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Domenico Cimarosa: His Life and His Operas


Cimarosa - Il Matrimonio Segreto / Barbara Daniels, David Kuebler, Carlos Feller, Claudio Nicolai, Hilary Griffiths, Schwetzinger Festspiele


Domenico Cimarosa

Though certainly not as famous today as some of his contemporaries, including W.A. Mozart and Antonio Salieri, in his time Domenico Cimarosa was both celebrated and handsomely rewarded for his works.  When he replaced Salieri as kapellmeister at the court of Leopold II, for instance, the emperor bestowed on him today’s equivalent of $450,000.  It was shortly thereafter that Cimarosa completed what has become his most famous work, Il matrimonia segreto, at the second performance of which the emperor (who was seeing it for the first time), ordered it repeated in its entirety that same night.  In his delight with the new opera, Leopold II also gave the composer what would now be approximately $75,000.

Humble Beginnings

Domenico Cimarosa was born in the small Italian town of Aversa on December 17, 1749.  Within a few days, the Cimarosa family moved to nearby Naples.  There, Domenico’s father Gennaro, a mason, found work building a new royal palace, but he fell from the scaffolding and was killed.  To support the family, Cimarosa’s mother began doing laundry at a nearby monastery. 

An organist at the associated church, San Severo di Padri Conventuali, began giving Domenico music lessons.  In 1761, Cimarosa was admitted to one of Naples’s top conservatories, Santa Maria di Loreto.  His teachers at the conservatory included Antonio Sacchini, soon to become one of Europe’s most successful opera composers.  Cimarosa was a talented singer, keyboard player, and violinist.  Nevertheless, from early on, he seems to have concentrated on composition.

Early Success, Marriage

In 1771, Cimarosa graduated from the conservatory.  He may have taken lessons from the opera composer Niccolò Piccinni after that, but, whatever the case, Cimarosa’s own career was soon established.  His first opera, Le stravaganze del conte was performed in Naples in 1772.  A string of other comic operas followed in the next six years, all written for Naples.

Cimarosa married Constanza Suffi, daughter of the singer Cecilia Checcucci Suffi, in 1777.  Constanza died the following year.  Not long afterwards, the composer married Gaetana Pallante.

Despite the public demand for his operas, Cimarosa had little luck finding a permanent position.  He had been appointed as one of the extra organists to the royal chapel in Naples in 1779, but the position did not include a salary.  Sometime in the early 1780s, however, Cimarosa was appointed head of a conservatory in Venice, the Ospedaletto.  It is not clear how much time he actually spent in Venice, especially since he was promoted to second organist of the Neapolitan royal chapel in 1785.

At the Court of Catherine the Great

Two years after he became second organist, a far more prestigious situation was offered to Cimarosa: that of maestro di cappella at the court of Catherine II in St. Petersburg.  Although Italian opera was still something of a novelty in Russia, Cimarosa was not the first opera composer of renown to accept this position.  His predecessors included Baldassare Galuppi, Tommaso Traetta, and Giovanni Paisiello.

Cimarosa’s voyage to Russia was of necessity a long, drawn-out affair.  He and his wife stopped first in Livorno, where they were welcomed by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The Cimarosas then made their way to Parma and Vienna, both of which, like Livorno, were controlled by the Hapsburg family. Finally, after a stop in Warsaw, Cimarosa and his wife arrived in St. Petersburg on December 3, 1787.

St. Petersburg was not the ideal situation for Cimarosa.  Catherine the Great seems not to have enjoyed his operas, hiring another maestro di cappella soon after Cimarosa’s arrival.  Financial difficulties around 1790 also forced the empress to let some of her best singers go.  Finally, the Russian winters were too severe for the Italian to handle. 

All of these factors probably led to Cimarosa’s decision to leave St. Petersburg in June 1791.  After three months in Warsaw, he came to Vienna for the second time.

Return to Vienna

As it was common knowledge that Cimarosa disliked Russia, Joseph II had been planning to hire the composer and had recently had several of Cimarosa’s operas performed (one with an additional aria composed by Mozart).  However, the emperor died in 1790, before Cimarosa finally left St. Petersburg

Joseph II was succeeded by his younger brother Leopold II, who had previously met Cimarosa in Tuscany and was even more well-disposed towards the composer.  He appointed Cimarosa kapellmeister and commissioned an opera from him.  The result, Il matrimonio segreto (1792), won the hearts of European audiences and is certainly Cimarosa’s best-known opera today.

Cimarosa wrote two more operas for Vienna, but neither was successful.  He returned to Naples sometime in 1793.

Political Difficulties in Naples

Returning to Naples, Cimarosa revised some older operas and wrote new ones, including the serious operas Penelope (1794) and Gli Orazi ed i Curiazi (1796).  He became first organist of the royal chapel in 1796.  His wife died the same year.

Politically speaking, the main events of the 1790s were the aftershocks of the French Revolution.  After supporting the Austrians against the revolutionary forces, Ferdinand IV of Naples fled when the French invaded in 1798.  In January 1799, leaders backed by the French founded the Parthenopean Republic.  Cimarosa composed a victory hymn for the new rulers in May, but the next month, Ferdinand IV’s forces retook the city.

The reestablishment of the kingdom of Naples left Cimarosa, along with other republican supporters, in fear for their lives.  To save face, he claimed that he had not wanted any honors from the Parthenopean government.  He also tried to appease Ferdinand IV by composing several works in the king’s honor.  Nevertheless, he was arrested on December 23, 1799.

Cimarosa spent four months in prison but was spared the death sentence because of the support of some of the nobility, including Lady Emma Hamilton.  Upon his release from prison, he moved to Venice.  When he died there on January 11, 1801, gossip had it that Ferdinand IV’s wife, Queen Marie Caroline, had ordered someone to poison the composer.  The rumor was so persistent that the Neapolitan government had to release a medical report, which concluded that Cimarosa had died of natural causes.


Johnson, Jennifer E., and Gordana Lazarevich:  ‘Cimarosa, Domenico’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 02 June 2006), <>

Rossi, Nick and Talmage Fauntleroy.  Domenico Cimarosa: His Life and His Operas.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Teatro La Fenice – Official Website.
  (Accessed 7 June 2006), <>