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Antonio Cesti

born: 5 August 1623
died: 14 October 1669
country: Italy

Though of Tuscan origin, Pietro Antonio Cesti (born in Arezzo, 1623; died in Florence, 1669) was, along with Francesco Cavalli, the most illustrious representative of the seventeenth-century Venetian school of opera composers. Like many Seicento artists, he had an eventful life embracing multiple activities, as singer, actor, composer and maestro di cappella; like Vivaldi he took holy orders; and, like the murdered Stradella, he died in murky circumstances (probably by poisoning) after an outstanding musical career. Having been a choirboy at Arezzo cathedral and the church of S Maria della Pieve, he entered the Franciscan order of Friars Minor Conventual in 1637 and continued his musical training in Rome with Abbatini and Carissimi. In 1646 he became magister musices and organist at the seminary in Volterra; here he was ordained priest and met Salvator Rosa, whose correspondence is full of information about the composer’s life.

Unlike Cavalli, who virtually never left Venice apart from a disastrous trip to Paris, Cesti was an itinerant composer, dividing his activity between Venice and the courts of Florence, Vienna and Innsbruck. Although his output contains a large number of cantatas, a genre whose form he was one of the first to codify, he is noted above all as the composer of some fifteen operas, culminating in the sumptuous Il pomo d’oro. Nine complete scores have come down to us, including his first Venetian opera, Alessandro vincitor di se stesso (1651). Half a century before the Arcadian reforms, this work already emphasized the hero’s virtue in a period otherwise dominated by the figure of the effemminato anti-hero crushed by his passions. Nonetheless, the young Cesti roused the ire of his Catholic hierarchy by singing in Cavalli’s Giasone, one of the most anti-heroic operas of the Venetian school. Also in 1651, and again in Venice, Cesti premiered Il Cesare amante; in the following year he made his first visit to Innsbruck, where he was appointed maestro di cappella to Archduke Ferdinand Karl and revived his Cesare under the title of La Cleopatra for the inauguration of the Komedienhaus. It was in Innsbruck that he composed three of his greatest masterpieces: L’Argia (1655) in honour of Queen Christina of Sweden, who had converted to Catholicism and was about to begin her exile in Rome; Orontea in 1656, to a libretto already set by Francesco Luccio in 1649 and again by Francesco Cirillo (Naples, 1654); and, in 1657, La Dori, overo la schiava fedele, whose considerable success may be judged by the many revivals it enjoyed in Bologna, Ferrara, Florence, Venice and Munich.

Over the next five years (1657–62), Cesti spent most of his time in Rome, where he also occupied the function of singer in the Sistine Chapel, while still retaining his official position at the Innsbruck court. As Salvator Rosa opportunely remarked in one of his letters, ‘at the moment he is even capable of serving two masters at once, and most successfully’. From 1662 to 1665, the now adulated composer spent his second period in Innsbruck, where he lived not far from the archducal palace in a house that can still be seen today, opposite the Jacobskirche. In addition to La magnanimità d’Alessandro, performed in the year of his arrival, Cesti wrote a great many cantatas, mostly to texts by Giovanni Filippo Apolloni and Francesco Sbarra, the official court poets in Innsbruck. The composer’s last years constituted the apotheosis of his career and one of his most productive periods: Cesti was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to the imperial court in Vienna, and in the space of eighteen months no fewer than six new operas were performed, one in Venice (Il Tito in 1666), the other five in Vienna (including Nettunno e Flora festeggianti, Le disgrazie d’Amore, La Semirami, and his most celebrated, Il pomo d’oro). Several of his operas, among them Orontea, La Semirami and L’Argia, were subsequently revived, notably in the city of Venice with which the composer continued to maintain especially strong ties. The performance of Il pomo d’oro to celebrate the empress’s birthday in July 1668 was one of the most lavish a western court was ever to witness: twenty-five changes of scenery, dozens of characters and hundreds of supernumeraries on stage, a plot that resembles a compendium of Greek mythology, and machinery (by Burnacini) to match the prestige of the event—this alone would have sufficed to immortalize the name of Cesti. Towards the end of his life, he felt the desire to return to Italy, and it was in his native Tuscany, in Florence, that he died on 14 October 1669.

from notes by Jean-François Lattarico © 2010
English: Charles Johnston


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