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Torrent Description
Bononcini, Giovanni
1. Life.
Bononcini moved to Bologna when his father’s death made him an orphan at the age of eight. He studied with G. P. Colonna at S Petronio, then, at the age of 15, published three instrumental collections and was accepted into the Accademia Filarmonica (on 30 May 1686). During the next two years he published three further collections, was engaged at S Petronio as a string player and singer, composed two oratorios (performed in both Bologna and Modena) and succeeded G. F. Tosi as maestro di cappella at S Giovanni in Monte. For this church he wrote four double-choir masses. He composed a new oratorio for his native city in 1690, and in 1691 dedicated his op.8, consisting of well-wrought cantatas for two voices, to the emperor and played in the orchestra of the papal legate, Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili.

By 1692 Bononcini was in Rome, where he entered the service of Filippo Colonna, his wife Lorenza and her brother Luigi della Cerda. The librettist Silvio Stampiglia had served the Colonnas since the 1680s, and from 1692 to 1696 his collaboration with Bononcini resulted in at least six serenatas, five operas and one oratorio. The last of these works, Il trionfo di Camilla, was produced at Naples after della Cerda became its Spanish viceroy. According to Geminiani, it ‘astonished the musical world by its departure from the dry, flat melody to which their ears had until then been accustomed’. By 1710 its great success had led to productions in 19 other Italian cities and in London. All of them were apparently based on Bononcini’s setting (see Lindgren 1974, 1977, 1980 and 1990), which should thus be regarded as a touchstone of Italian taste around 1700. Many of its brief da capo arias feature the tunefulness that characterizes his works of the 1690s.

A few months after the death of his Roman patron, Lorenza Colonna, in August 1697 Bononcini was accepted into the service of Leopold I in Vienna. There he earned the unusually large salary of 5000 florins a year from 1698 to 1712. Between 1698 and 1705 Leopold’s heir, Joseph I, paid two-fifths of this salary, and Bononcini was clearly Joseph’s favourite composer: six of his ten dramatic works performed at the court during Leopold’s reign were dedicated to the heir or his wife. In 1702, because the War of the Spanish Succession had caused an interruption of musical activities in Vienna, Bononcini led a group of musicians to Sophie Charlotte’s court in Berlin. There he became the centre of the queen’s daily musical life and composed two dramatic ‘bagatelles’, Cefalo and Polifemo. He apparently went to Italy during the year of mourning for Leopold’s death (May 1705 to June 1706); his only opera composed for Venice was produced during Carnival 1706.

By 1706 Bononcini was famous throughout Europe. Raguenet, who had seen the 1698 production of Camilla in Rome, declared in 1705 that more than 200 cantatas as well as entire operas by Bononcini were known in Paris, where he was the ‘modèle pour le gracieux’. In London 63 performances of Camilla were given between 1706 and 1709, an attempt was made to attract Bononcini himself in 1707, and arias from his works were inserted into eight pasticcios produced in 1707–11. Gasparini ended his 1708 treatise with praise for the ‘bizzaria, beauty, harmony, artful study and fanciful invention’ in Bononcini’s cantatas, about 300 of which are extant today. According to Benedetto Marcello (c1720), the standard cantata for singers’ auditions was Bononcini’s Impara a non dar fede.

During Joseph’s reign (1705–11) Bononcini set seven operas and five shorter dramatic works. His great favour probably prompted Joseph to engage his brother Antonio and his former librettist, Stampiglia. These three were not retained by Joseph’s successor, Charles VI, though Stampiglia and Giovanni did write the serenata that welcomed the new empress at Milan in 1713. Giovanni then entered the service of the Viennese ambassador in Rome, Johann Wenzel, Count Gallas. His service began with a serenata in 1714 and an opera in 1715, both written in collaboration with Paolo Rolli, and he remained musical director at the embassy until the count’s death in July 1719.

In summer 1719 the Earl of Burlington was on his second trip to Italy, and he was chiefly responsible for obtaining Bononcini as a composer for the Royal Academy of Music in London. Bononcini went there in October 1720, and his first two seasons were outstandingly successful: five of his works (including Act 2 of Muzio Scevola) accounted for 82 of the 120 performances given by the Royal Academy; his Cantate e duetti were engraved with a list of no fewer than 237 subscribers; and his Divertimenti da camera appeared in two editions. At the end of his second season he was commissioned by Francis Atterbury, Dean of Westminster, to write the anthem for Marlborough’s funeral and by the Duchess of Buckingham to set the choruses that ended the acts of her late husband’s play, Marcus Brutus.

The duchess was a notorious Jacobite, and Atterbury was imprisoned for treasonous Jacobite activities in August 1722. Mainly because of his Jacobite acquaintances and Italian Catholic heritage, Bononcini soon saw his London success ruined. Even though his operas had led the Royal Academy to its only profitable season in 1721–2, the directors apparently did not re-engage him in autumn 1722. His Erminia was produced in March 1723, but it seems to have been written mainly for a projected Parisian production with singers from the Royal Academy in July 1723. Although this was cancelled, Bononcini and at least Anastasia Robinson performed in Paris during the summer. The Royal Academy did re-engage him for 1723–4, but cabals against him were strong. He planned to leave London at the end of the season in order to accept a position offered him by the mistress of the Regent of France. Together with several of the academy’s singers (including Cuzzoni), he did spend the summer of 1724 performing in France, but then he returned to England.

His return had been ensured by an offer of £500 a year for life, made by Henrietta, the young Duchess of Marlborough, on 14 May 1724. In return for this stipend he was to direct only performances of his own music at her private concerts, which he did until 1731. His only academy opera during these years was Astianatte (1727), the performances of which are infamous because of fighting between the partisans of Cuzzoni and Faustina. Although it was produced 20 years before his death, it virtually ended his career as a dramatic composer.

Bononcini was an active member of the Academy of Ancient Musick from 1726, and it was in 1727 or 1728 that his friend Maurice Greene introduced an unsigned manuscript of In una siepe ombrosa, which was performed at a meeting. Bononcini apparently claimed to be the composer of this madrigal until, at the meeting on 14 January 1731, Bernard Gates directed a performance of the same work drawn from Antonio Lotti’s Duetti, terzetti e madrigali (Venice, 1705). An unusually flagrant example of the ubiquitous custom of unacknowledged borrowing had been uncovered, and the Ancient Musick’s directors made a great noise about it in order to discredit Bononcini and Greene. By means of this and other ill-advised moves, Bononcini was indeed discredited by 1732, when he attempted to produce a ‘pastoral entertainment’ at the opera house. The projected work was a serenata, but it may have been replaced by some miscellaneous music, because the prima donna, Anna Maria Strada del Pò, refused to sing for Bononcini.

The composer, then aged 62, went to Paris, where he wrote vocal works for the Concert Spirituel on 7 February and 2 April 1733 and published a Laudate pueri. He proceeded to Madrid in December 1733 and then to Lisbon, where he apparently stayed until 1736; in both cities he performed and wrote music, but nothing for the stage. In mid-1736 he returned to Vienna,where he composed two operas and an oratorio for productions of 1737. The Empress Maria Theresa granted him a small pension and increased it from 1 October 1742 to an amount which allowed him to spend his final five years in comfortable frugality. It is not known if his wife Margherita Balletti(who was in London between 1736 and 1738) was with him in Vienna during his last years, but their 22-year-old daughter died there on 10 May 1743.

Lowell Lindgren
Oxford Dictionary of Music (2007)


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