Meanwhile, I [Johann Joachim Quantz] travelled to Prague in July of the year 1723, in the company of the famous lutenist [Silvius Leopold] Weiss and of the current royal Prussian chapel master, Mr [Carl Heinrich] Graun, to listen to the great and magnificent opera performed in the open air by 100 singers and 200 instrumentalists at the coronation of Emperor Charles VI [as King of Bohemia]. The opera was called Costanza e Fortezza, a composition by the imperial chapel master, the old renowned [Johann Josef] Fux … The famous Francesco Conti, an imaginative and fiery, though often somewhat bizarre composer both for the church, and for the serious and comic theatre, and in addition one of the greatest theorbo players who ever lived, played the first theorbo.
—(Herrn Johann Joachim Quantzens Lebenslauf, von ihm selbst entworfen, in: Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg (ed.), Historisch-Kritische Beyträge zur Aufnahme der Musik, Vol. I, Berlin, 1755)
Until recently, the motet Languet anima mea was the only work by Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681 or ’82-1732) that was performed with any regularity. This fine work for soprano, strings, and basso continuo probably owes its relative fame to the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach himself wrote out a copy of the score in 1716. For a later performance in Bach’s time in Köthen (1717-1723), Bach added two oboes to the scoring and composed a new oboe part for the concluding Alleluja. It seems strange, that the Lutheran Bach performed a motet by a Roman Catholic contemporary, but he undoubtedly had no theological objection to the text. On the contrary: the believer contemplating the wounds of Christ and begging to be pierced with the arrows of Christ’s love is an inter-confessional theme that we often encounter in both Catholic and Protestant sacred poetry of the period. So, Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, Bach’s Calvinist employer, would not have had any doctrinal objections to the text of Languet anima mea either.
‘Who, Conti? Yet another unknown Italian composer from the Baroque era?’ the reader might ask. I would totally understand that reaction, as it seems that everything, ripe and green, is ‘rediscovered’ these days and often immediately registered on CD. But Francesco Bartolomeo Conti is the most important ‘Geheimtipp’ I can give you in this series of articles. Sure, Conti’s highly refined and technically accomplished music demands a lot of concentration from the listener, but that is equally true of the music of his widely admired contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach. Those who listen carefully and open themselves to the beauty of detail will discover in Conti a composer of the very highest calibre.
There is not much to report about his life. In his time, the Florentine was generally considered the best player of the theorbo, a kind of large lute. On the 1st of April, 1701, Emperor Joseph I attached him to his court chapel as the second theorbo player. From 1708 to 1726, Conti held the position of the court chapel’s first theorbo player. Emperor Joseph was a great connoisseur of music and was a composer himself, just as his father Leopold I had been before him. But the Viennese court chapel would reach its greatest size—with a total of as many as 120 singers and instrumentalists—under the reign of Joseph’s younger brother, Charles VI, who reigned from 1711 to 1740.
Charles VI was a great lover of complicated musical forms such as the fugue and the canon and preferred traditional contrapuntal techniques to simple modern, homophonic textures. He mastered the craft of composition and played several instruments. After Charles once conducted an opera performance from behind the harpsichord, his court chapel master Johann Joseph Fux complimented him by saying, “Schade, dass Eure Majestät kein Virtuose geworden sind” (“What a pity that Your Majesty has not become a professional musician”). Leopold I had also liked to perform publicly as a singer and harpsichordist, which in the eyes of a traveller like the Scottish nobleman Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, was so unbecoming of an emperor that he described this habit as “shocking.”
For the Habsburg emperors, music was an extremely serious business. The composer Luca Antonio Predieri discovered to his chagrin in 1739 that his fashionable and gallant music was hardly appreciated by the emperor, who, according to Predieri, only wanted to hear “cose tutte massicce” (“extremely solid things”). So dominant Charles VI’s personal taste seems to have been that it would have been imitated throughout the Habsburg Empire, at least according to Austrian musicologist Friedrich Wilhelm Riedel, who accordingly introduced the term Reichsstil in 1962 for the style of music predominant under Charles VI.
No doubt Conti too was influenced by Charles VI’s taste, and so successfully that in 1714 (retroactively to 1713) he was officially appointed ‘Court Composer.’ This combination of positions—court composer and first theorbo player—meant Conti raked in 2880 guilders annually, 380 guilders more than his superior, court chapel master Marc’Antonio Ziani, who had to settle for 2500 guilders. Incidentally, Conti still earned considerably less than his second and third wives, the star sopranos Maria Landini (?-1722) and Maria Anna Lorenzani (1700?-1732), respectively, who were both employed in the court chapel and pocketed an annual salary of 4,000 guilders.
As court composer, Conti wrote operas and oratorios, which on the one hand had to strengthen Charles VI’s image as ‘novus Carolus,’ i.e., as a new Charles V, and on the other hand had to meet Charles VI’s high standards musically. The image of Charles VI as the greatest living patron of the arts and sciences (‘Hercules musarum’) also had to be constantly promoted. The best opportunity for this was provided by the feast days celebrated at court, which were divided into three classes: 1) the gala days or imperial court feasts, on which the emperor’s and empress’s birthdays and name days were celebrated, 2) the so-called ‘Toisson-Feste,’ on which the splendidly dressed Knights of the Golden Fleece made their appearance at court, and 3) the ceremonies associated with certain ecclesiastical feast days, which required the emperor’s personal presence.
