Johann Adolf Hasse

The music historian François-Joseph Fétis once observed that few composers were more famous than Johann Adolf Hasse – or more quickly forgotten.  In the mid-eighteenth century, Hasse was the preeminent specialist in opera seria, or serious opera.  In addition, he was married to one of the day’s foremost singers, Faustina Bordoni.  This “power couple” ruled the opera stages of Germany and Italy for decades.  As opera seria went out of fashion, however, so did Hasse’s music.  Only recently has it begun to be recorded and performed again.

Training in Germany and Early Success in Italy

Baptized on March 25, 1699, Johann Adolf Hasse was the second of five children born to Peter Hasse, a church organist in the north German town of Bergedorf, and his wife Christina Klessing, daughter of the town’s mayor.  We can probably assume that some of Hasse’s early musical training came from his father, but little else is known of his childhood.  When Hasse was fifteen years old, he moved to Hamburg to continue his musical training, focusing on both composition and singing.

Hamburg was the undisputed operatic center of northern Germany at the time, and in 1718, Hasse was invited to join the city’s opera company.  We do not know what roles Hasse took, but he had a reputation as a good tenor with acting ability.  In 1719, he moved to the court opera at Brunswick.  Two years later, he was given the opportunity to have the first of his own operas, Antioco, performed there.

Soon thereafter, Hasse left Germany.  He spent several months traveling around Italy, visiting Venice, Bologna, Florence, and Rome before settling in Naples.  Along with Venice, Naples was the best place to experience Italian opera.  Hasse is believed to have studied with the renowned operatic composers Alessandro Scarlatti and Nicola Porpora, and he worked with Farinelli, the most famous castrato singer of his day.  Farinelli, whose colorful life is documented in the 1994 film of the same name, sang the role of Antonio in Hasse’s serenata Antonio e Cleopatra (1725).

A few months later, Hasse completed Il Sesostrate (1726), his first opera for Naples.  A serious opera, it was followed in quick succession by six others, marking the beginning of Hasse’s success in the genre.  In Naples, however, Hasse also wrote serenatas, comic intermezzos (short operas meant to be heard between the acts of other operas), and even a full-length comic opera, an exercise that he was never again to attempt.

Italy embraced Hasse, according him much more respect and admiration than it did most German musicians.  He was widely known as “il caro Sassone” (the beloved Saxon [i.e., German]).  In turn, Hasse adapted himself to Italy, converting to Catholicism in 1725.  It is not known how his father, a Lutheran church organist, reacted to this conversion, but it may have been purely a pragmatic move on Hasse’s part, since many of his patrons in Italy were important figures in the Catholic church.

Hasse left Naples in 1730 for reasons that are unknown today.  He returned to Venice for about six months, overseeing the Venetian premiere of his Artaserse.  There Hasse also met and married the star soprano Faustina Bordoni, who was to appear in many of Hasse’s subsequent operas.

In the Service of August the Strong

In the fall of 1730, Hasse was appointed maestro di cappella (music director) to the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August I (also known as August the Strong).  Hasse and Bordoni arrived in Dresden in early July 1731.  The following day, on either July 7 or 8, Bordoni introduced the pair to their new employer by singing a new Hasse cantata. 

A more important premiere was that of Hasse’s new opera, Cleofide, on September 13.  Among the audience were Johann Sebastian Bach and his eldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.  Hasse probably reciprocated by attending the elder Bach’s organ recital the following day.  C. P. E. Bach later said that his father and Hasse knew each other well, although we have no other evidence of contact between the two.

After only a few months in Dresden, Hasse and Bordoni returned to Italy in October.  This trip established a pattern that Hasse was to follow for the next thirty years: when he was not needed in Dresden, he traveled to Italy and sometimes to Austria in order to oversee performances of his works.  On this trip, Hasse had one opera premiered in Turin and another in Rome, while writing two more operas to be performed in Venice in 1732.  From Venice, the couple traveled to Naples, where Hasse had yet another premiere and Bordoni was engaged for the entire opera season at the astounding salary of 3300 ducats.  (The magnitude of this salary can be understood when compared to Hasse’s fee of 50 ducats for a single work during the same period.)

