One of the greatest and for certain aspects most enigmatic figures in the history of music is Giovanni Battista Draghi (or Drago), who was born in Jesi in the province of Ancona in 1710. His grandparents came from Pergola: hence the nickname, Pergolesi, that was to become his real surname.
Following his early studies in his native city, he completed his education in Naples at the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo. Naples, then called the “world capital of music” ( ), was the place where musicians from all over Europe converged and in which the twenty-one year old Giovanni Battista graduated, composing for his final recital, the oratorio, La conversione e morte di San Guglielmo.
His first, great success came with the opera buffa, Lo Frate ‘nnamorato, written in Neapolitan dialect, and which premiered at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in 1732, and which earned him, among other things, a position as organist at the Cappella Reale. The following year his second opera was staged: Il Prigionier Superbo, another great success. All attention was however focused on another great masterpiece of Pergolesi which was performed between acts of this opera, that is the Serva Padrona, naturally. A comic intermedio in two acts, which broke with the tradition of the time by presenting a free and easy story, witty – a breathe of fresh air. In addition it was precisely the performance of the Serva Padrona in 1752 that caused another famous musical controversy in Paris between the supporters of lyric French opera (Lully, Rameau) and those of comic Italian opera.
Another well known intermedio – even though it does not equal the masterpiece, Serva Padrona – is Livetta e Tracollo, performed between acts of Adriano in Siria, which was staged in 1734 at the Teatro San Bartolomeo. The following year in Rome was the year of the Olimpiade, on a text by Metastasio.
His sacred music includes the famous Mass in F (known as Missa Romana). His deteriorating health forced Pergolesi to retire to Pozzuoli, in the Convento dei Cappuccini, where he spent the last months of his life during which he composed some of his greatest sacred works: the il Salve Regina of 1736 and above all the Stabat Mater for string orchestra, soprano and contralto. According to tradition it was completed precisely on the day of his death in 1736.
The reputation of a musician who wrote unforgettable masterpieces in only five years has given rise to romanticizing about him and has also had the unfortunate effect of attributing many operas to him that recent critics have deemed illegitimate. Of the extraordinarily vast corpus of composition attributed to Pergolesi, today only less than thirty are judged to be his beyond doubt.