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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736)

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s life was brief, but his fame was great. Indeed, his reputation continued to grow even after his death.

Pergolesi was born in Jesi, on the central eastern coast of Italy. Little is known about his early life. Jesi, however, was an active music center, and the young Pergolesi must have been exposed to a range of influences. He studied with local teachers, and later in Naples with the noted composer Francesco Durante.

Perglosi composed sacred music, but became best known for opera. Although he composed opera seria (serious or dramatic opera), Pergolesi’s fame rested more on opera buffa (comic opera).

One such work was the cause of the infamous Querelle des Bouffons (Quarrel of the comic actors) in Paris in the 1750s. A performance of a Pergolesi short opera buffa titled La serva padrona (The servant-mistress) set off arguments among Parisian musicians and critics. One side sought to defend French operatic traditions against outside influences, while others championed the innovations coming out of Italy. Jean-Philippe Rameau was among those who saw value in opening up to Italian models. Such arguments helped break down barriers among evolving trends in European music.

The name Pergolesi became something of a “brand” that lent significance to music – and, as a result, a considerable number of compositions were falsely attributed to the composer long after his death. Scholarship has since been able to clarify the true scope of Pergolesi’s contributions.