Niccolò Piccinni (sometimes referred to as Nicola Piccinni or Piccini) was an Italian composer and a central figure of both Italian and French opera in the second half of the 18th century; he is considered the father of opera buffa internationally, one of the most important composers of Classicism and one of the last great representatives of the Neapolitan school of music.
He was born in Bari on January 16, 1728, at “hore ventuno,” the son of Silvia Latilla (sister of the opera composer Gaetano Latilla) and Onofrio Piccinno (later the surname was changed to Piccinni), a violin and double bass player in the basilica of San Nicola.
Since Piccinni’s father, although also a musician, had objected to his son following the same career as him, the archbishop of Bari, Muzio Gaeta II, thrilled to hear his son repeatedly touching with melodic chords the harpsichord that was in his palace arranged to pay for his musical studies and sent him, when he was only fourteen, to the Conservatory of Sant’Onofrio in Naples, one of the three famous music institutes of the time.
Piccinni had the good fortune to have as teachers two of the best-known conductors-Leonardo Leo and Francesco Durante; who, from the very first rehearsals given by the pupil, sensed the greatness to which he would reach as a composer. In 1776 Piccinni left Italy for France, where he received the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, and the following year, at the request of Queen Marie-Antoinette, he was inducted into the court of Louis XVI with the appointment of private singing and harpsichord master.
At Versailles he received homage from Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg-Lorraine, and in Paris he was initiated by the queen herself into amasonry in the famous Nine Sisters Lodge, of which Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire were also members.
In 1779 he directed the music for the eulogy of the great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, his fellow workshop member. All his subsequent works were a success, but the directors of the Grand Opéra deliberately opposed him to Christoph Willibald Gluck, persuading the two composers to treat the same subject at the same time. Parisian audiences split into two, gluckists and piccinnists, almost two warring factions.
The antagonism between the audiences continued even after Gluck left Paris in 1780 and an attempt was made later to kindle a new rivalry with Antonio Sacchini. Piccinni continued to be popular and when Gluck died in 1787 he proposed that a public monument be erected to his memory. In 1784 Piccinni became a professor at the Académie Royale de Musique, one of the institutions from which the Conservatoire was founded in 1794.
At the outbreak of the French Revolution Piccinni returned to Naples, where Ferdinand IV welcomed him by entrusting him with the Royal School of Singing; but his daughter’s marriage to a French democrat condemned him to charges of Jacobinism throughout the kingdom and he was forced to lead a transient existence between Rome and Venice.
In 1798 he returned to Paris, where the public received him enthusiastically. Napoleon Bonaparte, first consul, commissioned him to write a march for the consular guard and created for him the title of inspector of teaching at the Conservatoire as a “national reward,” an honor he could enjoy for less than a month.
He died in Passy, near Paris, on May 7, 1800.
There are more than a hundred operatic compositions that can be attributed with certainty to Piccinni as a prolific producer of works belonging to the 18th-century Neapolitan school, although his later works show French and German influence.
In addition to his musical work was popular Piccinni’s goodness, mildness of character, and exquisite gentleness of manner that ended up smoothing out the sharpest corners and calming the most heated enmities of the time; his patronage and dedicated support for talented young men, such as the illustrious Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart whose genius he was the first to sense, so as to introduce him to the most important European musical courts.
PICCINNI’S BIRTH HOUSE
Overlooking one of the most beautiful and important squares in old Bari we find the house that was home to the Piccinni family. The house that, without certain sources, is said to have been the birthplace on January 16, 1728, of composer Niccolò Piccinni is located in the heart of the old town, in a building developed on the remains of an original quadrangular medieval tower that faces for a small portion onto Piazza Mercantile and for a larger front onto vico Fiscardi.
The management of Casa Piccinni is entrusted to the City of Bari, which owns the site.
STATUE OF PICCINNI
Walking along Bari’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Libertà, one can admire the sculpture of Niccolò Piccinni made in 1885 by Bari artist Gaetano Fiore. The work shows the composer in the process of inspiration, standing with a stool behind him. Commissioned by a committee of citizens and the provincial authority, it cost 28,000 liras and was inaugurated in 1885 with a performance at the Piccinni Theater of some of the Maestro’s compositions.
In 1984, after almost a hundred years, it was restored and the pen that the musician holds in his right hand was added; a piece that had already disappeared into thin air in the past. It was the artist Mario Piergiovanni who created the new pen, thus returned to the musician who had written works such as “La Cecchina,” “Il re pastore” and “Le donne vendicate” with that very instrument.