On February 1, 1733, Hasse’s patron August I died.  Because the Dresden court was in mourning and no music performances could be heard, Hasse did not return to Dresden until 1734, although he was also appointed as maestro di cappella to August I’s successor, Friedrich August II.  Instead, Hasse spent much of the year in Venice, writing sacred music for the Ospedale degli Incurabili, a school for orphaned or illegitimate girls with which Vivaldi was also associated. 

Later in 1733, Hasse and Bordoni went on to Bologna, where Hasse’s Siroe was performed by a superstar cast including Farinelli and Caffarelli, another famous castrato.  (Bordoni did not participate in the production because she was pregnant.)  The opera was an enormous success, heard in various cities for the next thirty years.  Another clue to Hasse’s growing popularity is the remark by music historian Charles Burney that Siroe was the first opera he had ever seen to list the composer in its advertising.

Between Dresden and Venice

Under Elector Friedrich August II, Hasse and Bordoni continued to spend most of their time away from Dresden.  They came to meet the new ruler in February 1734, but Hasse wrote no new operas for the court during the period.  He did, however, write smaller-scale works as well as sacred music.  Then, in November, the Hasse family returned to Italy, where Hasse’s opera Alessandro nell’Indie (1736) had its premiere.  In addition, Hasse was named maestro di cappella of the Incurabili.

In 1737, Hasse and Bordoni returned to Dresden for a year and a half.  This was a productive period in which Hasse composed five new operas.  Upon the occasion of Saxon Princess Maria Amalia’s marriage to Carlo VII, King of the Two Sicilies, Hasse produced a revised version of an older intermezzo, Lucilla e Pandolfo (1730).  Maria Amalia must have been impressed, as she had three Hasse intermezzos performed in Naples after she moved there.

When the court of Friedrich August II left for Warsaw in September 1738, Hasse and Bordoni did not join them, preferring instead to return to Italy.  They next returned to Dresden in 1740, staying until 1744.  During this stay, Hasse wrote not only serious operas but also two comic intermezzos – his first since 1730.

New Poetic Interests and New Connections to Royalty

Beginning in the early 1740s, Dresden was filled with a group of scholars with whom Hasse must have had interesting discussions.  Chief among these was Francesco Algarotti, a poet and writer who critiqued the state of opera at the time.  Algarotti adapted Didone abbandonata, an opera libretto by Pietro Metastasio, for Hasse in 1742, and he may have influenced Hasse to think more deeply about Metastasio’s librettos.  Hasse had set many Metastasian texts before, but almost always in a heavily altered form.  In later years, the composer generally set Metastasio’s texts in a form much closer to the original.

In 1743, Hasse was asked to set two new texts by Metastasio.  One opera, Ipermestra (1744), was intended to celebrate the wedding of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s younger sister, Maria Anna, to Carl Alexander of Lorraine.  Maria Theresa originally planned to sing one of the roles herself, but in the end the opera was performed entirely by professionals.  Hasse and Metastasio attended some of the rehearsals in Vienna.  Although they had been acquainted earlier, the two began to form a close friendship at this time.  After about 1740, Hasse began resetting the Metastasian librettos that he had used earlier in greatly altered form.  Eventually, Hasse set all except one of Metastasio’s early librettos.

Not only the Hapsburg royal family but also Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia, was interested in Hasse’s music.  When Frederick visited Dresden in 1745, he heard Hasse’s Te Deum and requested a performance of a new Hasse opera, Arminio.  Despite his intense admiration for Hasse, however, Frederick was responsible for the destruction of many of Hasse’s autograph scores when the Prussian ruler attacked Dresden on June 19, 1760.  Hasse later told Charles Burney that Frederick would have given him a chance to move the scores had the king realized they were in danger.

Another royal wedding in 1747 united Princess Marie Joseph of Saxony to Louis, eldest son of Louis XV of France.  This marriage eventually brought Hasse to France in 1750, where he dedicated four harpsichord sonatas to Marie Joseph and probably had a pair of oratorios and an opera performed.  Like others in her family, the princess had musical aspirations, and she supposedly annoyed Hasse with repeated requests to correct and orchestrate melodies she had written.

