1902 Encyclopedia > Gaspar Spontini

Gaspar Spontini
(original name: Gasparo Luigi Pacifico Spontini)
Italian-born composer

GASPARO LUIGI PACIFICO SPONTINI (1774-1851), dramatic composer, was born at Majolati (Ancona) in Italy, 14th November 1774, and educated at the Conservatorio de' Turchini at Naples under Sala, Tritto, and Salieri. After producing some successful operas at Rome, Florence, Naples, and Palermo, he settled in 1803 at Paris. His reception in the French capital was anything but flattering. His first comic opera, Julie, proved a failure ; his second, La Petite Maison, was hissed. Undaunted by these misfortunes, he abandoned the light and somewhat frivolous style of his earlier works, and in Milton, a one-act opera produced in 1804, achieved a real success. Spontini henceforth aimed at a very high ideal, and during the remainder of his life strove so earnestly to reach it that he frequently remodelled his passages five or six times before permitting them to be performed in public, and wearied his singers by introducing new improvements at every rehearsal. His first masterpiece was La Vestale, completed in 1805, but kept from the stage through the opposition of a jealous clique until 15th December 1807, when it was produced at the Académie, and at once took rank with the finest works of its class. The composer's second opera, Ferdinand Cortez, was received with equal enthusiasm in 1809 ; but his third, Olympia, was much less warmly welcomed in 1819.

Spontini had been appointed in 1810 director of the Italian opera; but his quarrelsome and grasping disposition led to his summary dismissal in 1812, and, though reinstated in 1814, he voluntarily resigned his post soon afterwards. He was in fact very ill fitted to act as director; yet on 28th May 1820, five months after the failure of Olympia, he settled in Berlin by invitation of Frederick William III., commissioned to superintend all music performed at the Prussian court and compose two new grand operas, or three smaller ones, every three years. But he began by at once embroiling himself with the intendant, Count Brühl. Spontini's life at Berlin may be best described as a ceaseless struggle for precedence, under circumstances which rendered its attainment impossible in the sense in which he desired it. Yet he did good work, and did it well. Die Vestalin, Ferdinand Cortes, and Olympia—the last two entirely remodelled—were produced with great success in 1821. A new opera. Nourmahal, founded on Moore's Lalla Rookh, was performed in 1822, and another, entitled Alcidor, in 1825; and in 1826 Spontini began the composition of Agnes von Hohenstaufen, a work planned on a grander scale than any of his former efforts. The first act was performed in 1827, and the complete work in three acts graced the marriage of Prince William in 1829. Though the German critics abused it bitterly, Agnes von Hohenstaufen is undoubtedly Spontini's greatest work. In breadth of conception and grandeur of style it exceeds both Die Vestalin and Ferdinand Cortez, and its details are worked out with untiring conscientiousness; yet Spontini was utterly dissatisfied with it, and at once set to work upon an entire revision, which on its representation in 1837 was in many parts scarcely recognizable by those who had heard the opera in its original form.

This was his last great work. He several times began to rewrite his early opera, Milton, and contemplated the treatment of many new subjects, such as Sappho, La Colère d'Achille, and other classical myths, but with no definite result. He had never been popular in Berlin; and he has been accused of endeavouring to prevent the performance of Euryanthe, Oberon, Die Hochzeit des Camacho, Jessonda, Robert the Devil, and other works of genius, through sheer envy of the laurels won by their composers. But the critics and reviewers of the period were so closely leagued together against him that it is difficult to know what to believe. After the death of Frederick William III. in 1840, Spontini's conduct became so violent and imperious that in 1842 Frederick William IV. dismissed him, with power to retain his titles and live wherever he pleased in the enjoyment of his full salary. He elected to settle once more in Paris, after a short visit to Italy; but beyond conducting occasional performances of some of his own works he made but few attempts to keep his name before the public. In 1847 he revisited Berlin and was invited oy the king to conduct some performances during the winter. In 1848 he became deaf. In 1850 he retired to his birthplace, Majolati, and died there on 14th January 1851, bequeathing all he possessed to the poor of his native town.

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