Domenico Cimarosa, the son of an unemployed stone mason, was born on 17 December 1749 in the little town of Aversa, a village about 20 minutes by train from Naples today. His father, Gennaro Cimarosa, moved the family to Naples a few days after Domenico's birth, having obtained a position as a stone mason employed in the construction of the palace at Capodimonte in Naples. Unfortunately Gennaro fell to his death while working on the palace, leaving his widow, Anna de Francesca, both to rear and financially support young Domenico. Living near the Church of San Severo, Anna arranged to serve the monastery as laundress while Domenico was taken into their school. A precociously intelligent boy, he soon attracted the attention of the monastery organist, Father Polcano, who gave him music lessons. At age 11, on the recommendation of Father Polcano, Domenico was admitted to the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto, one of five such schools established by the church for orphans and abandoned children. Although not a ‘conservatory’ in today's sense of the word, music was an important element in the daily schooling since the figlioli (as the boys were called) provided music not only for the Church of San Loreto, but for private chapels and public occasions.
At the Loreto Cimarosa studied counterpoint, harmony and composition in addition to becoming a skilled violinist, a gifted singer, and an expert keyboard player. After 11 or 12 years at the conservatory, during which time he composed a number of sacred works, Cimarosa completed his first opera, an opera buffa in two-acts, Le stravaganze del conte (The Eccentricities of the Count) which was given its prima at Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples during the Carnival season of 1771-72 when the composer was 22. Because it was the custom of the time to offer 3 acts of musico-dramatic entertainment for an evening ‘at the opera’, Cimarosa filled out the evening with a one-act farsetta per musica, Le magie di Merlina e Zoroastro (The Magic of Merlina and Zoroastro) which served, as the libretto-program stated, for the "3rd act."
Although these two operas - Le stravaganze del conte (in 2 acts) and Le magie di Merlina e Zoroastro (in 1 act)- shared the same composer (Cimarosa), the same librettist (Pasquale Mililotti), and many of the same singers, the two works are entirely independent of each other both in reference to story and melodic development. What must be noted is the fact that at this time no instrumental prelude, interlude, or sinfonia preceded the third act of a typical three-act work; therefore, there is no overture or sinfonia to Le magie di Merlina e Zoroastro.
Although challenged by the popularity of Piccinni and Paisiello who were already well-established composers, Cimarosa received commissions from Teatro Nuovo in Naples for both the seasons of 1773 (La finta parigina - The Fake Parisian Girl) and 1776 (I sdegni per amore - Dreams of Love, and I matrimonio in ballo -The Wedding in Dance). It may be more than coincidental that it was in 1776 - the year Piccinni left for Paris and Paisiello for St. Petersburg - that Cimarosa and his operas became increasingly popular in Naples. He composed some 24 operas on commission during the next decade for Neapolitan theaters.
In 1778 the 29-year-old Cimarosa received his first commission from Teatro Valle in Rome (another seven commissions from that theater arrived in the next two decades in addition to two commissions from the Roman theaters Teatro Argentina and Teatro delle Dame). According to papal edict only men could perform on stage in Rome; Cimarosa's female roles were all sung by castrati. The casts for each of these 8 operas for Teatro Valle were made up, as required by the theater, of five characters, and each opera was styled ‘intermezzo’ although they are in no way related to the comic interludes called intermezzi which were sung between the acts or scenes of an opera seria during the earlier 18th century.
L'italiana in Londra (The Italian Girl in London), Cimarosa's first big hit, was premiered in Rome at Teatro Valle during the Carnival season of 1778-79. Its great success led, in turn, to commissions from most of the important theaters of Italy and its neighbors in the next few years: La Scala of Milan, Eretenio of Verona, Pergola of Florence, Regio of Turin, Hermitage of St. Petersburg, Burgtheater of Vienna, Monizione of Messina, San Carlo of Lisbon, La Fenice of Venice, and Carignano of Turin.
Cimarosa was appointed supernumerary organist (without pay) of the Royal Chapel in Naples in November of 1779 at age of 30. He was promoted in March 1785 to the position of second organist with a monthly salary of eight ducats (about U.S. $300 in today's currency), a sum paid regularly even when Cimarosa was absent from Naples.
It was around the very early 1780s - the exact date is unknown - that Cimarosa was appointed a maestro at a Venetian conservatory for girls, the Ospedaletto. He composed one of his finest oratorios, Absalom (Absalon) for the Ospedaletto in 1782. Again, it seems Cimarosa received his salary regularly even when he was absent from Venice.
