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Francesco Durante (Composer)

Born: March 31, 1684 - Frattamaggiore, Aversa, Italy
Died: September 30, 1755 - Naples, Italy

Francesco Durante was an Italian composer. He was a leading composer of church music and an outstanding teacher of international repute.


Francesco Durante was the seventh of 11 children of Gaetano Durante and Orsola Capasso. His father, a woolcomber, served as sexton and singer at S Maria degli Angeli e S Sossio, Frattamaggiore, where he and his wife had married on October 31, 1674 and where all their children were baptized. His uncle, Don Angelo Durante (c1650 - after 1704), was a priest and musician who in 1690 succeeded Cristoforo Caresana as primo maestro of the Neapolitan Conservatorio di S Onofrio a Capuana, of which he was rector until 1699. Don Angelo composed several drammi sacri (Gara amorosa tra Cileo, la Terra e ’l Mare, Monteforte, 1697; S Giuliano martire in Sora, Naples, 1700; L’Anacoreta reale S Onofrio di Persia, Naples, 1705), as well as church music, of which a Dies irae attributed to him is extant (two voices and continuo, D-BNu). Nothing is known of Francesco’s education until after his father’s death on March 18, 1699, when his uncle took over his musical training. Don Angelo left Naples to assist his widowed sister-in-law and her children, and Nicola Sabini assumed his duties at the conservatory; but in 1702 he returned to his post at S Onofrio and Francesco enrolled as a convittore to study with his uncle and the violinist Gaetano Francone. Three years later Francesco left the conservatory, and on June 13, 1705 his first known creative effort, a scherzo drammatico entitled Prodigii della divina misericordia verso I devoti del glorioso S Antonio di Padova, was performed in Naples.

Little is known about Francesco Durante’s life between then and 1728, when he was appointed primo maestro of the Neapolitan Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo. Choron and Fayolle (1810) stated that he studied with Pasquini and Pitoni in Rome for five years, and although that was later disavowed (by Villarosa and Florimo), circumstantial evidence seems to support them. Girolamo Chiti, in a letter to Padre Martini of September 10, 1746, identified Durante as a ‘scolaro di Pitoni’; Chiti himself had been a pupil of Pitoni about 1713, so his statement has some authority. Durante could have been in Rome either between 1705 and 1710, which would have allowed studies with Pasquini (who died in 1710), or between 1711 and 1719. The only dated composition by Durante from the first period, his Missa S Ildefonsi of 1709, could have been written for the Spanish church in Rome or Naples. By July 1710 he was in Naples, where he began teaching at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio. He remained there for only six months, leaving the institution on 12 January 1711, perhaps to return to Rome or to study there with Pitoni for the first time. A register of the masters and professors of the Congregazione and Accademia di S Cecilia in Rome, compiled in 1851, lists Durante as a maestro there for 1718, but offers no documentation. Several aspects of Durante’s music have been interpreted as pointing to Roman influences: his concentration on sacred music to the exclusion of opera, his preoccupation with the problems of a stile alla Palestrina, and his interest in keyboard music and the concerto. He was, however, in Naples on January 4, 1714, when he married Orsola de Laurentis, 12 years his senior, and is certain to have been present in the city at the first performance of his sacred drama La cerva assetata ovvero L’anima nelle fiamme on February 18, 1719. Thereafter, nothing is known of Durante’s whereabouts until 1728. It could have been during these years that he travelled to Austria [Bohemia] and Saxony, as some older sources report (though for periods when he now is known to have resided in Naples). There is, however, no documentary evidence other than some unique sacred works attributed to Durante that are preserved in Brno, Prague and Dresden in local manuscript copies dating from the early to mid-1720s.

