1902 Encyclopedia > Metastasio (Pietro Trapassi)

(Pietro Trapassi)
Italian poet and librettist

METASTASIO (1698-1782). Pietro Trapassi, the Italian poet who is better known by his assumed name of Metastasio, was born in Rome, January 6, 1698. His father, Felice Trapassi, a native of Assisi, came to Rome and took service in what was termed the Corsican regiment of the papal forces. He subsequently married a Bolognese woman, called Francesca Galasti, and established himself in business as a sort of grocer in the Via dei Cappellari, Two sons and two daughters were the fruit of this marriage. The eldest son, Leopoldo, must be mentioned, since he played a part of some importance in the poet's life. Pietro, while quite a child, showed an extraordinary talent for improvisation, and often held a crowd attentive in the streets while he recited impromptu verses on a given subject. It so happened that, while he was thus engaged one evening in the year 1709, two men of high distinction in Roman society passed by and stopped to listen to his declamation. These were Gian Vincenzo Gravina, famous for legal and literary erudition, famous no less for his dictatorship of the Arcadian Academy, and Lorenzini, a critic of some note. Gravina was at once attracted by the boy's poetical talent and by his charm of person; for little Pietro was gifted with agreeable manners and considerable beauty. The great man interested himself in the genius he had accident-ally discovered, made Pietro his protege, and in the course of a few weeks adopted him. Felice Trapassi was glad enough to give his son the chance of a good education and introduction into the world under auspices so favourable. Gravina, following a fashion for which we may find pre-cedents so illustrious as that of Melanchthon, Hellenized the boy's name Trapassi into Metastasio; and this name remained with him for life. Gravina intended his adopted son to be a jurist like himself. He therefore made the boy learn Latin and begin the study of law. At the same time he cultivated his literary gifts, and displayed the youthful prodigy both at his own house and in the Roman coteries. Metastasio soon found himself competing with the most celebrated improvisatori of his time in Italy. Days spent in severe studies, evenings devoted to the task of improvis-ing eighty stanzas at a single session, were fast ruining Pietro's health and overstraining his poetic faculty. At this juncture Gravina had to journey into Calabria on business. He took Metastasio with him, exhibited him in the literary circles of Naples, and then placed him under the care of his kinsman Gregorio Caroprese at a little place called Scal6a. In country air and the quiet of the southern sea-shore Metastasio's health revived. It was decreed by the excellent Gravina that he should never improvise a line again. His great facility should be reserved for nobler efforts, when, having completed his education, he might enter into competition with poets who had be-queathed masterpieces to the world.