In 1751, Faustina Bordoni made her last operatic appearances in the Dresden performances of Hasse’s Leucippo (an older work) and Ciro riconosciuto.  Bordoni’s successor, Regina Mingotti, could not get along with Bordoni or Hasse, leading to the temporary replacement of Hasse as orchestra director for the premiere of Adriano in Siria.  After the opera was performed, however, Mingotti was let go.

In 1753, a better replacement for Bordoni was found in Teresa Albuzzi-Todeschini.  In that year’s production, Solimano, it was the poet, G. A. Migliavacca, rather than the prima donna with whom Hasse had problems.  With only one exception, Hasse limited himself to the texts of Metastasio ever after.  Nevertheless, the production must have been enjoyable, featuring as it did hundreds of extras and dozens of animals, including elephants and camels.

In the Aftermath of the Seven Years’ War

Three years later, Friedrich August II was banished to Warsaw as a result of the Seven Years’ War with Frederick the Great.  Hasse, however, remained in Dresden to entertain Frederick until the end of the year.  Frederick repaid Hasse by having Hasse’s operas performed in Berlin during the 1770s and 1780s, after the rest of Europe had mostly forgotten them.

Homesick for his native Dresden, the Saxon elector, now known as King August III of Poland, longed to hear Hasse’s music as often as possible.  Although Hasse himself was generally in Italy, the king heard twenty-four performances of four different Hasse operas in 1760 and forty-six Hasse performances two years later.  April 1763 saw August III’s return to Dresden, but he died in October of the same year.

Hasse came back at around the same time as his employer.  Not only had most of his music been destroyed, but the Dresden opera house was in ruins and his own house gone.  The new elector, Frederick Christian, had no money for music, but Hasse stayed at court to have his requiem performed for August III in November.  Soon thereafter, Frederick Christian died as well.  Hasse and Bordoni finally left Dresden for good in February 1764.

Move to Vienna

During his exile from Dresden, Hasse had composed several works for the Hapsburg family in Vienna, mainly celebratory works for weddings.  Therefore, it was not difficult for him to decide to settle in Vienna after Dresden was devastated.  In addition, he continued to make trips to Italy as he always had.

In 1765 and 1767, he wrote two further works (one an opera, one a shorter festa teatrale) for Hapsburg marriages.  The festa teatrale, Partenope, went badly, largely because the scenery was judged to be trite.  Hasse confessed in a letter that this failure made him ready to retire from writing for the theater.  In the end, however, he wrote two more operas.  One of these was the chamber opera Piramo e Tisbe (1768), a work for just three singers that was praised by the empress.  His final opera, Il Ruggiero, was performed in Milan in 1771. 

The rest of Hasse’s time in Vienna was devoted to writing smaller-scale works, such as an unusual cantata for soprano, glass harmonica, and orchestra.  The soloists were the sisters Cecilia and Marianne Davies.  Cecilia, the singer, was a former pupil of Hasse.  Hasse also wrote works for the musically inclined members of the Hapsburg family and for his own daughters, of whom Pepina was considered particularly talented.

The most important works of the early 1770s are two reworked versions of earlier oratorios: Sant’Elena al Calvario and Il cantico de’ tre fanciulli.  Both were performed by Vienna’s Tonkünstler-Societät during its first two seasons, when Hasse’s friend and fellow composer Florian Gassmann directed the group.  Sant’Elena in particular was well received, leading Hasse to say that if he never wrote anything else, at least his last work had been a success.

Last Years in Venice

In April 1773, Hasse, Bordoni, and their two daughters moved to Venice, where they lived in reduced circumstances.  Hasse’s income came mostly from the works he wrote for the Incurabili, as well as from the occasional piece for members of the Dresden royal family.  In addition, he gave private instruction to several composers and singers.

The composer lost much of his money in the mid-1770s, probably when the Incurabili went bankrupt.  On November 4, 1781, his wife died.  Hasse made his will the next year, leaving his musical papers to his eldest daughter, Maria Gioseffa.  Hasse’s death came on December 16, 1783.  He was buried in the small church across the square from his Venice home.


Hansell, Sven: ‘Hasse: (3) Johann Adolf [Adolph] Hasse’, Grove Music Online ed. L.
Macy (Accessed 02 June 2006), <>