Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Politics, Music and Cosmopolitism: The Operatic Output of Joseph Poniatowski (1816-1873) in Its Social and Political Contexts

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Politics, Music and Cosmopolitism: The Operatic Output of Joseph Poniatowski (1816-1873) in Its Social and Political Contexts

Article excerpt

The Third Partition of Poland, in 1795, sealed the dramatic fate of the Respublica (the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania) and brought about fundamental political and social changes. The Polish aristocracy found itself in a difficult situation, losing its influence, its fortunes and its self-determination. The abdication of Stanislaus Augustus [Stanislaw August Poniatowski] affected the fortunes of the entire royal family and led many of its members to leave their homeland and enter exile. Consequently, the history of the Poniatowski family during the nineteenth century is connected with many places in Europe and beyond.

The composer Joseph [Józef Micha! Ksawery Franciszek Jan] Poniatowski was a member of the family of the last king of Poland - his grandfather was Stanislaus Augustus' own brother. Joseph's father, General Stanislaw Poniatowski (1754-1833), the king's nephew, held the office of Grand Treasurer of Lithuania. After the fall of the Respublica, he left for Vienna, where he lived for some time, and then in 1801 he travelled to Rome.1 There, in 1806, he met Cassandra Luci, who became his wife, and the story of their acquaintance was one of the most famous, and at the same time most scandalous, romances of the era: Cassandra was not only from the townsfolk, but she also happened to be married.

Joseph Poniatowski was born in Rome, probably in 1816, and it was there that he began learning music with the monk Candido Zanotti. After the family moved to Florence, in 1822, Joseph continued his musical education under Ferdinando Ceccherini, a maestro di cappella. Quite early - at barely more than twenty years of age - Poniatowski began to participate in the musical life of Tuscany, and the main area of his interest was vocal artistry and opera. Nature had gifted him with a beautiful tenor voice, and singing lessons enabled him to improve its technical fluency and expand its already large compass. Initially, the prince's artistic activities were confined to participation in private performances of operas, and his vocal repertoire at this time comprised several tenor parts from operatic works by Rossini, Donizetti and their contemporaries.

One may assume that it was in connection with the practice of performing operas within the Florentine aristocratic milieu that Poniatowski conceived a desire to take up compositional work.2 Towards the end of the eighteen-thirties, he completed his first opera, Giovanni da Procida, which was staged in the second half of 1839 or at the beginning of 1840 in the private theatre of Count Rowland Standish in Florence. The tenor lead was performed on that occasion by the composer himself, and also taking part in the premiere were his brother Carlo and sister-in-law Elisa.3 Shortly after that presentation - in September 1840 - the opera was first staged in public, on the boards of the Teatro Giglio in Lucca, and from that moment on, one can speak of the young artist's serious interest in composing, chiefly in the genre of opera. Up to the year 1848 he had composed and staged in theatres across Italy (including Florence, Lucca, Livorno, Venice, Rome, Naples and Palermo) a total of seven operatic works which were, except for the sole comic opera Don Desiderio, indebted to the style and tradition of serious Italian opera of the 1820s and 1830s ( Table 1, items 1-7).4

Of those seven compositions, the greatest success was gained by the opera buffa Don Desiderio, which directly after its premiere in Pisa in December 1840 triumphantly conquered theatres throughout Italy from Milan to Palermo. The work established Poniatowski's standing as a composer of Italian opera and ensured his popularity over the whole Apennine Peninsula. Considerable recognition was also enjoyed by Bonifazio de ' Geremei, a tragedia Urica first staged in Rome in 1843, subsequently produced in Ancona, Livorno, Venice and Genoa. Poniatowski's other operatic works from his Italian period failed to achieve similar spectacular success, usually having just single premieres, but even they were performed in prominent centres of the operatic art: in Florence (Teatro Pergola), Venice (Teatro La Fenice) and Genoa (Teatro Carlo Felice). …

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