Metastasio responded with the docility of a pliant nature to his patron's wishes. At the age of twelve, while attend-ing to classical and legal studies, he translated the IliadInto octave stanzas; and two years later he composed a tragedy in the manner of Seneca upon a subject chosen from Trissino's Italia Liberata—Gravina's favourite epic. It was called Oiustino. Gravina had it printed in 1713; but the play is lifeless ; and forty-two years afterwards we find Metastasio writing to his publisher, Calsabigi, that he would willingly suppress it. Caroprese died in 1714, leaving Gravina his heir; and in 1718 Gravina also died. Metastasio inherited from the good old man a property, consisting of house, plate, furniture, and money, which amounted to 15,000 scudi, or about £4000. At a meeting of the Arcadian Academy, amid the tears and plaudits of that learned audience, he recited an elegy on the patron who had been to him so true a foster-father, and then settled down, not it seems without real sorrow for his loss, to enjoy what was no inconsiderable fortune at that period. Metastasio was now twenty. During the last four years he had worn the costume of abb<5, having taken the minor orders without which it was then useless to expect advancement in Eome. His romantic history, personal beauty, charming manners, and distin-guished talents made him fashionable. That before two years were out he had spent his money and increased his reputation for wit will surprise no one. He now very sensibly determined to quit a mode of life for which he was not born, and to apply himself seriously to the work of his profession. Accordingly he went to Naples, and entered the office of an eminent lawyer named Castagnola. It would appear that he articled himself as clerk, for Castagnola, who was a stern master, averse to literary trifling, exercised severe control over his time and energies. While slaving at the law, Metastasio did not wholly neglect the Muses. In 1721 he composed an epithalamium, and probably also his first musical serenade, Endimione, on the occasion of the marriage of his patroness the Princess Pinelli di Sangro to the Marchese Belmonte Pignatelli. But the event which fixed his destiny was the following. In 1722 the birthday of the empress had to be celebrated with more than ordinary honours, and the viceroy applied to Metastasio to compose a serenata for the occasion. He accepted this invitation with mingled delight and trepida-tion ) for Castagnola looked with no favour on his clerk's poetical distractions. It was arranged that his authorship should be kept a profound secret. Under these conditions Metastasio produced Gli Orti Esperidi. Set to music by Porpora, it won the most extraordinary applause. The great Boman prima donna, Marianna Bulgarelli, called La Romanina from her birthplace, who had played the part of Venus in this drama, was so enraptured with the beauties of the libretto that she spared no pains until she had dis-covered its author. Asked point-blank whether he had not written the words of the successful play, Metastasio was obliged to answer, Yes ! La Romanina forthwith took possession of him, induced him to quit his lawyer's office, and promised to secure for him fame and independence, if he would devote his talents to the musical drama. It was | thus that the opera, already partially developed by the Caesarean poet, Apostolo Zeno, attained perfection. The right man had been found for maturing this form of art which the genius of the age demanded, but which was still j but incomplete. In La Romanina's house Metastasio became acquainted with thegreatest composers of the day,— with Porpora, from whom he took lessons in music; with Hasse, Pergolese, Scarlatti, Vinci, Leo, Durante, Marcello, all of whom were destined in the future to set his plays to melody. Here too he studied the art of singing, and learned to appreciate the style of such men as Farinelli. His singularly pliant genius discerned the conditions which the drama must obey in order to adapt itself to music in the stage it then had reached. Gifted himself with extra-ordinary facility in composition, and with a true poetic feeling, he found no difficulty in producing plays which, while beautiful in themselves, judged merely as works of literary art, became masterpieces as soon as their words were set to music, and rendered by the singers of the greatest school of vocal art the world has ever seen. Read-ing Metastasio in the study, it is impossible to do him justice. Our only chance of rendering him a portion of his due is to approach these lyrical scenes—so passionate in their emotion, so cunningly devised for musical effect— with the phrases of Pergolese or Paesiello ringing in our ears, and to imagine how a Farinelli or a Caffariello voiced those stanzas which demand for their artistic realization the "linked sweetness long drawn out" of melodies as the Italian school developed them. In short, Metastasio is a poet whose poetry leapt to its real life in the environment of music. The conventionality of all his plots, the absurdities of many of his situations, the violence he does to history in the persons of some leading characters, his " damnable iteration" of the theme of love in all its phases, are explained and justified by music. He can still be studied with pleasure and profit. But our only chance of understanding the cosmopolitan popularity he enjoyed is by remembering that at least one half of the effect he aimed at has been irrecoverably lost.

Metastasio resided with La Romanina and her husband in Rome. The generous woman, moved by an affection half maternal half romantic, and by a true artist's admiration for so rare a talent, adopted him more passionately even than Gravina had done. She took the whole Trapassi family—father, mother, brother, sisters—into her own house. She fostered the poet's genius and pampered his caprices. Under her influence he wrote in rapid succession the Didone Abbandcmata, Catone in Utica, Ezio, Alessandro nell' Indie, Semiramide Riconosciuta, Siroe, and Artaserse. These dramas were set to music by the chief composers of the day, and performed in the chief towns of Italy. Every month added to Metastasio's renown. But meanwhile La Bomanina was growing older; she had ceased to sing in public; and the poet felt himself more and more dependent in an irksome sense upon her kindness. He gained 300 scudi (about ¿£60) for each opera; this pay, though good, was precarious, and he longed for some fixed engagement. Abandoning himself gradually to despondent whims and ; fancies, it became clear that some change in his condition was desirable. And the opportunity for a great change soon presented itself. In September 1729 he received the offer of the post of court poet to the theatre at Vienna, with a stipend of 3000 florins. This he at once accepted. La Romanina unselfishly sped him on his way to glory. She took the charge of his family in Rome, and he set off for Austria.