In October 1728 the governors of the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo appointed Francesco Durante, now aged 44, primo maestro replacing the elderly Gaetano Greco: his election attests to his high reputation. About the same time he must have been invited to write music for the choruses of Duke Annibale Marchese’s tragedy Flavio Valente, published in the duke’s Tragedie cristiane (Naples, 1729). With this contribution he joined the ranks of the then celebrated older and younger Neapolitan composers, Carapella, Mancini, Sarro, Nicola Fago, Nicola Porpora, Hasse, Vinci and Leo, who had written music for other tragedies in the collection. Dated copies of his compositions now become more numerous: a Litanie (1731), Laudate pueri (1732),Missa breve (1734), and the oratorio Abigaile (libretto, 1736). His well-known Sonate per cembalo divisi in studii e divertimenti, however, were not published in Naples in 1732, as has been assumed, but between January 1747 and December 1749, since the dedication refers to the Principe d’Ardore, Don Giacomo Francesco Milano as ambassador to France (which he was between 1741 and 1749) and as Cavaliere di Santo Spirito (which he was named in January 1747). The prince, a student of Durante, dedicated a Salve regina for one voice and instruments ‘al suo maestro Francesco Durante’ D-MÜs, WRgs). Durante’s Requiem in G minor is dated November 27, 1738, and his Missa in Palestrina (in a copy by Famulari) October 17-18, 1739. Also from those years come the two Atti di Contrizioni for the alumni of the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo. Among his students there were Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who completed his education under Durante’s guidance, Girolamo Abos, Domenico Terradellas and for about two years Joseph Doll.

After ten years of service, Francesco Durante resigned from the conservatory, and in September 1739 he was succeeded by Francesco Feo. The reasons for his resignation are unknown, and there is no information about his activities until 1742, when he was called to the Neapolitan Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. This oldest and largest of the four Neapolitan conservatories had been without a primo maestro since October 1741, when Nicola Porpora went on leave to Venice and did not return; with the death of Giovanni Veneziano on April 13, 1742 it had lost its secondo maestro. On April 25, 1742 the governors elected Durante primo maestro, at the same time appointing P.A. Gallo to assist him as secondo maestro. Under Durante’s directorship the Loreto conservatory regained stability and quality of education. During his 13 years’ service such later masters as Pasquale Anfossi, Tommaso Traetta, Pietro Guglielmi, Alessandro Speranza, Antonio Sacchini and Fedele Fenaroli received their musical education there. When, with the death of Leo on October 31, 1744, the primo maestro position at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio became vacant, Durante, then 60, was awarded the succession as from January 1, 1745. He also petitioned the king to appoint him Leo’s successor as primo maestro of the royal chapel. A competition, however, was held, in which Durante took part on April 21, 1745 along with Giuseppe de Majo, Giuseppe Marchitti, Nicola Sala and others. The judges were Constanzi of Rome, Perti of Bologna, Jommelli of Venice, and Hasse, then also in Venice. Jommelli praised Durante’s a cappella setting on the cantus firmus Protexisti me Deus, of which Perti was critical; the appointment went to Majo, vicemaestro of the chapel (although only Hasse had found his works satisfactory). Durante continued to hold his positions at both S Maria di Loreto and S Onofrio, and during the last ten years of his life was venerated as the most distinguished of all Neapolitan teachers. According to tradition Nicolo Piccinni became Durante’s favourite pupil, of whom he is supposed to have said: ‘The others are my pupils, but Nicolo alone is my son’. Dated compositifrom his last decade include the five-voice Miserere for the basilica of S Nicola, Bari, the Requiem in C minor for eight voices, performed in 1746 at S Giacomo degli Spagnoli in Rome, an F major mass (1749), the F minor Litany (1750), and the componimento sacro S Antonio di Padova (1753).

Francesco Durante married three times. His first wife died on February 27, 1741; early biographies characterized her as a ‘maledetta vecchia’ who made the 27 years of their marriage a misery. On January 26, 1744 he married his second wife, Anna Furano, of Naples, who is said to have brought happiness back into his life; but she died on August 10, 1747. Only four months later, on December 18, 1747, he was married again, to the 22-year-old Angela Anna Carmina Giacobbe, the niece of Anna Furano and a domestic in his household. Reports of Durante’s character and personality are primarily based on anecdotes related by Giuseppe Sigismondo, who had known the composer, and by Giovanni Furno, who related stories he had heard from his teacher Carlo Cotumacci, Durante’s successor at S Onofrio. According to these sources Durante was a man of simple manners, but profoundly wise in matters concerning his art and a respected arbiter over questions of harmony and counterpoint. He was dedicated to his pupils’ welfare and education; they in turn, like Paisiello, who began his studies at S Onofrio during the last year of Durante’s life, always spoke of him with enthusiasm and admiration. He was buried in S Lorenzo Maggiore in Naples.


