Born in Arezzo in 1623 Antonio Cesti started his musical career early performing as a cantor in the churches of his home town. At the tender age of fourteen he took the cassock entering the junior Franciscan monastery of S. Francis of Arezzo under the name of Brother Antonio (instead of Pietro as had been posited originally) and where his presence was documented until 1643. Information is scarce about his musical education: it may be that he had been a student under Carissimi and Abbatini in Rome, but no definite proof of his having lived in the capital exists. Transferred to the Franciscan monastery in Volterra he assumed the position of organist, of kappelmeister of the cathedral, of the music master of the seminary and at the same time that of organist of the church of The Holy Cross (S. Croce) in Florence. His friendships with the comedist, Ricciardi and Salvator Rosa, the painter, with whom he carried out a lengthy correspondence important for the re-construction of many details of Cesti’s life and the reception of his work, date from his time in Volterra. In the years 1649-50 he was in Pisa as a tenor in the cathedral choir, then at Florence and Lucca where he met Francesco Sbarra, his first librettist and collaborator in Austria in the seventies. In 1653 thanks to the interest in him shown by Mattias de’ Medici, he was employed at the court of Innsbruck as kappelmeister of chamber music under Archduke Ferdinand Karl of the Tirol, a position that was created especially for him. The job included the responsibility for chamber music, occasional music and the supervision of the court opera theatre. Except for a brief Roman sojourn in the pontifical chapel, Cesti remained in Innsbruck until 1665, when, following the demise of the Tirolean line, he moved together with Sbarra to Vienna. At the Imperial Court he was named chaplain “ad onorem” and “The Emperor’s Superintendent of Theatrical Music”. A signal work of this period is his Il pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple), which was a monumental opera in five acts written in celebration of the wedding between Leopold I and the Spanish Infanta. Returning to Florence in 1668, he died the following year and lies buried in Arezzo. Cesti occupied himself almost exclusively with musical drama, composing music for about ten librettos. His production can be divided between his younger works designed for public theatres and the commissions for private circles which were more richly endowed. The “Venetian” operas represent a first attempt to compete with the successes enjoyed by Francesco Cavalli and were characterised by a simpler form than those composed for Innsbruck and Vienna . Dry recitatives and few instrumental ensembles and a marked distance between the arias and the ariosos prevail in these earlier works. Although Cesti’s ability as a composer lie principally in his treatment of comic situations and his creation of comic characters his “Venetian” operas received a wide consensus and inaugurated several public theatres both in surrounding towns and in provincial centres. The successive “Austrian” dramas from Dori (1657) onwards are noted for a greater number of concerted pieces and pieces having choral sections and are no longer centred around historical themes but rather around allegorical and mythological subjects. The abundance of means at his disposal is evidenced particularly in his Pomo d’oro, which is scored for a cast of more than twenty characters and which in 1668 was performed in a theatre built ad hoc for the Emperor’s wedding. His fame, both posthumous and during the sixteen hundreds, is linked to his prolific production of chamber cantatas for one or for two voices, among which are the 61 works composed for bass or soprano and bass continuo. In these the over-riding element is the variety both in terms of the succession, length and numbers of arias and recitatives and also in the use of different forms and metres. Notwithstanding their diffusion and performance by his contemporaries, these works were never published and therefore their dating is somewhat difficult if not absolutely approximate.
Le disgrazie d'Amore