In the early summer of 1730 Metastasio settled at Vienna in the house of a Spanish Neapolitan, Niccolo Martinez, where he resided until his death. This date marks a new period in his artistic activity. Between the years 1730 and 1740 his finest dramas, Adriano, Demetrio, Issipile, Demofoonte, Olimpiade, Glemenza di Tito, Achille in Sciro, Temistocle, and Attilio Regolo, were produced for I the imperial theatre. Some of them had to be composed for special occasions, with almost incredible rapidity—the Achille in eighteen days, the Ipermnestra in nine. Poet, composer, musical copyist, and singer did their work together in frantic haste. The impress of the peculiar circumstances under which they were created is still left upon them, not only in negligence of style, but also in an undefinable quality which marks them out as products of collaboration. But what must- always surprise us is that they should be as good as they are. Metastasio understood the technique of his peculiar art in its minutest details. The experience gained at Naples and Rome, quickened by I the excitement of his new career at Vienna, enabled him almost instinctively, and as it were by inspiration, to hit the exact mark aimed at in the opera.

At Vienna Metastasio met with no marked social success. His plebeian birth excluded him from aristocratic circles. But, to make up in some measure for this com-parative failure, he enjoyed the intimacy of a great lady, the Countess Althann, sister-in-law of his old patroness the Princess Belmonte Pignatelli. She had lost her husband, and had some while occupied the post of chief favourite to the emperor. Metastasio's liaison with her became so close that it was even believed they had been privately married. From his letters to his friend La Romanina, and to the great singer Farinelli, who reigned supreme at the court of Madrid, we learn the little details of the poet's life in its wearisome monotony, and come to comprehend his character, at once generous and timid, selfish and amiable, prudent almost to excess of caution, and personally cold in contradiction with the fervour of his sentimental muse. The even tenor of this dull existence was broken in the year 1734 by the one dark and tragic incident of his biography. It appears that La Romanina had at last got tired of his absence. Little satisfied with his friendly but somewhat reticent communications, impatient to see him once again, inquisitive perhaps about the terms on which he lived with his new mistress, she resolved to journey to Vienna. Could not Metastasio get her an engagement at the court theatre ? The poet at this juncture revealed his own essential feebleness of character. To La Romanina he owed almost everything as a man and as an artist. But he was ashamed of her and tired of her. He vowed she should not come to Vienna, and wrote dissuading her from the projected visit. The tone of his letters alarmed and irritated her. It is probable that she set out from Borne, but died suddenly upon the road. Nothing can be said for certain about her end, or about the part which Metastasio may have played in hastening the catastrophe. All we know is that she left him her fortune after her husband's life interest in it had expired, and that Metastasio, over-whelmed with grief and remorse, immediately renounced the legacy. This disinterested act plunged the BulgareUi-Metastasio household at Rome into confusion. La Romanina's widower married again. Leopoldo Trapassi, and his father and sister, were thrown upon their own resources. The poet in Vienna had to bear their angry expostulations upon his ill-timed generosity, and to augment the allowances he made them.

As time advanced the life which Metastasio led at Vienna, together with the climate, told upon his health and spirits. From about the year 1745 onward he writes complainingly of a mysterious nervous illness, which plunged him into the abyss of melancholy, interfered with his creative energy, and constantly distressed him with the apprehension of a general breakdown. He wrote but little now, though the cantatas which belong to this period, and the canzonet Ecco quel jiero infante, which he sent to his friend Farinelli, rank among the most popular of his productions. It was clear, as his latest and most genial biographer, Vernon Lee, has phrased it, that " what ailed him was mental and moral ennui."' In 1755 the Countess Althann died, and Metastasio was more than ever reduced to the society which gathered round him in the bourgeois house of the Martinez. He sank rapidly into the habits of old age; and, though his life was prolonged till the year 1782, very little can be said about it. On the 12th of April he died, bequeathing his whole fortune of some 130,000 florins to the five children of his friend Martinez. He had survived all his Italian relatives.

