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Emanuele d'Astorga

born: 20 March 1680
died: ?1757
country: Italy

One of the most colourful figures in early eighteenth-century music, the life of Astorga has often been the subject of legend, rather than fact. He lived and worked in both Spain and Italy. His family was of Spanish descent, but had acquired a Sicilian barony in the early seventeenth century, living first in Augusta and then, after an earthquake in 1693, in Palermo. While Emanuele was a teenager his father attempted to murder his mother and was banished from Palermo, forfeiting his noble title to his eldest son. Subsequently nobility and rights were restored, and the father was elected a senator of the city. Emanuele was, as his family status might suggest, well educated, studying music, for which he showed considerable talent, writing an opera at the age of eighteen. But his father’s hot temper also seems to have been inherited, and Emanuele left home after a quarrel early in his twenties, eventually settling in Rome. There he became associated with the circle of Spain’s papal ambassador, the Duke of Osseda, becoming friends with poets including the Neapolitan Sebastiano Biancardi, who soon became Astorga’s principal librettist. When the two visited Genoa, they were robbed by their servant, and to raise funds Astorga and Biancardi wrote and staged an opera, Dafni.

In the audience at that performance in April 1709, and much impressed by the music he had heard, was Charles III, the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne. Within months Astorga was summoned to Charles’s court at Barcelona. When Charles became Emperor (or maybe just before), Astorga moved with the court to Vienna where he was granted a large pension. The Venetian composer Antonio Caldara was also working in Vienna at the time, and Astorga became godfather to one of his daughters. He also ran up some large debts, which may have contributed to his sudden departure from Austria in 1714. By siding with the Austrians during the War of the Spanish Succession, he forfeited the estates and title that he would have inherited from his father (his brother also having died), but his mother and sister reclaimed them and made them over to him. Marrying a fifteen-year-old girl in 1717, Emanuele lived for another four years in Sicily, had three daughters but then deserted them, moved to Lisbon and never again returned to his family or homeland. The remainder of his life is a mystery: there are unconfirmed reports (from the often embroidering pen of the English historian John Hawkins) that Astorga ‘passed a winter or two in London, from where he went to Bohemia’, but little else is known. His last manuscript is dated 1731, and by 1744 the family estates in Sicily had been sold by his wife and sister, now heavily in debt.

In his day, Astorga was best known for his chamber cantatas, of which more than one hundred and fifty survive. These are well written, tuneful and were thoroughly popular. Only the first Act of the opera Dafni now survives. But by far his most enduring work has proved to be a setting of the Stabat mater, his only surviving sacred composition. Whether it was the apparent romance of his adventurous life that attracted people, or the allure of a wild nobleman who wrote good music, a veritable cult for Astorga grew up during the nineteenth century. Epics, dramas and novellas were written and, in the absence of much fact, legends were invented, colourfully describing the gruesome death of his father on the scaffold. Johann Joseph Abert wrote an opera in 1866 in which Astorga becomes deranged, only being brought back to sanity when his wife plays a few bars of his Stabat mater setting. The work appeared in many manuscript copies, was published several times and performed with considerable frequency.

from notes by Robert King © 1999

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