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Niccolò Jommelli

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Niccolò Jommelli (Italian: [nikkoˈlɔ jomˈmɛlli]; 10 September 1714 – 25 August 1774) was an Italian composer of the Neapolitan School. Along with other composers mainly in the Holy Roman Empire and France, he was responsible for certain operatic reforms including reducing ornateness of style and the primacy of star singers somewhat.
Jommelli was born to Francesco Antonio Jommelli and Margarita Cristiano in Aversa, a town some 20 kilometres north of Naples. He had one brother, Ignazio, who became a Dominican friar and was of some help to him in his elder years, and three sisters. His father was a prosperous linen merchant, who entrusted him to Canon Muzzillo, the director of the Aversa cathedral choir, for musical instruction.
When this proved successful, he was enrolled in 1725 at the Conservatorio di Santo Onofrio a Capuana in Naples, where he studied under Ignazio Prota alongside Tomaso Prota and Francesco Feo. Three years later he was transferred to the Conservatorio della Pietà dei Turchini, where he was trained under Niccolò Fago, with Don Giacomo Sarcuni and Andrea Basso, as second maestri (maestri di canto), or singing teachers. He was greatly influenced by Johann Adolf Hasse, who was in Naples during this period. After completing his studies he began work, and wrote two opere buffe, L'errore amoroso in early 1737 and Odoardo in late 1738. His first opera seria, Ricimero re di Goti, was such a success in Rome in 1740 that he immediately received a commission from Henry Benedict Stuart, the Cardinal-Duke of York.
When still studying at the conservatory, Jommelli was impressed with Hasse's use of obbligato recitative to increase the tension at certain dramatic moments in his operas. Speaking of obbligato recitative for Ricimero, Charles de Brosses says that Jommelli's use of obbligato recitative was better than anything he had heard in France.
His first opera, the comedy L'errore amoroso, was presented, with great success, under the protection of the Marquis del Vasto, Giovanni Battista d'Avalos, in the winter of 1737 at the Teatro Nuovo of Naples. It was followed the next year by a second comic opera, Odoardo, in the Teatro dei Fiorentini. His first serious opera Ricimero rè de' Goti, presented in the Roman Teatro Argentina in January 1740, brought him to the attention and then the protection of the Duke of York, Henry Benedict. The duke would later be raised to the rank of cardinal and procure Jommelli an appointment at the Vatican. During the 1740s, Jommelli wrote operas for many Italian cities: Bologna, Venice, Turin, Padua, Ferrara, Lucca, Parma, Naples and Rome.
When in Bologna in 1741 for the production of his Ezio, Jommelli (in a situation blurred by anecdotes) met Padre Martini. Saverio Mattei said that Jommelli studied with Martini, and claimed to have learned with him "the art of escaping any anguish or aridity". Nonetheless, his constant travelling to produce his many operas seems to have prevented him from ever taking composition lessons on a regular basis. Moreover, his relationship with Martini was not without mutual criticism. The main result of his stay in Bologna and his association with Martini was to present to the Accademia Filarmonica of that city, as application for admission, his first known sacred composition, a five-voice fugue a cappella on the final words of the small doxology, "Sicut erat". Musicologist Karl Gustav Fellerer, who examined several such works, testifies that Jommelli's piece, though being just "a rigid school work", could well rank among the best admission pieces now stored in the Bolognese Accademia Filarmonica. During the early 1740s he wrote an increasing amount of religious music, mainly oratorios, and his first liturgical piece still extant, a very simple "Lætatus sum" in F major dated 1743, is part of the Santini collection in Münster.
Shortly after his time in Bologna, Jommelli moved to Venice and composed Merope, which was the forerunner for French operatic style later in the century. In the years immediately after this, he wrote operas for Venice, Turin, Bologna, Ferrara and Padua, and two popular oratorios, Isacco figura del Redentore and Betulia liberata.
Some time around 1745, Hasse recommended Jommelli for a position as the Director of Music at the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice, one of that city's colleges for female musicians. This full-time employment required him to compose sacred music (mostly settings of the Mass and the Divine Office), but the financial security it gave him also allowed him to compose several other dramatic works.
Hasse's recommended appointment of Jommelli as maestro di cappella to the Ospedale degl' Incurabili in Venice is not definitively documented. But in 1745, he did start writing religious works for the women's choir of the church of the Incurabili, San Salvatore, as part of his obligations as chapel master along with teaching the more advanced students of the institution. There are no manuscripts of Jommelli's music composed for the Incurabili, but there are many copies of different versions of several of his works that may, with some certainty, be attributed to his period as maestro there. Among the music Helmut Hochstein lists as being composed for Venice are to be found four oratorios: "Isacco figura del Redentore", "La Betulia liberata", "Joas" and "Juda proditor"; some numbers in a collection of solo motets called "Modulamina Sacra"; one Missa breve in F major with a Credo in D major, probably a second Mass in G major, one Te Deum and five psalms.
Although two of his earliest biographers, Mattei and Villarosa, give 1748 as the year when Jommelli gave up his employment in Venice, his last compositions for the Incurabili are from 1746. He must have left Venice at the very end of 1746 or at the beginning of the following year, because on 28 January 1747 Jommelli was staging at the Argentina theatre in Rome his first version of "Didone abbandonata", and in May at San Carlo in Naples a second version of "Eumene".
It was the need of an active chapel master for the basilica of St. Peter's in preparing for the Jubilee festival year that brought both Jommelli and Davide Perez to Rome in 1749, a year-long commemoration celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church every fifty years, so this was an important occasion for the Roman aristocracy to show off. Jommelli was summoned by the Cardinal Duke of York, Henry Benedict, to compose for him a setting of Metastasio's oratorio La passione di Gesù Cristo still played annually in Rome, and who presented him to Cardinal Alessandro Albani, an intimate of Pope Benedict XIV.
He subsequently visited Vienna before taking a post as Kapellmeister to Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg in Stuttgart in 1753. This period saw some of his greatest successes, including the composition of what are regarded as some of his best works. Many were staged at the Duke's private theatres in the Palace of Ludwigsburg, outside Stuttgart. Mozart and his father Leopold passed through Ludwigsburg in 1763 on their "grand tour" and met the composer. Jommelli returned to Naples in 1768, by which time opera buffa was more popular than Jommelli's opera seria, and his last works were not so well received. He suffered a stroke in 1771 which partially paralyzed him, but continued to work until his death three years later, in Naples.
Jommelli wrote cantatas, oratorios and other sacred works, but by far the most important part of his output were his operas, particularly his opere serie of which he composed around sixty, several with libretti by Metastasio. These tended to concentrate more on the story and drama of the opera than on flashy technical displays by the singers, as was the norm in Italian opera at that time. He wrote more ensemble numbers and choruses, and, influenced by French opera composers such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, introduced ballets into his work. He used the orchestra (particularly the wind instruments) in a much more prominent way to depict what was going on in the story, including passages for orchestra alone, rather than consigning it to merely support for the singers. From Hasse, he learned to write orchestrally accompanied recitatives rather than just "secco" recitatives for voice and continuo (mainly harpsichord). His reforms are sometimes regarded as equal in importance to Christoph Willibald Gluck's.