Marcello di Capua (Bernardini ?)


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Marcello di Capua, an Italian composer and librettist of the 2nd half of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, by lexicographers also referred to as Marcello Bernardini, is a poorly documented figure in the history of music, an artist whose biography is full of gaps and unclear circumstances. Today almost forgotten, during his life he enjoyed considerable fame as one of the luminaries of the Italian opera of the classical period. He made his mark in the history of Polish culture as a Kapellmeister of Princess Izabela Lubomirska née Czartoryska, for many years associated with the Łańcut Court.

Amongst many doubts that the composer’s biography brings to mind, the first that should be mentioned are his descent (including the date and place of birth and the unclear origin of his name and sobriquet[1]), insufficient collected facts from the period of his early youth and education, and finally the ambiguous date of his arrival in Łańcut.

According to Italian sources, Marcello di Capua was born around 1740 (some Polish researchers are in favour of the year 1747, based on an unverified annotation on his death certificate). Amongst several birth places of the composer that are considered, Lisbon and Rome seem the most likely (but not Capua, despite the clear correlation between the name of the city and the composer’s name or sobriquet).

It is known that in the 1760s, Marcello was active in Rome; the first notes in the local chronicles on the public performances of his pieces come from 1764 and from the period of the carnival of 1765, when the Capranica and the Alibert o delle Dame theatres staged two of his intermezzos one after another[2]. In the years 1769–1784, he was associated with the Roman Collegio Nazareno of the Piarist order, where his main tasks included composing cantatas for the annual feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. He took over the function of resident composer from Rinaldo di Capua, which gives rise to conjecture that Rinaldo was his father[3]. The father–son relationship between the two composers is testified indirectly by the notes made in 1770 by the English musicologist and traveller Charles Burney, who, while in Rome, bemoaned Rinaldo’s impoverishment and at the same time mentioned his “graceless son” (most probably Marcello), who sold off the brilliant scores of his father for next to nothing[4].

According to Emilia Zanetti (Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, based on manuscript materials from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia archive in Rome), in the last quarter of 1767 Marcello di Capua had a mandate of caporione (administrator) of Rome’s 10th quarter Campitelli[5] (this information, however, has not been confirmed by other sources).

While analysing the dates and places of the premieres of Marcello’s stage works[6], one can track quite precisely the path of his dazzling career. Over around twenty years, from the beginning of his composing activity, he grew from being a local Roman composer into one of the most highly regarded representatives of opera buffa, enjoying numerous commissions from the greatest European theatres. One can assume that his fame went hand in hand with more and more frequent artistic travels to Florence, Naples, Bologna, Milan, Venice and Trieste, and beyond the Italian territory – to Dresden, Prague and Lisbon, amongst others. In the composer’s heyday, i.e. in the years 1783–1792, he had between three and six premieres a year.

In his early years in Rome, from around 1775, he started signing some of his opera scores and librettos with the title “maestro di capella napoletano”, which could be related not so much to his dubious Campania origin but to his collaboration with the most prestigious theatres of Naples (Fondo and later Nuovo and San Carlo), or declared association with the Neapolitan School. As of 1788, the first pages of Marcello’s selected librettos already included information that the author of the music boasted a position with Princess Lubomirska – “maestro (…) all’attual servizio di Sua Altezza la Signora Principessa Lubomirski Ksartoriski di Polonia &c.”. The earliest title of this kind is included in the first edition of the libretto to the opera La finta Galatea, which was premiered at the Naples Teatro Nuovo sopra Toledo[7]. It is highly probable that Lubomirska took an interest in the composer in spring 1786 during her three-month-long stay in Rome[8]. Around two years later she was able to finalise her earlier plans for him, for example by post, as the result of which di Capua entered into her service.

Receiving a position with Izabela Lubomirska did not necessarily mean moving instantly to one of her residences – the Palace in the Mölker Bastei in Vienna or Łańcut Castle. The composer was probably allowed to complete his current obligations in Italy and at the same time could also start collecting sheet music intensively with the princess’s collection in mind. He probably arrived in Łańcut no earlier than in summer 1792 – together with his employer (considering the moment when rich musical and theatre life started at the castle)[9]; it is also possible that he did not reach the castle until several or a dozen months later. Before that, from around June 1791, he was a court composer at Lubomirska’s court in Vienna[10].