Unlike his Neapolitan contemporaries Nicola Porpora, Feo, Leo and Vinci, who attracted international notice with their operas, Francesco Durante achieved recognition through his church music, along with some vocal chamber and instrumental works. Although a career like his was not unusual for the older masters, or among Roman musicians of his day (like Bencini, Chiti or Cannicciari), it was remarkable for a Neapolitan. Almost all the composers active in Naples during the second quarter of the 18th century, including Nicola Fago and Ignazio Prota, at least attempted to compete in opera before devoting themselves completely to church music and teaching. Of those Neapolitan maestri who followed Durante’s example, notably P.A. Antonio Gallo, Carlo Cotumacci and Lorenzo Fago, none equalled his reputation. In 1705, after leaving S Onofrio, Durante, like many a Neapolitan student before and after him, composed a theatrical work. The libretto to Prodigii della divina misericordia was by Abbentio Rolandi, and even included a comic role in Neapolitan dialect. However, the music is lost, and it is not even known how it was received. It did not gain him – or he did not seek – a commission for an opera. His second effort in sacred drama,La cerva assetata (1719), was according to Florimo dry and monotonous, too strict and old-fashioned in style to be successful. Since his choruses for Flavio Valente (1729) offer little insight, and his music to Abigaile (1736) is lost, any judgment on Durante’s approach to the dramatic genre must rest on his S Antonio di Padova of 1753. Surprisingly for a work written only two years before his death, this dramma sacro does not seem old-fashioned but, like other works of his late period, shows Durante in tune with the stylistic tendencies that the younger Neapolitans had begun to pursue in their operas during the 1740's. It contains several accompanied recitatives, and its da capo arias show vigorous, often contrasting gestures as well as effective vocal lines. In total, however, it reveals less concern for dramatic intensity than for pleasant musical entertainment. Basically his was not an operatic talent, yet in his masses, requiems, litanies and Lamentations he could provide strong expressive moments. The absence of opera from his output was perhaps caused by both circumstances and critical self-awareness.

Any assessment of Francesco Durante’s development as a composer is troubled by questions concerning the authenticity of manuscript attributions, and restricted by the fact that few of his works can with certainty be assigned to his early years. The Missa S Ildefonsi of 1709, which requires three violins, chorus and continuo, shows its proximity to late 17th-century practices. Its Gloria excludes the words of the intonation, subdivides into sections rather than formal numbers, and contains ensembles a 2 and a 3, but no solo aria. Most of Durante’s surviving compositions were written after he settled at Naples in 1728: they reflect the art of the mature composer with firm control over his craft, often imaginative and forward-looking, not insensitive to the traditions of church music that he inherited, and above all responsive to the changing stylistic currents of his time – that is to say, to the situation in Naples. His work encompasses all genres and styles of liturgical and devotional music, from the large, representational orchestral ‘number’ masses and psalms to a cappella or accompanied stile breve settings; from the motet-cantatas, litanies and Lamentations for chorus, solo voices and orchestra to the cantate spirituali and Holy Week lessons for solo voices and continuo. In his choral numbers, unlike Nicola Fago or Feo, he preferred four- and five-part settings, with, in the latter, one or both sopranos serving as the solo, concertato voices. Also characteristic for Durante are a number of works or arrangements for two sopranos and bass (e.g. the Requiem in A minor and the Dixit Dominus in B). Double chorus textures occur, with few exceptions, only in works of his last decade. After Scarlatti, Durante was the first composer in Naples to set several complete mass cycles in a cappella stile antico. One of these he explicitly labelled ‘Missa in Palestrina’ (D minor, four voices, 1739). He was well able to handle the contrapuntal techniques of the old style, and even alluded to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Missa ‘In te Domine speravi’; but because of his own deep-rooted feeling for harmonically guided phrasing he recreated only the Palestrina style’s outer appearance and mannerisms. These masses in strict style remain isolated in his work. In later years he allowed his a cappella (with continuo) settings to follow freely his own expressive dictum (e.g. in the Miserere per la Chiesa di S Nicolò di Bari and the two Misericordias Domini settings).