For the court chapel, the operas and serenades performed on the empress’s birthday and name day (19th of November and 28th of August respectively) and on the occasion of the emperor’s birthday and name day (5th of October and 4th of November respectively) were highlights in its calendar. Equally important were the carnival opera and the oratorio (sometimes: oratorios) for Lent, which were also on the programme every year. Basically, new operas, serenades, and oratorios had to be composed every year for all these occasions. Since that was far too much work for the court chapel master alone, the emperor also usually employed one or two court composers.
Between 1714 and 1725, Conti composed all but one of the court operas for the carnival period; a clear indication of his dominant position at court. Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena from 1719, a ‘tragicommedia’ in five acts in which Conti achieved a perfect balance between serious and comic scenes, was one of the most successful operas of the time and was performed at least 27 times in the period 1722-1737 in Braunschweig and Hamburg, among other places, albeit often in adapted form. Dutch audiences were introduced to this work at the 2010 Holland Festival. Conducted by René Jacobs, the performance made abundantly clear that we were dealing with a forgotten musical genius here.
In the field of opera’s sacred counterpart, the oratorio, Conti was hardly less active, and certainly as highly admired by the connoisseurs. The biblical theme of the young David arousing King Saul’s deadly jealousy through his victory over Goliath must have particularly appealed to Conti: Il David perseguitato da Saul, composed in 1723, was followed a year later by David. The Bible evocatively describes how the same David who was so much hated by Saul was also the only person who managed to calm the king’s tormented spirit again and again with his beautiful harp playing. A unique opportunity for Conti to replace the biblical harp with the modern theorbo and assign himself enchantingly virtuoso solo passages!
A CD recording of David, first performed on Maundy Thursday, 30th of March, 1724, in the chapel of Vienna’s Hofburg, has been made in 2003 under the direction of American conductor and harpsichordist Alan Curtis. A comparison with Handel’s oratorio Saul, composed in 1738, is telling. Apostolo Zeno, the librettist of David, jumps in medias res by focusing from the beginning on the ever-escalating conflict between the jealous King Saul and his young army captain David. In contrast, Charles Jennings, Handel’s librettist, first paints at length how all of Israel sings the praises of God and his servant David. It is precisely the unbridled admiration for the young David that arouses Saul’s deadly jealousy. No wonder Handel’s mood is initially so festive and extroverted, while Conti’s is immediately so oppressed and introverted. What links both composers is their impressive mastery of counterpoint, their amazing sense of melody and their deep understanding of the dark aspects of the human soul. I would hate to be forced to choose between Handel’s Saul and Conti’s David.
In his commentary on David, Curtis does not tire of talking about the many beauties in Conti’s oratorio. He rightly calls the expression in Saul’s accompanied recitative ‘Lasciatemi a me stesso, furie d’abisso’ (‘Leave me alone, infernal furies’) “almost unbearable.” Indeed, I know of only one other Italian oratorio in which the recitatives sound as intense and adventurous as in David, namely Vivaldi’s oratorio Juditha triumphans composed three years earlier. However, Conti would not have been Conti if he had not adopted a more contrapuntal style of writing in the choruses and arias than his great Venetian contemporary.
Conti’s final years were plagued by illness and by worries about his son Ignazio Maria. The latter received a minor position at the Viennese court in 1719. However, Ignazio does not seem to have been his father’s equal in any respect, either as a player of the theorbo or as a composer. The position of court composer he aspired to was therefore not feasible for him, despite the fact that court chapel master Johann Josef Fux put in a good word for him with the emperor in 1739. In the summer of 1730, a fierce argument between Ignazio and a certain Steffano Bertoni, a Sicilian clergyman, derailed to such an extent that Ignazio physically attacked Bertoni. As a result, Ignazio had to appear before an ecclesiastical tribunal, which sentenced the young musician to six months in prison. Remarkably, the sentence seems to have been significantly reduced a little later and also not to have had any serious consequences for Ignazio’s position at court. However, the German composer and publicist Johann Mattheson dealt Conti senior’s posthumous reputation a severe blow by accusing not Ignazio but Francesco of the violent offence in his book Der vollkommene Capellmeister (Hamburg, 1739). In his Lebenslauf, published in 1755, the composer and flautist Johann Joachim Quantz, quoted at the beginning of this article, tries to correct this misunderstanding.
In 1729, Francesco Conti, who had already been gravely ill for several years, left Vienna to travel back to his native Florence. In 1732, however, he returned to Vienna with some compositions in his luggage, only to die in the Austrian capital in July of the same year.
The aforementioned recording of the oratorio David conducted by Alan Curtis is compulsory listening for anyone wishing to delve into Conti’s music. The performance by Il complesso barocco, a baroque orchestra playing on period instruments, and the project choir sounds acceptable enough, though there is certainly room for improvement. The cast is good, with a superbly singing Simone Kermes in the role of Micol, daughter of Saul and wife of David (Virgin Classics, 2 CDs). Equally impressive is the monumental Missa Sancti Pauli, composed in 1715. The superb recording made in 2018 by Hungarian harpsichordist and conductor György Vashegyi’s conducting his own Purcell Choir and Orfeo Orchestra was the reason why I programmed this mass with the same performers in the 2019-2020 Matinee season in the Concertgebouw (Glossa). It goes without saying that I heard both ensembles live in Budapest several times before making the invitation final. The Matinee concert was unforgettable.