Explores The Life And Works Of Prolific But Surprisingly Obscure Venetian Composer

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 4, 2024

Albinoni, Tomaso

Kate Bolton-Porciatti explores the life and works of prolific but surprisingly obscure Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni

What is Albinoni most famous for?

Albinoni is celebrated today for the brooding G minor Adagio for strings and organ that has underscored many a tearful moment in TV shows and films, from Butterflies to RollerballFlashdance to Gallipoli.

Did Albinoni write his Adagio?

Paradoxically, while many people still call it ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’, he himself would probably not have recognised it. The story is one of those curious enigmas when a composer’s most famous work turns out to be by someone else – just like Henry Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary, which is now Jeremiah Clarke’s.

The history of Albinoni’s signature tune is full of surprising twists: once feted as a proto-Romantic work by the Venetian Baroque composer, in the 1990s the piece was revealed to be a ‘forgery’ by Albinoni’s biographer Remo Giazotto. Giazotto claimed to have realised the Adagio from fragments of an Albinoni manuscript that had been pulverised in the Second World War. Slender evidence has been found to support his claim, so scholarly discussion still rages: is Giazotto’s work a ‘reconstruction’ or a hoax?

Curiously, it’s not the first time Albinoni has been impersonated. In the 1720s, an imposter toured Germany posing as him – and hastily fled when ‘the real Albinoni’ arrived in Munich to stage an opera. This may explain the scattering of spurious works published contemporaneously in Germany in the name of Tomaso Albinoni.

We suppose that ‘the real Albinoni’ is the subject of an anonymous portrait of a refined young composer, richly bewigged and fashionably dressed in a sumptuous scarlet jacket from which cascade white lace cuffs. This portrait (now in a private collection) confirms he was more of a gentleman amateur rather than a professional musician, a role that was seen as socially inferior; indeed, he signs his first publications ‘dilettante veneto’ – ‘a dilettante from the Veneto’. We know that he came from a well-to-do bourgeois family and as a young man he followed in his father’s footsteps as a master stationer and maker of playing cards.

When was Albinoni born?

Tomaso Albinoni was born in Venice in 1671. His father, Antonio, is a wealthy paper merchant and Tomaso himself initially follows him into the trade.

What was Albinoni’s first opera?

At the age of 23, though, he graced the stage with his first opera: Zenobia, regina de’Palmireni, a ‘heroic’ work glorifying the eponymous Queen of Palmyra.

It may not be entirely by chance that Albinoni slipped easily from the profession of card maker to opera composer, for we might imagine Venetian opera houses as more like Las Vegas than La Scala: in their foyers and gaming rooms, the upper classes played cards and gambled (activities from which the theatres made much of their income), the opera boxes became betting dens, and contemporary sources frequently implore audiences to stop their fluttering during the performance.

Zenobia was staged in 1694 during Carnival – the season strongly linked with gaming when, according to the diarist John Evelyn, ‘all the world repaire to Venice to see the folly and madnesse.’

The opera’s librettist, Antonio Marchi, praised ‘the accomplished and delightful music of Signor Tomaso Albinoni’, and it’s true to say that, from his earliest works, Albinoni showed a particular sensitivity for vocal music. We know that, as well as playing the violin, he was also a singer reputed for his ‘suavissima’ voice.

Who did Albinoni marry?

In 1705 Albinoni married the soprano Margherita Rimondi, who graced the Venetian opera stages under the nickname ‘La Salarina’. Despite bearing him six children, she manages to continue her career as an opera singer, though will pre-decease him by 30 years.


How many operas did Albinoni compose?

Giazotto speculates that Albinoni may also have run a singing school. No surprise, then, that he composed operas throughout his career: we know of around 50; he claimed over 80. Today, though, just three opera serie survive complete: as well as Zenobia are Engelberta (a collaborative work with Francesco Gasparini) and La statira, a celebration of female virtue and courage first performed in Rome – ironically, given the subject matter, by an all-male cast.

Another side of Albinoni’s musical persona reveals itself in his intermezzi – comic ‘interludes’ served up like sweet sorbets between the acts of an opera seriaPimpinone, to a text by Pietro Pariati, first interlarded Albinoni’s Astarto at Venice’s San Cassiano Theatre in 1708.

Later touted round Europe by small travelling troupes, it enjoyed huge success in the early decades of the 18th century. Pariati’s playful drama revolves around two stock characters from the popular street-theatre of the commedia dell’arte: the bright but crafty maid-servant Vespetta (‘Little Wasp’), who contrives to make herself the wife of the wealthy, middle-aged and gullible bachelor, Pimpinone.

