Despite his brief life of twenty-six years and a career that spanned just six, Pergolesi’s fame eclipsed most other composers in the second half of the eighteenth century. His posthumous celebrity status was such a magnet in the music world that publishers and opera directors alike attributed his name to hundreds of vocal and instrumental works by lesser-known composers, thereby hoping to reap large financial profits. The ever-observant music critic Charles Burney commented, “The instant [Pergolesi’s] death was known, all Italy manifested an eager desire to hear and possess his productions.” This turned out to be the case throughout Europe.
Pergolesi followed the Neapolitan tradition of his predecessors, composing primarily vocal works for the stage and church. However, of the some sixty-odd instrumental works falsely bearing his name (and now known to have been written after his death), the Sinfonia in F major for cello and continuo is undoubtedly authentic based on extensive research of his handwriting and the manuscript’s watermarks. The piece was most likely intended for Pergolesi’s patron in Naples, Domenico Marzio Caraffa, the duke of Maddaloni, who was an amateur cellist. Sinfonia as a title for a solo instrumental work may be misleading, but it follows essentially the sonata di chiesa format of four contrasting movements, here: Comodo-Allegro-Adagio-Presto. It possesses an unmistakeable charm and spontaneity, and gives the cello compass to sing and be incisive.
The final movement of the Sinfonia may be particularly familiar to 20th– and 21st-century ears from the Pulcinella score Igor Stravinsky composed for the Ballets Russes production at the Paris Opéra in 1920. The impresario Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Stravinsky (after Manuel de Falla declined) to arrange and base his music on manuscripts he believed to be entirely by Pergolesi. The Italian baroque composer’s influence and mystique were still an inspiration some two hundred years later! After Stravinsky viewed the manuscripts, he “fell in love.” Stravinsky re-orchestrates the Presto for trombone and double bass solos in the ballet, yet each note of Pergolesi is still present.
© Jennifer Morsches, 2010
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