Baldassare Galuppi entered the world of professional music at just 16, when his La Fede nell’incostanza, ossia gli amici rivali (Faith in fickleness, or the rival friends) was staged in 1722 at opera houses in Chioggia and Vicenza. It was a brave move by a precocious young musician, the type of story that might inspire other composers and artists. Unfortunately it wasn’t very inspiring for teenage Galuppi. The audience booed everything except the early curtain. When Galuppi sought advice and comfort from fellow Venetian Benedetto Marcello, the elder composer scolded him for daring to mount an opera at such an early age. It would have been enough to make anyone quit right there, had the noble (in both intentions and title) Marcello not also offered to pay for a composition teacher. The price? A vow of creative silence. Galuppi didn’t write anything else until his studies were complete.
He went on to become one of the most successful opera composers in Europe, serving as Maestro for both St. Mark’s Basilica and one of Venice’s renowned musical orphanages, replacing Handel in London, traveling as far as Russia to serve as one of Catherine the Great’s favorite composers, and leaving opera and Earth (in 1785) a very old, very rich man. Not bad for the plucky son of a barber who just needed music lessons.
It’s still easy to hear what made Galuppi so popular. He may not have been a prodigy, but his music exudes the “charm, clarity and good harmony” he posited as the very definition of “good music.” Those may now sound like modest, even narrow artistic values, but long before he was a “classical” composer, Galuppi showed a keen insight into what energizes and entertains audiences, even if he never educated them. His lyricism and lilting rhythms, often paired with Carlo Goldoni’s libretti, made his opera buffa the talk of Europe as well as his most lasting legacy. Works such as Il mondo alla roversa (The world in reverse), La Diavolessa (The She-devil) and the landmark L’Arcadia in Brentano (Arcadia in Brentano) abound with skillful details that might get lost amidst their sheer entertainment value, or taken for granted after centuries of comic opera as a clearly defined genre. Musicologist Daniel Heartz points out that Galuppi helped refine and popularize the comedic finale. Franceso Luisi describes Galuppi’s comic operas as watershed developments in establishing opera as a medium where music informed and carried the action rather than simply decorated it.
Opera seria, with its circuitous plots and relentless alternation of da capo arias and dry recitatives, often seems stilted in comparison. Working within the genre’s strictures, Galuppi elegantly conveys the central emotions embedded within each labyrinthine story. His aria “Parto, ma tu, ben mio” (“I go, my beloved”) from La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, the same libretto made famous by Mozart) uses an arching vocal line and lean strings to highlight Sesto’s pitiable situation. Galuppi turns “Ah Perdona, al primo affetto” (“Forgive my first feelings”) into an urgent, intense plea for forgiveness over a palpitating accompaniment. At a time when opera was as much athleticism as art, he also created some exhilarating showpieces for virtuoso singers, such as a sprinting “Superbo di me stesso” (“I will go proudly”) in L’Olimpiade or the breath-defying exploits for soprano and trumpet in “Alla tromba della fama” (“The trumpet of fame”).
At St. Mark’s and the Ospedali di Mendicanti, Galuppi drew upon his operatic experience to communicate an optimistic and lively spiritualism. Sacred music also allowed Galuppi the flexibility to write for choruses and larger orchestras than typically found in the theater. Vivid textures and novel but subtle harmonic touches make the Gloria rise to the heavens in praise rather than fear of the Almighty, with plenty of virtuoso parts for soloists. Marcello’s tuition checks paid off in the darker moments of the Dixit Dominus, informed by the “severe” polyphonic style of the old church masters. Galuppi even managed to fuse Western counterpoint into the Russian choral idiom during his time at St. Petersburg.
Galuppi also flexed his creative and technical muscles on his primary instrument, the keyboard, as well as seven Concerti a Quattro (which in some ways prefigured the Classical string quartet). The Keyboard Sonata in D Major, Illy No. 46, and the Concerto in G for Harpsichord and Flute (based upon “Se siete invendicate” “If you are vindicated” from his opera Antigona) illustrate the playful yet learned side of a composer affectionately dubbed “Il Buranello” for his diminutive size and birthplace (Burano). Simple effects like imitative dialogs between left and right hands or dance rhythms set to a sexy minor key (as in the Allegro from the first Concerto a Quattro) might not inspire any dissertations but make for catchy, at times quirky listening. Movements rarely outstay their welcome, yet don’t leave the listener looking for more thematic development. At the same time the fourth Concerto a Quattro sustains a forlorn, desiccated mood, belying the image of rich, happy Galuppi impressing the elites of Europe with his relentlessly chipper music.
Of course yesterday’s star is often today’s footnote. With the exception of a few operas (and Robert Browning’s 1855 poem A Toccata of Galuppi’s), Galuppi’s music was mostly forgotten after his death. His works are now encountering a minor renaissance, thanks to period instrument ensembles and European festivals, including an annual Galuppi Festival in Venice during October. (The organization has yet to announce specific dates or programs for the upcoming season.) Yet performances and recordings are often received as charming but ultimately shallow endeavors.
While Galuppi was undoubtedly a creative force, his music is clearly the work of a talented craftsman rather than an innovator or a genius. Like many successful composers, Galuppi wrote quite a bit, and often on a tight deadline, so some workmanlike creations are bound to pop up. Comparisons with Handel, Mozart, or even Galuppi’s near-contemporary Vivaldi are not only moot but also obscure what makes Galuppi (or any composer) distinct. If he seems more convention-bound than those classical heavy hitters, it’s worth understanding those conventions as the composer’s expressive tools rather than expectations he failed to overcome. If his musical language seems less emotive, that style is an opportunity for contemporary ears to listen past familiar musical tropes and back to a culture of artifice and stylized emotions.
With over 100 operas, 200 masses and motets, 90 piano sonatas, and a variety of instrumental works to his name, there must be more wheat to be mined from all of Galuppi’s alleged chaff. Then again, as Galuppi learned the hard way, good things take time.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on a variety of music on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.
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