Vespetta’s vows to ‘love, honour and obey’ are fickle words, as the young bride ignores her husband and squanders his money. Like Pergolesi’s La serva padrona a quarter-of-a-century later, Albinoni’s intermezzo celebrates the woman’s quick-wit and feisty spirit. With its airy melodies and light parlando style, it’s a delightfully frothy confection.

What else did Albinoni compose?

Outside the theatre, Albinoni’s vocal music consists largely of cantatas and serenatas. The former were performed at aristocratic ‘Academies’, where chamber music and recitations of poetry were washed down with ‘iced and delicate Liquors’.

Albinoni’s yearning melodies and graceful pastoral rhythms are the perfect vehicle for texts that sing of unrequited love in an Arcadian setting. The serenatas are celebratory works for the birthdays, marriages and name days of aristocrats and dignitaries; their breezy music would waft through the gardens of Venetian and Roman nobility on balmy Summer evenings.

The most substantial of them, Il Nascimento de l’Aurora, entwines Ovid’s retellings of the Greek myths of Apollo and Daphne, and Zephyrus and Flora in a fragrant musical knot garden.

Over his long career, Albinoni turned his hand to different types of instrumental music: balletticoncerti, sinfonias and sonatas – all of which are infused with a lyrical quality. Among his most felicitous works are the balletti – proto-dance suites for a chamber ensemble, characterised by limpid textures and what Albinoni describes as a ‘grazioso modo di cantare’ (a ‘gracious manner of singing’).

The shadow of Corelli hovers over the trio sonatas, whose four-movement form and sober contrapuntal writing are inherited from the Roman composer. And JS Bach must have admired them, as he crafted three fugues (BWV 946, 950 & 951) based on subjects from Albinoni’s Op. 1 trios.

The flautist and composer Johann Quantz credits the Venetian as an ‘improver’ of the concerto, acknowledging his contribution to the genre as it first fluttered its wings in the early years of the 18th century. Albinoni’s experience in the opera house leads him, in his Op. 2 collection of Sinfonie e Concerti of 1700, to graft the three-movement form of the opera sinfonia onto the concerto, thereby establishing its typical fast-slow-fast structure.

Seven years later, in the Concerti a cinque Op. 5, he increasingly spotlights his own instrument, the violin, with vocally inspired flourishes and gusts of virtuosity. His string writing is never as brazenly flamboyant as Vivaldi’s, and he invariably offsets soloistic passages with balanced counterpoint and fugal textures. His contemporaries seemed to have admired this equilibrium, describing him as ‘Excellent not only as a violinist but also as a contrapuntist’. Above all, though, the Op. 5 collection showcases his gift for writing aria-like slow movements infused with all the pathos and bewitching lyricism of opera.

The ground-breaking Op. 7 collection of 1715 featured the first published concertos for the oboe. The new-fangled reed instrument crept into Venice’s opera houses in the 1690s and it’s possible that Albinoni first heard its plangent sound in a theatrical context. He certainly spins lyrical melodies for the soloist and, in the double concertos, the two oboes intertwine like lovers in an operatic duet. The publication set a trend in Venice, and oboe concertos by Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello followed hot on its heels.

The Op. 9 collection of 1722 was dedicated to the Bavarian Elector Max Emanuel; perhaps Albinoni included eight oboe concertos here to show off the brilliant players of the court’s military band.

The most famous work of the set is the Second Concerto, its melancholy D minor key drawing music of noble sobriety. In its diaphanous slow movement (often hyped as ‘Albinoni’s second Adagio’) the oboe cantilena floats over softly flowing strings. The Op. 9 works also offer a window onto Bavarian court life, which revolved around hunting, dancing, opera and celebrations of military victories.

The Third Concerto, for example, imitates hunting horns and trotting horses, all in the bright ‘pastoral’ key of F major. In the Sixth Concerto’s opening Allegro, the two oboes play flashing military-style fanfares over drumming strings, the plaintive Adagio is redolent of an operatic lament, and the piece closes with a courtly Minuet.

Albinoni’s last instrumental collection, the Op. 10 Concerti of 1735-6 dedicated to the Spanish marquis Don Luca Patiño, are autumnal works that nonetheless brim with energy. Their graceful, gallant melodies and filmy textures recall the care-free world of the intermezzo. He also brushes this set with some colourful effects: exotic harmonies and rhythms in the G minor Second Concerto, and evocations of strumming flamenco guitars in the C minor Concerto No. 11. And despite the composer’s advancing years, an irrepressible sense of ‘Spielfreude’ – the sheer ‘joy of playing’ – pervades even in these swansongs.

When did Albinoni die?

After years of obscurity, Albinoni died on 17 January, 1751, in Venice, aged 79. Records from the parish of San Barnaba indicate diabetes as the cause of his death.

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