Leo, too, occupied himself seriously with the traditional style from the 1730's onwards, and much has been made of the difference in approach which the two masters present and which is said to have split Naples into the camps of ‘Durantisti’ and ‘Leisti’. The difference has been explained (by Fellerer) as concerning the question whether old and new style should and could achieve a symbiosis (‘Durantismo’), or whether they should remain separated, with the one treated strictly, the other in as modern a manner as possible (‘Leismo’). It seems, however, that historicism overstated the problem. To set parts of the Kyrie or the ‘Christe’, the ‘Cum sancto’ or ‘Sicut erat’, and the ‘Amen’ as fugues in stile antico fashion was a Neapolitan tradition by the first quarter of the 18th century; both Durante and Leo adhered to it. Both also attempted in many of their works to unify older and modern practices through a stile misto. The true controversy was more likely based on nothing more than the academic question of whether the interval of the 4th should be regarded as consonance or dissonance and in what circumstances (RosaM). The stylistic difference between the two masters was less one of goal than one of result, caused by character and temperament. It has been stated that ‘Durante is sentimental and Leo is not’ (Dent). If ‘sentimental’ is understood in 18th-century terms, then the characterization makes a point. Leo was conservative, and had a stricter, more vigorous counterpoint. Durante was also a master of learned device, but favoured lighter, more transparent, often pseucontrapuntal textures. His stile moderno comprised startling dissonances, expressive use of dynamics, diminished chords and chromaticism (e.g. Salve regina, 1739; Dixit Dominus, 1751) as well as thematic and harmonic contrasts (motet Tacete sonate; Missa, 1753), and had a tendency towards periodic phrasing and clearcut cadential structure that could produce a truly popular tone (masses in pastorale;Laudate pueri, 1732). Many of his smaller choral works in motet style (e.g. Vespro breve; Dixit Dominus a 3) were written with ease of vocal performance in mind, while in his arias he made considerable demands on the virtuosity of singers but often attempted to integrate coloratura passages into a larger design.

Compared with other Neapolitans, Francesco Durante was not prolific. His concern was not quantity; instead he strove, within the limits of a style beset by standard vocabulary, formulae and genre traditions, towards the realization of a variety of individual concepts and exemplary solutions. In his six Sonate per cembalo, published by Phillipus de Grado at Naples, he explored formal as well as technical aspects of keyboard music. Each sonata combines and contrasts an extended fugal ‘studio’ with a short, non-fugal ‘divertimento’, united by key and sometimes by motivic elements. Emphasis on variety and on synthesis of diverse stylistic and formal features distinguish his nine Concerti a quartetto, the most significant Neapolitan contribution to the genre. Probably written during the late 1730s or early 40s, their formal plans include wholly original successions of tempo contrasts (as in the concertos in E and A, ‘La pazzia’). Interplay of solo and tutti is fluent and stresses participation of the viola. His three-movement Harpsichord Concerto in B with violins, cello and double bass is the most notable of the few keyboard concertos by early 18th-century Italians. Here contrapuntal inclinations are held in check, and the outer movements are dominated by a playful abandon befitting the virtuoso and entertaining nature of the solo concerto.