During the long period of forty years in which Metastasio may be almost said to have overlived his originality and creative powers his fame went on increasing. In his library he counted as many as forty editions of his own works. They had been translated into French, English, German, Spanish, even into Modern Greek. They had been set to music over and over again by every composer of distinction, each opera receiving this honour in turn from several of the most illustrious men of Kurope. They had been sung by the best virtuosi in every capital, from Madrid to St Petersburg, from London to Constantinople. The critics of all nations vied in raising Metastasio's credit to the skies. There was not a literary academy of note which had not conferred on him the honour of membership. Strangers of distinction passing through Vienna made a point of paying their respects to the old poet at his lodgings in the Kohlmarkt Gasse. Letters of congratulation, adulation, sympathy, respect, condolence, poured in upon him. And yet, during the whole of this long period, he was gradually outliving the artistic conditions upon which that fame was really founded. It has "been already pointed out that Metastasio cannot rank as a poet in the unqualified sense of that word, but as a poet collaborating with the musical composer and performer. His poetry, further-more, was intended for a certain style of music—for the music of omnipotent vocalists, of thaumaturgfcal soprani. With the changes effected in the musical drama by Gluck and Mozart, with the development of orchestration and the rapid growth of the German manner, a new type of libretto came into request. Metastasio's plays fell into undeserved neglect, together with the music to which he had linked them. Farinelli, whom he styled "twin-brother." was the true exponent of his poetry ; and, with the abolition of the class of singers to wdiieh Farinelli belonged, Metastasio's music suffered eclipse. It was indeed a just symbolic instinct which made the poet dub this unique soprano his twin-brother.

The musical drama for which Metastasio composed, and in working for which his genius found its proper sphere, has so wholly passed away that it is now difficult to assign his true place to the poet in Italian literary history. Compared with Shakespeare, or even with Racine, he hardly merits the title of a dramatist. His inspira-tion was essentially emotional and lyrical. Instead of creating characters, he created situations for the display of very varied feel-ings, for all the feelings in fact to which melody allies itself. But in doing this he showed a capable playwright's faculty. His per-sonages act and react upon each other. Their characters, though not in harmony with history or fact, are clearly traced and cleverly sus-tained. Each of the dramatis persona? is an emotion incarnate and consistent, admirably fitted for musical effect and contrast. The clash and combat of passions are vividly presented, with the smallest possible expenditure of rhetoric, in the dialogues intended for recitative. The climax of emotion is cadenced in appropriate stanzas, with simple but effective imagery, at the close of each important scene. The chief dramatic situations are expressed by lyrics for two or three voices, embodying the several contending passions of the agents brought into conflict by the circumstances of the plot. The total result is not pure literature, but literature supremely fit for musical effect. Language in Metastasio's hands is exquisitely pure and limpid. Of the Italian poets, he professed a special admiration for Tasso and for Marini. But he avoided the con-ceits of the latter, and was no master over the refined richness of the former's diction. His own style reveals the improvisatore's facility. Of the Latin poets he studied Ovid with the greatest pleasure, and from this predilection some of his own literary qualities may be de-rived. The pedantic rules of Aristotelian poetics never touched an artist who felt his real vocation to be the interpretation of music. For historical propriety, for the psychology of character, for unity of plot, for probability of incident, he had a supreme disregard. It was indeed his merit to have discarded all these considerations. His poetry was the twin-sister of Italian melody, and he was right in trusting entirely to music and action on the stage to render his con-ceptions vital. What, therefore, he gained during his own lifetime, while the musical system to which he subordinated his genius was yet living, he has since lost when, as now, he must be studied by readers wdio have only a faint and dim conception of that perished art. For sweetness of versification, for limpidity of diction, for delicacy of sentiment, for romantic situations exquisitely rendered in the simplest style, and for a certain delicate beauty of imagery sometimes soaring to ideal sublimity, he deserves to be appreciated so long as the Italian language lasts.

There are numerous editions of Metastasio's works. That by Calsabigi, Paris, 1755, 9 vols. 8vo, published under his own superintendence, was the poet's favourite. Another of Turin, 1757, and a third of Paris. 1780, deserve mention. The posthumous works were printed at Vienna, 1795. The collected editions of Genoa. 1802. and Padua, 1811, will probably be found most useful by the general student. Metastasio's life was written by Aluigi, Assisi, 1783; by Charles Burney, London, 1796 ; and by others; but by far the most vivid sketch of his biography will be found in Vernon Lee's Studies of the 18th Century in Italy, London, 1880, a work which throws a flood of light upon the development of Italian dramatic music, and upon the place occupied by Metastasio in the artistic movement of the last century. (J. A. S.)

The above article was written by: J. A. Symonds, M.A.

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