one, beginning with the characters’ recitatives, two by two, “Su la florida sponda” and “In questo ameno lido”. The protagonists are two shepherds whose characters are excerpted from Tasso: Tirsi (soprano) and Elpino (alto). The former invites his companion to go and listen to his harp and his singing, in the Aria (Un poco Andante, “Fiumicel dove vai”) and the da capo aria “Così par della sponda”. Here, we find a section rich in agogic changes with the continuo realized with repeated arpeggios and octaves, while the singing part speaks of “giunga in braccio al mar”, where the sea’s waves are realized by coloraturas in demisemiquavers’ quadruplets. After a new recitativo “two by two”, Tirsi replies with the Andante in the ternary time, “Di selce è quel petto”; the two characters close with the duet “Dia fine il Fin dell’uomo al nostro canto” (Elpino) and “Anzi cominci il core, cantando a tutte l’ore” (Tirsi). The tempo, Andante un poco, is remarkable for the repeated bass in octaves, powerfully rhythmicized, and the D- minor imitative fugue, reconciling the two at last (“Ah sì, gioisca l’uom”).

Thanks to his solid education and his versatile talent, Francesco Feo gained the praises of his contemporaries (Padre Martini, J. A. Hasse, J. F. Reichardt, C. Burney), although these are not subscribed to by some representatives of today’s musicology, among whom Abert who accused Feo of scarce originality. Still, the general impression is that of a skilled composer, capable of employing language, form and style with enough creativity to make something captivating out of a simple story of ordinary doctrine.

His inborn delicacy, associated with an exquisite feeling for form, further refined and made more attractive by experience, as well as his capability of creating a warm and affectionate lyricism, colouring characters and situations (touching, not infrequently, apices of pathos and suave mysticism): these seem to be his convincingly distinctive traits.

Gifted with the necessary robustness in his programming, Feo never abandons himself to doleful reflections on humankind’s meanness and dissoluteness. Rather, he employs them in order to give to the listener a musical design with a fruitful salvific aspect. To exorcize the lugubrious and funereal themes, conceding a possibility of salvation to earthly fragility thanks to the final union with God is therefore the human being’s last end, and the concluding signpost of the hypothetical path we began with this selection of spiritual cantatas.

Ah si gioisca l’Uom viva beato
A coronarsi al fine
Di belle stelle il crine
Creato per amar

Maria Paola Del Duca


Graduated in singing at the Conservatory of Pescara with highest honors, and later in Teaching of Music at the Conservatory of Perugia. Holds a Bachelor's Degree in Baroque Singing studying under the guidance of Gloria Banditelli obtaining the highest marks and praise with distinction. She has performed in national and international festivals such as the Festival delle Nazioni (Città di Castello), the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte (Montepulciano), OperaInCanto (Terni), Segni Barocchi (Foligno), Festival Transeuropeen (Rouen), Emilia Romagna Festival, Hoors Sommaopera (Sweden), TLR Classica (Macerata), Festival dei Due Mondi (Spoleto), Seicentonovecento (Pescara), Festival Concertistico Internazionale (Veneto), International Organ Festival (Venezia), Menuhin Festival in Gstaad (Switzerland), Festival de Ushuaia (Argentina), Brinkhall Summer Concerts (Turku), Waterloo Festival (London), Festival International Orgues Historiques (Breil sur Roya), Autunno Barocco (Napoli). In April 2010, during the sixth edition of the International Festival of Ushuaia (Argentina), she performed the Requiem by Mozart for the celebrations of 200 years of the Republic of Argentina. She has recorded for Radio Vaticana, RadioRai Tre, Brilliant Classics, Tactus, Bongiovanni and Da Vinci.