It is one of the remarkable aspects of Francesco Durante’s career that with old age he did not have to resort to repeating himself in routine fashion. His creative imagination remained fertile until death. His Messa de’ morti for Rome (eight voices, C minor) of 1746 is among the first in a series of masterworks composed during his last decade and, aside from any theological considerations of what constitutes ‘true church music’, must be counted as the most important orchestral requiem of the early 18th century. Distinctive shape and character, thematic as well as structural, a preoccupation with special expressive effects and orchestration, and a concern for unifying multi-movement structures mark all his late works. The ‘Quoniam’ of the F major Missa in afflictionis tempore (1749) is an echo concerto for soprano solo, two trombe da caccia, oboes, strings (with violin passages marked ‘grazioso’) and continuo. Instruments partake in presenting the fugue subject independently of the chorus in the concluding ‘Cum sancto’, in which the home key of the Kyrie (F) rather than the Gloria (D) is re-established. In the ‘Qui tollis’-‘Qui sedes’ movement of the great A major mass (eight voices, 1753), a four-voice ‘choro da lontano’ echoes sections of the soprano solo, providing a theatrical effect. In the Missa col canto fermo in D, the hymn Sancte Michael defende nos dominates the contrapuntal textures of the Kyrie and ‘Christe’, and reappears in the ‘Cum sancto’ at the end of the Gloria. In the five-part Magnificat in B, the closing ‘Sicut erat’ is a near-literal repeat of the opening chorus with its psalm tone cantus firmus; such recapitulations were to become a tradition with Neapolitan composers in the second half of the century, particularly in settings of the psalm Dixit Dominus. Durante’s fondness for experimentation is shown in the opening orchestral Larghetto of the motet Cessent corda, in D (five solo voices and chorus), which begins in accompanied recitative style on a dissonant chord, then follows an unorthodox harmonic progression, reaching a cadence in the tonic only in the 11th bar, whereupon a brief allegro follows.

It was without doubt his dedication to matters of his art, and his openness to new ideas, which made Francesco Durante a sought-after and venerated maestro; nearly 20 years after his death Burney could observe that his ‘masses and motets are still in use, and models of correct writing with the students of several conservatories of Naples’. Many of his scores reveal the teacher. It is telling that he labelled his cantus firmi (Protexisti me Deus, 1745) and his canons (Messa de’ morti, 1746), and wrote ‘si nota’ to draw attention to a learned device hidden in the parts (Missa col canto fermo). His approach to the teaching of musicianship and composition can be viewed through his Partimenti … per ben suonare il cembalo, extant in variously titled copies, which progress from basic cadential exercises to fugal and free-style improvisations over a variety of bass patterns. (That Vincenzo Bellini and Alfredo Catalani owned copies of these partimentos attests their use throughout the 19th century.) The countless solfeggios attributed to him run the gamut of vocal exercises and include duos and trios (‘canoni’). Two popular ‘arias by Durante’, which persistently appear even in modern anthologies of Italian songs, Danza, danza fanciulla and Vergin tutt’ amore, are nothing but solfeggios to which texts and elaborate piano accompaniments were added in the 19th century. The most famous of his didactic compositions became his XII duetti (or madrigali) da camera, in which he transformed recitatives from solo cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti into expressive, often highly chromatic duos, by adding a second vocal part and interludes, and considerably modifying and extending the originals. These Duetti may be called brilliant examples of 18th-century ‘parody technique’. To Burney it seemed ‘as if art and refinement in this species of composition could go no further’.

The central position that Francesco Durante held in the educational life of Naples, and the fame of his many pupils, from G.B. Pergolesi to Paisiello, prevented his name and work from being forgotten after death. Rousseau (1767) exuberantly extolled him as ‘the greatest master of harmony of Italy, that is to say, of the whole world’. Although voices were raised taking exception to Rousseau’s overstatement (Hasse, for example, thought Durante to be ‘not only dry, but baroque, that is coarse and uncouth’), most late 18th-century critics looking backward were attracted by his style, in which the late Baroque anticipated the Classical, and contrapuntal dexterity was tempered by a natural amenity. To Grétry (Mémoires, 1789), therefore, he was the undisputed master of ‘contrepoint sentimental’. Works attributed to Durante are preserved in over 1000 manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries, and a number of them were included in the anthologies of old masterworks published by Choron and Porro in France and Rochlitz and Commer in Germany. Performances of his music, particularly the Missa in Palestrina and other a cappella works, were fostered through the Cecilian movement. The most popular and widely performed of Durante’s sacred works, however, was the five-part Magnificat in B (second version), which Kretzschmar (Führer durch den Konzertsaal, ii/1, 1888) praised as ‘in a certain sense the ideal setting’ of the Marian canticle and Hanslick (Aus dem Tagebuche eines Musikers, 1892) was moved to call a ‘Tondichtung which in the beauty of religion celebrates the religion of beauty’. The modern historical point of view has abandonded theseassessments; however, Durante’s importance as a focal point in the development of 18th-century Neapolitan church music, and the merit of his contributions to instrumental music, remain unchallenged.

