Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni was a Venetian Baroque composer. While famous in his day as an opera composer, he is mainly remembered today for his instrumental music, some of which is regularly recorded. The "Adagio in G minor" attributed to him (actually a later reconstruction) is one of the most frequently recorded pieces of Baroque music.
Born to Antonio Albinoni, a wealthy paper merchant in Venice, Tomaso Albinoni studied violin and singing. At an early age he became proficient as a singer and, more notably, as a violinist, though not being a member of the performers' guild he was unable to play publicly so he turned his hand to composition. Relatively little is known about his life, especially considering his contemporary stature as a composer, and the comparatively well-documented period in which he lived. His first opera, Zenobia, regina de Palmireni, was produced in Venice in 1694, coinciding with his first collection of instrumental music, the 12 Sonate a tre, Op.1, dedicated to the fellow-Venetian Pietro, Cardinal Ottoboni (grand-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII); Ottoboni was an important patron in Rome of other composers, such as Arcangelo Corelli. Thereafter Albinoni divided his attention almost equally between vocal composition (operas, serenatas and cantatas) and instrumental composition (sonatas and concertos). Albinoni was possibly employed in 1700 as a violinist to Charles IV, Duke of Mantua, to whom he dedicated his Op. 2 collection of instrumental pieces. In 1701 he wrote his hugely popular suites Op. 3, and dedicated that collection to Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Until his father's death in 1709, Tomaso Albinoni was able to cultivate music more for pleasure than for profit, referring to himself as Dilettante Veneto - a term which in 18th century Italy was totally devoid of unfavourable connotations. Under the terms of his father's will he was relieved of the duty (which he would normally have assumed as eldest son) to take charge of the family business, this task being given to his younger brothers. Henceforth he was to be a full-time musician, a prolific composer who according to one report, also ran a successful academy of singing.
A lifelong resident of Venice, Tomaso Albinoni married in 1705 an opera singer, Margherita Raimondi (d 1721); Antonino Biffi, the maestro di cappella of San Marco was a witness, and evidently was a friend of Albinoni's. Albinoni seems to have no other connection with that primary musical establishment in Venice, however, and achieved his early fame as an opera composer at many cities in Italy, including Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Mantua, Udine, Piacenza, and Naples. He composed as many as 81 operas, of which 28 were produced in Venice between 1723 and 1740. Several of his operas were performed in northern Europe from the 1720's onwards.
Unlike most composers of his time, Tomaso Albinoni appears never to have sought a post at either a church or court of nobility, but then he was a man of independent means and had the option to compose music independently. In 1722 he travelled to Munich at the invitation of the Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (to whom Albinoni had dedicated a set of twelve concertos) to supervise performances of I veri amici and Il trionfo d'amore as part of the wedding celebrations for the Prince-Elector and the daughter of the late Emperor Joseph I. During this time Albinoni was also composing instrumental music in abundance: prior to 1705, he mostly wrote trio sonatas and violin concertos, but between then and 1719 he wrote solo sonatas and concertos for oboe.
Most of his operatic works have been lost, having not been published during his lifetime. Nine collections of instrumental works were however published, meeting with considerable success and consequent reprints; thus it is as a composer of instrumental music (99 sonatas, 59 concertos and 9 sinfonias) that he is known today. In his lifetime these works were favourably compared with those of Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, and his nine collections published in Italy, Amsterdam and London were either dedicated to or sponsored by an impressive list of southern European nobility.
Albinoni was particularly fond of the oboe, a relatively new introduction in Italy, and is credited with being the first Italian to compose oboe concertos (Op. 7, 1715). Prior to Op.7, Albinoni had not published any compositions with parts for wind instruments. The concerto, in particular, had been regarded as the province of stringed instruments. It is likely that the first concertos featuring a solo oboe appeared from German composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann or Georg Frideric Handel. Nevertheless, the four concertos with one oboe (Nos. 3, 6, 9 and 12) and the four with two oboes (Nos. 2, 5, 8 and 11) in Albinoni's Op.7 were the first of their kind to be published, and proved so successful that the composer repeated the formula in Op.9 (1722).
Though Tomaso Albinoni resided in Venice all his life, he travelled frequently throughout southern Europe; the European nobility would also have made his acquaintance in Venice, now a popular destination city. With its commercial fortunes in the Adriatic and Mediterranean in decline, the enterprising City-State turned to tourism as its new source of wealth, taking advantage of its fabled water setting and ornate buildings, and putting on elongated and elaborate carnivals which regularly attracted the European courts and nobility.
Apart from some further instrumental works circulating in manuscript in 1735, little is known of Albinoni's life and musical activity after the mid-1720's. However, so much of his output has been lost, one can surely not put our lack of knowledge down to musical or composition inactivity. Around 1740, a collection of Albinoni's violin sonatas was published in France as a posthumous work, and scholars long presumed that meant that Albinoni had died by that time. However it appears he lived on in Venice in obscurity; a record from the parish of San Barnaba indicates Tomaso Albinoni died in Venice in 1751, of diabetes.
Much of his work was lost during the latter years of World War II with the bombing of Dresden and the Dresden State library. In 1945, Remo Giazotto, a Milanese musicologist travelled to Dresden to complete his biography of Albinoni and his listing of Albinoni's music. Among the ruins, he discovered a fragment of manuscript. Only the bass line and six bars of melody had survived, possibly from the slow movement of a Trio Sonata or Sonata da Chiesa. It was from this fragment that Giazotto reconstructed the now-famous Adagio, a piece which is instantly associated with Albinoni today, yet which ironically Albinoni would doubtless hardly recognise.