The Niccolò Piccinni Municipal Theater is the oldest theater in the city of Bari, the capital’s most important hall in terms of capacity and tradition after the Petruzzelli Theater.
Built in 1836 and completed in 1854, the theater, with its extraordinary hall, rich in gilding and enhanced by atmospheric lighting, is also known as the “Little San Carlo” thanks to the decorations made by Bari stucco artist Gaetano Granieri between 1913 and 1914.
PICCINNIAN BICENTENNIAL STAMP
The commemorative 4,000 Lira stamp dedicated to the bicentennial of Niccolò Piccinni‘s death was issued by Poste Italiane on May 6, 2000 with permanent validity, and the special cancellation for the first day of issue was in use in Bari.
Between June 21, 1999, and December 31, 2001, the rate for franking an ordinary courier was 800 lira, while between May 5, 1997, and September 30, 2000, the surcharge for the recommendation amounted to 4,000 lira; thus there was a period when the ordinary courier recommended for the interior was franked at 4800 lira.
COURT THEATER OF THE ROYAL PALACE
The Court Theater was set up by architect Ferdinando Fuga for the wedding of Maria Carolina of Austria to Ferdinand IV of Bourbon in 1768. It mainly hosted performances of comic operas by Niccolò Piccinni and Giovanni Paisiello and comedies by Domenico Cimarosa from 1768 to 1776, while it was little used in the 19th century.
ROYAL THEATER OF SAN CARLO
The Royal Theater of San Carlo, one of the oldest in Italy, constitutes one of the symbols of the city of Naples. It was commissioned by Charles III of Bourbon who was strongly intent on giving the city a new theater to represent royal power. The project was entrusted to Giovanni Antonio Medrano and Angelo Carasale, who completed the “real fabrica” in about eight months with an expenditure of 75 thousand ducats. In the first four years of the seasons, works of the Neapolitan splendor period were executed, including Niccolò Piccinni, whose name still stands out today on the imposing facade overlooking Via San Carlo and the Galleria Umberto I.
UMBERTO I GALLERY
The area on which the opulent gallery dedicated to King Umberto I of Savoy stands today was characterized by a tangle of parallel streets connected by short alleys, which from Via Toledo flowed out in front of Castel Nuovo. In this place Niccolò Piccinni and his family lived in a six-story mansion overlooking the Royal Theater of San Carlo until 1776.
The Qing imperial court had many contacts with the West, and there were many exchanges between the two sides. The Qianlong emperor hired many of the Catholic missionaries as musicians, and from 1741 to 1750, under the leadership of the Jesuits, the inner circle formed small orchestras to perform Western music as well as introducing Western musical instruments to China and sending Chinese instruments to France.
In 1778, the emperor had a court theater built and staged an adaptation of the Italian opera buffa La Cecchina ossia La buona figliola whose programming was daily and lasted for about a year.
As many believe, it was not Puccini’s Turandot that was the first Western opera to be performed in the Forbidden City, but Piccinni’s La Cecchina.
Rue Piccini is a public street located in the 16th arrondissement of Paris and is named after the Italian composer who lived in Passy until his death. The spelling of his surname consists of two n’s in Italian, but only one in French.
In the parish cemetery of Passy, on the rue du Commandant Schœlsing, Niccolò Piccinni was buried under a tombstone, made of black marble, made by his pupil and disciple Neveu over an earlier headstone of a French officer. World War II bombings completely devastated the Parisian cemetery and the composer’s remains were lost. Only the black slab was miraculously saved, and it was Bari historian Vito Antonio Melchiorre, in the 1950s, who recovered it from a French museum where it had been stored by having it brought to Bari.
The Opéra Garnier is one of the most famous Napoleon III-style buildings in the world: along with the Opéra Bastille it is part of the Opéra National de Paris, founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV. The building, however, represents a retrospective addition to the Opéra: it was in fact built between 1861 and 1875 by Charles Garnier, who gave it its name.
The exterior of the Opéra Garnier is decorated with elaborate marble friezes, including the bust of Niccolò Piccinni, in a niche, that adorns the theater’s sumptuous southwest facade.
The interior consists of a maze of corridors, staircases, landings and alcoves intended to ensure that spectators could socialize in the intervals of performances. The ceiling of the main hall has been adorned with a painting by Marc Chagall since 1964.