J.S. Bach Connection

From the Grove Music Online (Author: Christoph Wolff):
In Bach’s time Latin polyphonic music was still often used in ordinary Lutheran Sunday worship, particularly, in Leipzig, at important church feasts. Further, the concerted Magnificat continued to hold its place during Vespers. Bach had been interested in Latin polyphonic music at least since his Weimar period, as his copies of pieces by other composers demonstrate (Marco Gioseppe Peranda, Durante, Johann Christoph Pez, Johann Hugo von Wilderer, Giovanni Battista Bassani, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Lotti, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina etc.; catalogue in Wolff, 1968). He also wrote insertions in this style for other composers’ works, and made some arrangements (Sanctus BWV 241; Credo intonation for a mass by Bassani; ‘Suscepit Israel’ for a Magnificat by A. Caldara).

Thomas Braatz wrote (July 5, 2008):
The NBAKB II/2 dating from 1982 was still unable to identify the source of the other two mvts. included in the score which is a Bach autograph. BWV Anh. II, 26 contains a Christe eleison mvt. which, along with all the other mvts., originally had been attributed by Alfred Dörffel (BGA) in 1894 to Johann Ludwig Bach. Spitta (II, 510) had already considered the entire work to be by an Italian composer, despite the fact that Bach had written after the title of the Christe eleison mvt.: di Bach, thus indicating correctly which of the mvts. was really by him. The BWV Verzeichnis (1998) gives the Mass in C minor as being by Francesco Durante, not the Christe eleison mvt. which obviously is genuinely by J.S. Bach and is listed as BWV 242. Alfred Dürr has identified the watermark of the paper used by Bach as belonging to the period from 1727 to 1731.

My guess is that the correct identification of the mvts. not by Bach (attribution to Durante) may have first been reported in Kirsten Beißwenger's Johann Sebastian Bachs Notenbibliothek (Kassel, 1992). I just checked in Konrad Küster's Bach Handbuch, Bärenreiter/Metzler, 1999, p. 512 where he cites two of Beißwenger's publications: Bachs Eingriffe in Werke fremder Komponisten (Bach-Jahrbuch 77, 1991) and Bachs Notenbibliothek (see previous).


Source: Grove Music Online © Oxford University Press 2007-1008 acc. July 5, 2008 (Author: Hanns-Bertold Dietz)
Contributed by
Thomas Braatz (July 2008)

Francesco Durante: Short Biography | Mass in C minor, BWV Anh 26 | General Discussions

Works previously attributed to J.S. Bach

Christe eleison, BWV 242 (or Johann Ludwig Krebs)

Works arranged / copied / performed by Bach

Mass in C minor, BWV Anh. 26, copied by J.S. Bach during the second half of 1727; J.S. Bach inserted the Christe eleison in G minor, BWV 242 (duet for soprano & alto) - performed by J.S. Bach in Leipzig 1727-1731

Links to other Sites

Francesco Durante: 1684 - 1755 (Durante Project)
Francesco Durante, Biography, Discography (Goldberg)
HOASM: Francesco Durante
Francesco Durante (PP Music)

Francesco Durante (Wikipedia)
Karadar: Francesco Durante
Francesco Durante (
Francesco Durante (Online Encyclopedia)


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W. Horn: Die Dresdner Hofkirchenmusik 1720–1745: Studien zu ihren Vorausetzungen und ihrem Repertoire (Kassel, 1987), 179–80, 198–9
H.-B. Dietz: ‘Durante, Feo, and Pergolesi: Concerning Misattributions among their Sacred Music’, Studi Pergolesiani, ii (1988), 128–43
H.-B. Dietz: A Thematic Catalogue of the Works Attributed to Francesco Durante (1684–1755) (forthcoming)

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