Although little known today, the Italian composer Niccolò Jommelli wrote some of the most remarkable operas of the mid-eighteenth century. They were admired for their blend of Italian, German, and French style, garnering praise even from Mozart.
Studies and Early Career
Jommelli was born in Aversa, Italy on September 10, 1714. His first training was in the cathedral choir of that town, but he began study in the renowned musical center of Naples at the age of just eleven. From 1725 to 1728 he studied at the Conservatorio Sant’ Onofrio, thereafter moving to the Conservatorio Pietà dei Turchini. His first opera, L’errore amorosa, was premiered in Naples in 1737, and another comic opera followed the next year.
Jommelli began writing serious opera soon thereafter, in 1740, and it is in this genre that he was to make his mark. His first effort, Ricinero re di Goti, was premiered at Rome in 1740. As a result, Jommelli found an important patron in the English cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart.
The composer did not stay in Rome for long but instead moved to Bologna in 1741. There he studied with Giovanni Battista Martini, who was to teach Mozart about thirty years later. In the 1740s, Jommelli had success in northern Italy, having operas and oratorios performed in Bologna, Venice, Ferrara, and Padua, among other cities.
In either 1743 or 1745, the composer Johann Adolf Hasse, whom Jommelli had probably met in Naples years earlier, helped Jommelli get a position at the Ospedale degli Incurabili in Venice, an orphanage for girls that focused on training its charges in music. Here, Jommelli served as musical director, focusing mainly on producing sacred works. In addition, he wrote operas for other institutions.
Around the beginning of 1747, Jommelli left Venice for Rome, where the first version of one of his masterpieces, Didone abbandonata, was produced. He also returned briefly to writing comic operas and shorter comic intermezzos. These were performed as far away as Venice and Paris.
While in Rome, Jommelli also began writing more sacred music and won a position as maestro di cappella at St. Peter’s Basilica. Among the people supporting Jommelli for this job was Cardinal Alessandro Albani, who also furthered the composer’s career by helping him travel to and premiere an opera in Vienna in 1749. The resulting opera, Achille Sciro, was acclaimed by its influential librettist, Pietro Metastasio.
Upon his return to Rome in 1750, Jommelli wanted to assume the post at St. Peter’s that he had won the previous year, but he encountered opposition from some members of the clergy. Finally, on June 14, 1750, he won out. He began producing what became the pinnacle of his sacred music.
He did not, however, cut back on composing operas. Perhaps influenced by his time in Vienna, where ensembles and choruses were much more fashionable than in Italy, his operas include an unusual number of these pieces as well as some electrifying accompanied recitative. In many ways, these innovations are similar to the reforms called for by composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, but Gluck did not articulate his critique of traditional opera until 1769.
Aside from musical innovations, Jommelli seems to have been interested in changing dramatic conventions as well. That he may have been a proficient poet is suggested by his election to the Arcadian Academy in Rome in around 1754. Members were expected to improvise poetry on the spot, and very few composers were granted the distinction of membership. On a practical level, this may mean that Jommelli had more to do with writing his own librettos than people have assumed. This is especially interesting in that two of his librettos, Sofonisba (1745) and Iphigenia in Aulide (1751), break with convention by allowing death to be shown on stage and having an opera end in tragedy. It is not known who wrote the latter libretto, but it could have been written by Jommelli himself.
In the Service of the Duke of Württemberg
In 1753, Jommelli was much in demand, receiving job offers from Mannheim, Lisbon, and Stuttgart. At the latter city, Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, was very interested in both Italian and French opera. He had had several of Jommelli’s works produced at the new theater in Stuttgart before finally meeting the composer in 1753. The two men got along well, and Jommelli agreed to become Ober-Kapellmeister(chief director of music) at the Stuttgart court.
The operas of Jommelli and his librettist, Mattia Verazi, were highly innovative in several respects. They were based on Greek mythology instead of Roman history. They also incorporated many of the characteristics of French opera, such as large scene groups including not only recitative and aria (the traditional Italian combination), but also orchestrally accompanied recitative, ensembles, and chorus. The act finales go even further by integrating ballet as well.
Although Mattia Verazi left for Mannheim in 1760, Jommelli continued to create operas like those upon which they had collaborated. The main difference was that he used modified texts by Metastasio instead of original ones. However, Jommelli’s last two serious operas for Carl Eugen’s court (which had moved from Stuttgart to Ludwigsburg in 1764) are again to texts by Verazi. After the new court poet, Gaetano Martinelli, arrived in 1766, Jommeli wrote a series of comic and serio-comic operas.
Jommelli also wrote church music for Carl Eugen, although for special occasions rather than ordinary services. These include a requiem for Carl Eugen’s mother (1756) and a Te Deum (1763).
Commissions from Lisbon and Return to Italy
In 1768, Jommelli began to make preparations to leave Stuttgart. King Jose I of Portugal was interested in commissioning some works for Lisbon. His negotiations with Jommelli created problems, however; Jommelli lost his pension and all access to the operas he had written for Carl Eugen. Jommelli was in a poor position to contest these unfair arrangements, as he had returned to his hometown of Aversa in the hope that the climate would help his sickly wife. Unfortunately, she died in 1769.
Jommelli did not go to Lisbon but did agree to send José I one serious opera and one comic opera per year. Since the composer could not return to Stuttgart, he settled in Naples. Here, however, the innovations he had developed in Germany were not appreciated. Mozart called Jommeli’s Armida “beautiful but too serious and old-fashioned for the theater.”
In his last years, Jommelli wrote operas for Naples and Rome as well as fulfilling his responsibilities to Lisbon. In August of 1771, he suffered a stroke and was unable to write for almost a year. Thereafter, he began work on what was to be his last opera for Lisbon, Clelia. It was enthusiastically received by audiences in Lisbon, as were almost all the operas he sent to Portugal. From 1769 to 1777, when José I died, up to four Jommelli operas a year were heard in that city.
Jommelli died in August 1774, greatly mourned throughout Europe. Some, such as the German composer and theorist Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, called him Europe’s greatest composer. Despite such praise, Jommelli was soon forgotten. Only within the last twenty-five years have his operas been rediscovered.
McClymonds, Marita P. “The Evolution of Jommelli’s Operatic Style.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 33 (1980): 326-55.
McClymonds, Marita P. (with Paul Cauthen, Wolfgang Hochstein, and Mauricio Dottori): ‘Jommelli [Jomelli], Niccolò [Nicolò]’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 4 May 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>