Pergolesi lived a short but highly productive life. Born in Jesi, in 1710, he died of tuberculosis in Pozzuoli, near Naples, in 1736, and was buried in the common pit beside the cathedral there, following a life which was blighted by ill health.
Pergolesi studied at the conservatoire in Naples from 1720, where he quickly developed a reputation as an outstanding violinist, capable of extended improvisations which used, according to Villarosa, “chromatic passages, rising and falling, appoggiaturas of a new kind with such melody that those who were studying the instrument together were often enchanted and compelled to suspend their own study in order to listen, surprised by the harmony produced by their colleague”.
Just as Venice was the most important musical city in Italy through the seventeenth century, the same was true of Naples through the eighteenth. Pergolesi left the conservatoire in 1731 and immediately received his first operatic commission, which met with only moderate success. In 1732 he became Maestro di Capello to Prince Ferdinando Stigliano, equerry to the Viceroy of Naples. In November and December of 1732 Naples suffered a devastating sequence of earthquakes, and, following this, Pergolesi wrote numerous psalm settings (including a Dixit Dominus), a mass for double choir and various introits for vespers. A number of these compositions were written at the request of the Archbishop of Naples specifically for church services of atonement following the earthquakes. Much of Pergolesi’s surviving work, however, was written for the stage. There are numerous operas, both serious and comic, some sacred and dramatic oratorios and sacred vocal works, and some spurious instrumental music and chamber cantatas. Pergolesi’s reputation as a composer was largely gained posthumously. His Stabat Mater, first published in London in 1749, some thirteen years after his death, became the most frequently printed single work of the eighteenth century.
The Magnificat in B♭ for SATB, soloists, strings and continuo, Pergolesi’s only surviving setting of the text, is itself spurious, having also been attributed to Franceso Durante, one of Pergolesi’s teachers at the Conservatoire. The Neapolitan “style gallant”, or rococo, which arose during the late Baroque / early pre-classical period, is evident in this work, and sits side by side with the inherited polyphony of the Baroque. The “gallant” style, which has its origin in courtly and aristocratic circles, is elegant, playful, witty and ornate – all terms which could easily be applied to the later classical music of Mozart and Haydn. “Gallant”, according to the musicologist Donald Jay Grout, was a catch-word of the time applied to anything that was “thought to be modern, smart, chic, easy and yet sophisticated”. In other words this is Baroque decorativeness, without the imposing grandeur, mixed with classical elegance, symmetry and wit. Like C. P. E. Bach, the third son of J. S. Bach, and Pergolesi’s direct contemporary, Pergolesi is a metaphorical bridge between the sophisticated and sometimes heavy musical language of the late Baroque, and that of the approaching classical period, which was to be infused, initially at least, with a more lenient and relaxed musical vocabulary. One can hear in Pergolesi’s Magnificat the early shoots of stylistic traits which were to grow, over the coming few decades, into the mature classical style, and which would one day, albeit retrospectively, be called “Mozartean”.
Pergolesi divides his work into six movements. The first movement accommodates all of the first four verses from St Luke, and is characterised by the Tone 1 plainsong melody which comes in all four chorus parts throughout the movement, beginning at the opening with the sopranos.
The second movement uses verses 50 and 51 from St Luke setting the former to a dolorous duet for soprano and alto, and the latter to a brief, but lively, homophonic chorus.
The third movement, verses 52 and 53, a gentle fugue for chorus, is almost Handelian in its nature, whilst the fourth, Suscepit Israel, an imitative duet for tenor and bass, reinstates the “gallant” style.
The fifth movement, for chorus, uses the words of verse 55 from St Luke and the first half of the Gloria Patri. The former, with antiphonal pairs of upper and lower voices in imitative thirds, followed by tutti passages with short, light, almost fragmentary phrases, bring to mind stylistic traits of Vivaldi.
The final, choral, movement, Sicut Erat, like Bach’s, symbolically, is a recapitulation of the opening movement. Again Pergolesi uses the Tone 1 melody in the vocal parts throughout, and much of the same melodic and harmonic material of the opening movement is recycled.
Notes by Peter Parfitt ©2010 Aberdeen Bach Choir