Spontini, Gasparo Luigi Pacifico
SPONTINI, GASPARO LUIGI PACIFICO (1774-1831), Italian musical composer, was born on the 14th of November 1774 at Majolati (Ancona) in Italy. He was the son of a poor cobbler and was intended for the priesthood. His musical propensities however were not to be restrained, and he obtained lessons from Kapellmeister Quintiliani. In 1791 he went to the Conservatorio de' Turchini at Naples, where he was trained to write operatic music under Paisiello, Cimarosa and Fiorivanti. His first opera, L'Eroismo ridicolo, was successfully produced in 1796, and by 1 799 he had already written and produced eight operas. After becoming court composer to King Ferdinand of Naples in this year an intrigue with a princess of the court compelled Spontini to leave Naples in 1800. For the next few years he wrote operas in Rome and Venice until 1803 when he settled in Paris, where his reception was anything but flattering. His comic opera Julie proved a failure; a successor, La Petite maison, was hissed. Undaunted by these misfortunes, he abandoned the light and somewhat frivolous style of his earlier works, and in Milton, a one-act opera produced in 1804, achieved a real success. Spontini henceforth aimed at a very high ideal, and during the remainder of his life strove so earnestly to reach it that he frequently remodelled his passages five or six times before permitting them to be performed in public, and wearied his singers by introducing new improvements at every rehearsal. His first masterpiece was La Vestale, completed in 1805, but kept from the stage through the opposition of a jealous clique until the 15th of December 1807, when it was produced at the Academie, and at once took rank with the finest works of its class. Spontini had abandoned the parlando of Italian opera for an accompanied recitative; he had increased the strength of the orchestra and introduced the big chorus freely. His opera, Ferdinand Cortez, was received with equal enthusiasm in 1809; but another, Olympia, was much less warmly welcomed in 1819. Napoleon, whose approval of any work of art was at once a compliment to the artist and a serious imputation on the value of the work, professed immense admiration for Spontini's music.
Spontini had been appointed director of the Italian opera in 1810; but his quarrelsome and grasping disposition led to his summary dismissal two years later, and, though reinstated in 1814, he voluntarily resigned his post soon afterwards. He was in fact very ill fitted to act as director; yet on the 28th of May 1820, five months after the failure of Olympia, he settled in Berlin by invitation of Frederick William III., commissioned to superintend ah 1 music performed at the Prussian court and compose two new grand operas, or three smaller ones, every three years. But he began by at once embroiling himself with the intendant, Count Briihl. Spontini's life at Berlin may be best described as a ceaseless struggle for precedence under circumstances which rendered its attainment impossible. Yet he did good work. Die Vestalin, Ferdinand Cortez and Olympia the last two entirely remodelled were produced with great success in 1821. A new opera, Nourmahal, founded on Moore's Lalla Rookh, was performed in 1822, and another, entitled Alcidor, in 1825; and in 1826 Spontini began the composition of Agnes von Hohenstaufen, a work planned on a grander scale than any of his former efforts. The first act was performed in 1827, and the complete work in three acts graced the marriage of Prince William in 1820. Though the German critics abused it bitterly, Agnes von Hohenstaufen is undoubtedly Spontini's greatest work. In breadth of conception and grandeur of style it exceeds both Die Vestalin and Ferdinand Cortez, and its details are worked out with untiring conscientiousness. Spontini himself, however, was utterly dissatisfied with it, and at once set to work upon an entire revision, so that on its re-presentation in 1837 many parts were scarcely recognizable by those who had heard the opera in its original form.
This was his last great work. He several times began to rewrite his early opera, Milton, and contemplated the treatment of many new subjects, such as Sappho, La Colere d'Achille, and other classical myths, but with no definite result. He had never been popular in Berlin; and he has been accused of endeavouring to prevent the performance of Euryanthe, Oberon, Die Hochzeit des Camacho, Jessonda, Robert the Devil, and other works of genius, through sheer envy of the laurels won by their composers. But the critics and reviewers of the period were so closely leagued against him that it is difficult to know what to believe. After the death of Frederick William III. in 1840 Spontini's conduct became so violent and imperious that he was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment for lesemajeste. The sentence was remitted by Frederick William IV., but on the 2nd of April 1841, when he appeared at the conductor's desk to direct a performance of Don Juan, he was greeted with hisses and groans, and his orders to raise the curtain were ignored, so that he was compelled to leave the desk. The king dismissed him on the 25th of August, with power to retain his titles and live wherever he pleased in the enjoyment of his full salary. He elected to settle once more in Paris, after a short visit to Italy; but beyond conducting occasional performances of some of his own works he made but few attempts to keep his name before the public. In 1847 he revisited Berlin and was invited by the king to conduct some performances during the winter. In 1848 he became deaf. In 1850 he retired to his birthplace, Majolati, and died there on the 14th of January 1851, bequeathing all he possessed to the poor of his native town.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)