Catherine the Great of Russia invited Cimarosa to replace Sarti as her maestro di cappella in 1787. He left Naples by ship, stopping at the Tuscan port of Livorno and visiting Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany in Florence, possibly being invited at the time to play on the new fortepiano Cristofori had invented and presented to Leopold. It is almost certain that it was during this visit to the Medici court in Florence that Cimarosa composed the bulk of his keyboard sonatas.
Passing on his way to Russia through Parma, Vienna, Krakow, and Warsaw - and being lavishly honored and fêted at each stop - Cimarosa arrived at the court in St. Petersburg at the beginning of December. Unfortunately his period in Russia (1787-91) coincided with a period of retrenchment in the court music ensemble (the Italian opera company so dwindled that by 1790 only three singers were left). Since no date nor location for the prima of Cimarosa's marvelous one-act, one-man comedy in music (technically a cantata but actually a one-man opera), Il maestro di cappella, is known, it is likely that it was written during this period since there were not enough singers left to perform almost any other opera. It is no secret that Catherine herself had little admiration or use for Cimarosa's music, so it is not surprising that the composer left Russia when his contract expired in 1791.
Passing on his way home to Naples through Vienna, Cimarosa learned that his friend and patron Leopold, the former Grand Duke of Tuscany, was now Emperor Leopold II of Austria. As emperor, Ferdinand appointed Cimarosa Kapellmeister to the Austrian court. The composer's commission from Leopold for a comic opera resulted in Il matrimonio segreto (1792), one of the world's most famous and popular comic operas. Unfortunately Leopold II died less than a month after he had commanded Cimarosa to repeat the entire opera as an encore following its second performance.
Though Cimarosa stayed on in Vienna to see his Amor rende sagace (Love Makes One Shrewd) produced at the Burgtheater on 1 April 1792 and I traci amanti (The Thracian Lovers) at the same theater on 19 June 1792, he returned to Naples in the spring of 1793. In addition to commissions that arrived regularly after his return to Naples, Cimarosa was appointed first organist of the royal chapel with a monthly salary of 10 ducats (approximately $375 U.S. today).
The Kingdom of Naples was occupied by Napoleon's republican forces and the 'Parthenopean Republic' established in January of 1799. Cimarosa, in sympathy with their cause, composed a patriotic hymn to a text by Luigi Rossi which was sung on 19 May at the ceremonial burning of the royal flag. At the end of June, however, King Ferdinand's troops re-entered the city, which left the composer in a strange political position. He tried to make amends by composing - at the suggestion of Father Tanfano, a local priest - a cantata in praise of Ferdinand which was performed on 23 September. Although Cimarosa composed a few other works to appease the king, they merely angered Ferdinand more. The king then had Cimarosa arrested and incarcerated. Undoubtedly Cimarosa would have been beheaded (as was Rossi, the author of the text for the patriotic hymn) were it not for the intervention of his friends and supporters: Cardinal Consalvi, Secretary of State to the papal court in Rome; Cardinal Ruffo, lieutenant and captain of the Kingdom of Naples; and Lady Hamilton.
After being required to leave Naples ‘forever’, the composer returned to Venice in December 1800. There the 51-year old composer, already ill from over-work and the entire prison incident, received a commission from Teatro La Fenice for a new opera seria. He did not live to complete Artemisia, a tragico per musica in 3 acts; Cimarosa died on 11 January 1801. Because of his international fame and the popularity of his music, rumors started to travel about that Queen Marie Caroline (the true ruler of the Kingdom of Naples) had had Cimarosa poisoned. Public opinion forced the government to publish a report on 5 April 1801, that certified that Cimarosa had died from an internal ailment (a cancerous growth of the lower stomach). The funeral service was held in the Chiesa di Sant'Angelo. A magnificent and resplendent catafalque was erected and covered with a mantle of gold-embroidered velvet, surrounded by other decorations on the high altar. All the eminent citizens of Venice attended, and music was performed free of charge by the principal Venetian artists. A vast chorus of three sections encompassed the width of the church to perform music specially composed for the service by Ferdinando Bertoni, maestro della Basilica di San Marco.
In Rome, Cardinal Consalvi, the Secretary of State as well as Cimarosa's friend and protector, arranged magnificent memorial rites at the Chiesa di San Carlo del Catinari, at which one of Cimarosa's Requiem Masses was sung, all the leading artists of the city offering their talents for the occasion. Cardinal Consalvi also commissioned the distinguished sculptor Antonio Canova to create a bust of the composer, which when completed, was first placed in the Rotunda of the church and later moved to the Gallery of the Campidoglio.
Cimarosa's incomplete opera, Artemisia, was given its first performance at Teatro La Fenice on 17 January 1801- a bare seven days after his passing. On the occasion, the late composer received a most flattering posthumous compliment when the audience requested that the curtain be lowered at the point at which he wrote his last note.