In autumn 1794, di Capua again accompanied the princess in Vienna, where he brought his occasional cantata Angelica placata, dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily. The work, probably commissioned by Lubomirska, was performed at the Hoftheater and other imperial theatres[11].

Settled in Łańcut as the court maestro di cappella, Marcello received a very high annual salary of 3,024 Polish zloty (which in the best years exceeded the annual pay of the most outstanding architects, craftsmen and doctors employed by Lubomirska)[12]. Despite the honourable title and high pay, his duties at the Łańcut Court were rather modest, boiling down mainly to composing (or arranging) occasional pieces, looking after the music library and instruments, and teaching amateurs from the local aristocracy, including Henryk Lubomirski, who played the harp. Independently of these official obligations, until the turn of the century, the composer still eagerly took on various commissions from Italian theatres; one can then assume that at that time, due to frequent premieres of his operas, he travelled at least several times to the south of Europe – to Venice and Rome amongst others.

After 1800, he limited his artistic activity considerably[13]. He died on 2 April 1819 in Łańcut[14]. Marcello was buried at a cemetery that no longer exists today, located on the outskirts of the city.

* * *

Marcello di Capua was a very prolific composer, who with great ease composed expanded vocal-instrumental forms, especially from the opera buffa genre (his cantatas and oratorios are much rarer). Unfortunately, the majority of his oeuvre went missing, and the remaining works fell into oblivion quite early. The number of surviving works from his literary legacy is greater – many of Marcello’s librettos have been preserved, testifying to the author’s vivid flare for dramatic pieces. They were written mainly for the purpose of his own music, but were also commissioned by other opera composers (such as Giovanni Battista Borghi, Pietro Terziani, Alessandro Felici, and Vicente Martín y Soler). In comparison to the number of his librettos, di Capua’s complete scores and vocal sheet music (scattered in archives all over Europe) are much more modest, a fact without doubt connected with the great majority of this music never having been released in print.

According to information provided by Meloncelli[15], out of almost forty operas composed by Marcello – mostly comic[16] – a mere thirteen have survived (including incomplete scores and piano reductions). Even if this number seems lowered, the scale of the loss for the Italian opera literature of the classical period is vast. During Marcello’s life, most successful were his two-act comic operas La donna di spirito, Li tre Orfei and Le donne bisbetiche, and their numerous re-editions under changed titles. It is also worth mentioning a work inspired by Poland, the so-called dramma bernesco per musica entitled La sposa polacca, staged in Rome at the Apollo Theatre during the 1796 carnival (the work is lost – only the libretto has survived in its complete form).

The library of the Łańcut Castle Museum houses a vast collection of manuscripts and copies of the composer’s works, of which the most interesting are unique copies that have no counterparts in the collections of other archives in the world. Apart from numerous separate arias, canzonettas etc. and vocal ensembles that are partly independent forms and partly extracts from operas or cantatas (several dozen catalogue items in total)[17] – the Łańcut collection includes two unique complete opera scores: Il conte di bell’umore (1783)[18] and La donna bizzarra (an authorised copy of the original written in 1789 or 1791). Particularly precious manuscripts also include perhaps the only copies in the world of the composer’s following pieces: the ballet-pantomime Le nozze di Amore e Psiche (for 2 violins and basso), the “azione teatrale per musica” La forza del merito for 5 voices and orchestra, and finally four orchestral excerpts from operas: the one-movement sinfonia (overture) in D major Allegro vivace[19], the overture in D major Allegro con brio, the overture to a French operetta (opéra comique) in C major and the march in B flat major. The unique pieces also comprise occasional compositions of a lesser weight: the Serenata for choir and harpsichord, the Duettino notturno for 2 vocal parts and instrumental ensemble and the Quartetto vocale accompanied by instrumental ensemble – all dedicated to Prince Henryk Lubomirski.

Mirosław Płoski
Translated by Xymena Pietraszek-Płatek
Proofread by Ben Koschalka

[1] Detailed related issues and hypotheses have been discussed separately.

[2] Pantomime ed ariette in musica da recitarsi nel Teatro dei Signori Capranica and La schiava astuta.

[3] See, inter alia: Ariella Lanfranchi, Di Capua, Rinaldo, entry [in:] Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 39, Rome 1991, [accessed 2 May 2012].

