Personalities | Gaspare Spontini | Early Romantic | Opera
Gaspare Spontini’s early career was blighted by insecurity after the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded Italy in 1796. Spontini, it seems, decided that his future lay in France, but after arriving in Paris in 1800 he found his musical style was unsuited to the prevailing genre, opéra comique. Spontini turned instead to serious themes and produced Milton (1804), which dealt with the English Puritan poet John Milton in old age. Milton was a success but La vestale (‘The Vestal Virgin’, 1807) took success a step further and marked out Spontini as one of the leading composers of opera in his time. Subsequently Spontini played a crucial role in founding French grand opéra, pioneering the genre’s most imposing features – rituals, processions, large choruses, stage bands and other grandiose effects. These ingredients came together in their greatest splendour in Fernand Cortez (1809), Spontini’s historical pageant on the sixteenth-century Spanish conqueror of Aztec Mexico. Among its sensational effects was a full-scale cavalry charge on stage. Unfortunately, Spontini was haughty and overbearing, and his later career was marked by quarrels with colleagues in Paris and Berlin, where his later work, Agnes von Hohentaufen, was performed in 1827.
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