Getting to know Leonardo Leo

Leonardo Leo

Leonardo Leo

Of the three composers on ABS’s next concert program, Leonardo Leo may be the least familiar to concertgoers. Leo (1694-1744) was a Neapolitan composer who enjoyed great success during his lifetime as a composer of comic operas and, later in his life, church music. Though his operas are rarely performed today, Leo’s instrumental and sacred works are periodically performed by early music ensembles and chamber groups. ABS, with Gretchen Claassen as soloist, will perform Leo’s Concerto for Violoncello in A Major at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4).

This concerto is one of six Leo composed for the Duke of Maddonlini between 1734 and 1737. It is a sparkling example of Leo’s status as a transitional figure, wholly at home with Baroque forms and conventions while also showing a talent for the newer, Classical style that was gaining popularity. It is perhaps to the Duke’s credit that we have any cello concertos from Leo at all; the Duke was an amateur cellist of excellent ability and Leo composed the concertos to showcase his patron’s talents. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, another famous Italian musician in the Duke’s employment during the 1730s, wrote his Cello Sonata in G Major and Sinfonia in F Major for him.

Naples

Naples

Leo’s sacred works were held in high esteem during his lifetime and some of them enjoyed longevity after the composer’s death. In 1739 Leo composed his Miserere for two choruses with basso continuo, an impressive example of counterpoint and craftsmanship that persisted in the liturgy well into the late nineteenth-century, especially in the churches of his hometown of Naples. In 1880, the work made an impression on none other than Richard Wagner who was in Naples to finish orchestrating his final opera, Parsifal. After some tedious dealings with an Italian singer, Wagner and his wife Cosima sought to “clear the air” and took a walk to the chapel at the Naples Conservatory to hear Leo’s famous Miserere. In her exhaustive diaries, Cosima Wagner quoted her husband’s reaction: “What an awesomely noble impression the music makes! … This is rare music, which makes everything else look like child’s play.” Cosima went on to document her own reaction to the work, too: “The work (by Leo) rears up like a mighty cathedral, severe in outline, noble and essential, every modulation of tremendous effect, since dictated by the logic of the part writing. The performance suffers because of the pauses the conductor feels impelled to make in the interests of security. But the boys’ voices sound touchingly naïve … we think of Parsifal!”

It is provocative to imagine how Leonardo Leo’s music might have influenced Wagner while he was applying the finishing touches to Parsifal, an opera that features a celestial chorus of children’s voices. So, not only was Leo a progressive Baroque composer whose works anticipate the Classical Era, but his music may also have informed the musical ideals of the high Romantic Era.

If you would like to get to know this fascinating Italian composer a little better, join ABS for Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo, May 1-4. Opportunities to hear the music of this fascinating composer do not come around often; we hope to see you there! Best availability for seating is in Berkeley on May 2, 8:00 p.m.