Peculiar figure of musicologist-musician graduated in Literature, Lorenzo Tozzi is an historian and music critic, continuista, conductor and organizer. He studied piano, composition, choral music, orchestral conducting and he specialized in Baroque practice with Alan Curtis and Jasper Christensen.
Professor of Music History at the S. Cecilia Conservatory in Rome, he also taught at the Universities of Fermo and Lecce. Music critic for the roman newspaper Il Tempo, he collaborates with numerous music magazines. For Ricordi, Suvini Zerbini and Schott, he edited the critical edition of works by Paisiello, Cimarosa, Piccinni, Cherubini, Scarlatti, Rossini; works later directed by Muti, Scimone, Ferro and Bellugi, and the complete Cantatas by the architect Carlo Rainaldi for the Italian Institute of Music History. In 1994 he founded the Romabarocca Ensemble, which faced the Roman and Neapolitan Baroque repertoire performing rare works such as Agazzari's Eumelio, La Rappresentazione di Anima e Corpo by Cavalieri with Cecilia Gasdia, the Diana schernita by Cornacchioli, Handel's Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Scarlatti's La Giuditta, the cantatas of the Roman architect Carlo Rainaldi and La sfera armoniosa by Quagliati. Relevant as well are the first modern performances of the Decebalus by Leo at the Ateneul Theater and the Bucharest Opera, the pastoral work Il pastor di Corinto by Scarlatti and Eco e Narciso by Domenico Scarlatti. More recently he has brought to light works by Francesca Caccini, Andrea Caporale and Girolamo Rossi. President Scalfaro in 1995 made him Knight of the Italian Republic for cultural merits.

She was born in Gubbio (PG), Italy. She made her debut at the age of twenty-one at the XXIV Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte in Montepulciano. She collaborates with numerous artists, national and international star, gaining critical and public acclaim. She performs in Italy and abroad in the opera, sacred, oratorial and symphonic music. In 2010 she performs at the “Beniamino Gigli” award in Helsinki at the Sibelius Academy. Over the years she deepens the study of Baroque style and repertoire with particular reference to the '700 collaborating with influential musicians in the sector and important chamber ensembles such as: Accademia degli Unisoni, Solisti Aquilani, Orchestra da Camera di Perugia, Ensemble Strumentale della Cappella Musicale S. Petronio, Romabarocca Ensemble and Accademia Hermans, with which she participates in the recording of the Bottega Discantica "O Magnum Mysterium" and Cantata in onore di San Antonio da Padova by G. Rossi. She is guest of prestigious festivals such as Festival Villa Solomei, Sagra Musicale Umbra, Festival Arti in Movimento, Todi Festival, Perdonanza Celestiniana, Artem Festival and Hermans festival.

The ROMABAROCCA ENSEMBLE (RBE) was founded in 1994 by Lorenzo Tozzi, who is still its artistic director, to rediscover the vast Italian music repertoire with a philological intent. In its repertoire, it can include unpublished and rare music, instrumental and vocal, sacred and profane, of the Italian Baroque: oratories, cantatas, melodramas and comic interludes. Soon the ensemble attract attention for the versatility and originality of its musical programs. It performed concerts throughout Italy, even for historical institutions such as the Sienese Musical Weeks, the Roman Philharmonic, the Oratorio of Gonfalone, the Baroque Festival of Viterbo, the Accademia di San Luca, the Festival di Pasqua and performed numerous tours abroad, from Korea to China, from Finland and Russia, from Belarus to Zambia, from Syria to Mongolia and Poland. Many rare music has been brought to light (some first modern performances even), including works by Cornacchioli, Leo, Rainaldi, Scarlatti, Cavalieri, Carissimi, Agazzari, Gasparini, Hasse, Haendel, Quagliati, F. Caccini, Caporale and Rossi. For the twentieth anniversary of the Ensemble, the President of the Italian Republic Napolitano has honoured it with a national award: the Medaglia di Rappresentanza. The RBE records music for Tactus, Bongiovanni, Brilliant and Da Vinci.


Francesco Feo: (b Naples, 1691; d Naples, 28 Jan 1761). Italian composer and teacher. According to Burney, he was ‘one of the greatest Neapolitan masters of his time’.

Lyrics & Other Materials

672 – Francesco Feo: Cantatas Vol. 2, Italian and English Lyrics
Feo: Cantate Vol. 2, Italian Booklet by Maria Paola Del Duca