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It Is Good to Have Them: Instrumental Music by LEONARDO LEO

The MHS Review 405, VOL. 12, NO.9• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Recently, amidst a great deal of hoo­hahing and pileojactation from the critical fraternity, someone issued a recording of an opera by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Now in the past 40 years innumerable operas have been recorded, some of them obscure works by obscure composers. But the fact is that, in an age when in Italy and the Ger­manies operas drew audiences as films do today (or did a decade or so ago), Hasse was perhaps the most popular and prolific man in the field. Yet the work just alluded to is the first and only ex­ample from his pen so far recorded.

But Hasse is not alone in point of neglect. Despite the baroque craze that has been epidemic since the '50s, many of the most important composers of the period have been ignored. These include (just to name some of the more obvious examples) Bononcini, Cesti, the Graun brothers, Keiser, Legrenzi, Lotti, Piccin­ni, Porpora, Steffani, and Stradella. With such gaps, it would be impossible presently to write a history of 18th-­century opera from firsthand aural experience.

Included among the neglected is Leonardo Leo. History does not say if his intimates called him "Leo Leo" (a sobri­quet that invites yodeling), but, when he was born in a village near Brindisi in 1694, he was christened Lionardo Oron­zo Salvatore di Leo. His parents seem (unusually for such stories) to have been comfortably off, for when he was 15 they paid his way to the Conservatory of the Pieta dei Turchini in Naples, which was where the operatic action was in those days. Three years later he saw his first stage work (a religious piece) produced, got his first job (steady extra organist at the viceregal palace­no salary), and, drunk with success, entered into holy matrimony. He climb­ed the ladder steadily and, at 21, suc­ceeded the great Alessandro Scarlatti as court organist.

Having proved his dramatic abilities with around 30 operas and such, in 1732 (the year in which Haydn and Geo. Washington were born), he tried his hand successfully at oratorio. (His La morte di Abele [The death of Abel] is, as far as I can ascertain, his only major work to have been recorded. It was once available as MHS 1743/44, but you know what happens to such items when you hesitate.) By 1734, as second in com­mand at the Conservatory, he was pull­ing down 1600 lire (about 98 cents in present-day deflated dollars, but a lot more then).

Leo seems to have led a generally placid and unexciting life, spent mostly grinding away at his work. At one point his ruler put him under house arrest with round-the-clock guards to make sure he turned out a piece in time for the former's nuptials. He also got into a famous quarrel with Francesco Durante (another neglected contemporary)­--something about polyphony and church music, though I'd not bother my pretty little head about it if I were you. By 1744 Leo was running not one but two con­servatories and made it at last as maestro di cappella to the king. On the last day of October in that year they found him slumped over his harpsichord, dead of a stroke at 50--not very surprisingly, considering his obvious workaholism.

Typically of Italian composers of his day, Leo's work was mostly vocal. We know of 60 or so operas, eight oratorios, six Masses, and innumerable minor works, both religious and secular. That brings us to the present recording, whose original is labeled ''The Complete Instrumental Music of Leonardo Leo." It contains six cello concerti, a concer­to for four violins, and three keyboard toccatas. These are transitional works from the late baroque and it is good to have them, especially played so stylishly.

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