[4] See: Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy: or, The Journal of a Tour through those Countries, undertaken to collect Materials for A General History of Music, London 1773, p. 296; idem, A General History of Music, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period, vol. 4, London 1789, p. 558. Interestingly, when Burney lists the opera composers active in Rome, he mentions the names “Marcello di Capua” and “Bernardini” separately – as the names of two different artists from the same period; idem, A General…, op. cit., pp. 573–574.

[5] See Emilia Zanetti, Bernardini Marcello, entry [in:] Silvio D’Amico (ed.), Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, vol. 2, Roma 1954, p. 359 (based on unpublished notes by Alberto Cametti).

[6] The most data of this type can be found on the title pages of his surviving librettos.

[7] A copy of the libretto to the farsetta La finta Galatea o sia L’antiquario fanatico (staged earlier in Rome in 1785 under the initial title Le donne bisbetiche) is the property of the Biblioteca del Conservatorio di musica S. Pietro a Majella in Naples (catalogue no. Rari 10.1.27/10). Subsequent librettos mentioning Lubomirska were also released in print in Naples, in connection with the premieres of the operas Gl’incontri stravaganti (for Teatro Nuovo, the carnival 1790) and L’ultima che si perde è la speranza (for Teatro Fondo, 1 Aug. 1790).

[8] She then had an opportunity to meet Marcello, for example at the first performance of his farsetta Gli amanti confusi o sia Il brutto fortunato at the Teatro Valle.

[9] During her stay in Łańcut from 12 June to 27 Sept. 1792, Lubomirska commenced regular concerts at the castle (held as many as three times a week) and theatre performances (as many as twice a week); see Bożenna Majewska-Maszkowska, Mecenat artystyczny Izabelli z Czartoryskich Lubomirskiej (1736–1816), Wrocław 1976, p. 75.

[10] See A[lexander] Hajdecki, Kunstgeschichtliche Notizen aus Wiener Archiven, “Monatsberichte über Kunstwissenschaft und Kunsthandel” 1902 (annual bound volume II), no. 4, p. 175.

[11] See information on the title page of the libretto: Angelica placata – cantata per musica da rappresentarsi negli imperiali teatri di Vienna (…), Vienna 1794; copy at the Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna, catalogue no. Lo.7430.

[12] Data from the first decade of the 19th century; see B. Majewska-Maszkowska, Mecenat…, op. cit., p. 111  (based on financial documents in the collection of Central Archives of Historical Records).

[13] In Biegański’s catalogue, Capua’s composition with the latest date is the “azione teatrale” from 1807; written to honour the marriage of Henryk Lubomirski; see Krzysztof Biegański, Biblioteka muzyczna Zamku w Łańcucie: Katalog, Kraków 1968, p. 196.

[14] The date of death based on Liber Mortuorum ex Oppido Łańcut ab anno 1786 ad annum 1831, vol. 1, p. 82; the register is kept at the office of the Roman Catholic parish church of Saint Stanislaus Bishop in Łańcut; cause of death – “convulsionis”.

[15] See Raoul Meloncelli with Marita P. McClymonds, Bernardini, Marcello, entry [in:] Stanley Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, London–New York 2001, vol. 1, p. 429.

[16] Only two of his operas represent the opera seria genre.

[17] Following the initial inventory of these works made by Biegański (K. Biegański, Biblioteka…, op. cit.), it is worth undertaking further action to assign individual excerpts to particular opera titles or other larger forms, on the basis of, inter alia, a comparative analysis of the word text (if the sources are available). However, even a superficial review of all the sheet music reveals such unique pieces as, for example, nine opera numbers with annotations “nella primavera 1786 Teatro Valle”, probably from the missing comic opera Gli amanti confusi, or three arias and a duet from the cantata Angelica placata.

[18] The score to this opera, of a more modest volume, is the property of the Archivio dell’Accademia Filarmonica in Turin (Conte di Brusasco collection, catalogue no. 10.I.1).

[19] One might agree with the doubts of Maria Małgorzata Owoc, who refrains from categorising the abovementioned Italian sinfonia unambiguously as Marcello di Capua’s autonomous symphonic work. The composer’s surviving legacy includes only several independent sinfonia scores, which rather have the character of instrumental overtures to operas; compare M.M. Owoc, Marcello Bernardini di Capua i jego twórczość orkiestrowa w zbiorach Zamku w Łańcucie – MA thesis in the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw, Warsaw 1973, p. 98, note 263.


See also:
Marcello di Capua – selected biographical issues. Facts and hypotheses

About the project

Marcello di Capua in the Podkarpacka Digital Library


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