January 9, 2017. Pietro Metastasio. This week is a bit short on talent (one exception is Morton Feldman, who was born on January 12th of 1926; we wrote about him two years ago). On the other hand, the previous week was brimming with it. Although we usually write about composers, a person who left a mark as significant as any of the greatest composers was a poet and librettist, Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio wrote 27 librettos for opera seria, some of which were set many times by different composers (his La clemenza di Tito was used by 40 composers, from Antonio Caldara to Christoph Gluck, Josef Mysliveček and, finally, Mozart). Altogether almost 400 composers had used Metastasio’s poetry to create musical pieces from operas and oratorios to cantatas and songs, among them, in addition to the ones mentioned above, Nicola Porpora, Baldassare Galuppi, George Frideric Handel, Johann Adolph Hasse (who set nearly all of Metastasio’s opera librettos), Paisiello and Meyerbeer. Metastasio was born Pietro Trapassi in Rome on January 3rd of 1698. His godfather was the famous patron of music and arts, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. As a child, Pietro developed an amazing ability to improvise in verse on any given subject. During one of his public performances he was noticed by Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, one of the founders of the Accademia degli Arcadi (the Academy of Arcadians), a famous literary and music society (Cardinal Ottoboni was also an Arcadian). Gravin took young Pietro under his wing and later adopted him, changing his name to Metastasio, which was more or less a translation of his Italian name into Greek: as musicologist Richard Taruskin writes, “trapasso” means transit from one place to another, while “metastasis” means spread or transference. Gravina sent Pietro to study Latin and law in Scalea,Calabria. At the age of 12 Pietro translated the Illiad into Italian and at 14 he composed a tragedy. He was 16 when Garvina died and left Metastasio 15,000 scudi, a considerable sum (translating values of 17th century currency is a very inexact science, but 15,000 scudi could be worth as much as $400,000 in current dollars. That didn’t stop Metastasio from spending it all in just two years!).
He moved to Naples to practice law but he was much more interested in poetry. Several of his poems were set to music by Nicola Porpora. Around that time, he met Porpora’s pupil, the castrato Farinelli, who eventually became the most famous singer in all of Europe. Metastasio and Farinelli remained friends for the rest of their lives. Metastasio moved to Rome, got involved with the Accademia and found a patron in a famous soprano Marianna Bulgarelli. Bulgarelli had a salon that was visited by all Roman luminaries of the time. It’s there that he met Alessandro Scarlatti, Hasse, Pergolesi, Leonardo Vinci and Benedetto Marcello. It was a very productive time for Metastasio: in about a year he wrote six libretti, including the famous Didone abbandonata, which was eventually used more than 50 times.
In 1730 Metastasio was invited to Vienna to the court of Emperor Charles VI in the official position of the “Italian court poet.” It paid handsomely – 3, 000 florins, higher than the salary of the Kapellmeister. The Emperor paid another 1,000 florins out of his personal purse. Metastasio settled in Vienna in the summer of 1730. He was 32 and had another 50 years in front of him (we’ll write about the second phase of his life another time). Now we’ll present an aria from an opera written to one of his most popular librettos, Il re pastore (The Shepherd King). It was written by Metastasio in 1751 and then used by Hasse, Gluck, Piccini, Galippi – and Mozart, who created a masterpiece. Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa in L'amerò, sarò costante from Il re. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
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