Individual Composer

Emanuele d'Astorga

1680 - ?1757

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Astorga was one of the more colourful characters in early 18th century music, in fact his life has been used as the subject of novels, journals and even an opera by the 19th century composer Johann Joseph Abert, in which Astorga becomes mad and is brought back to sanity by hearing the first bars of his Stabat Mater. Born in Augusta, Sicily in 1693, part of a family which had acquired a barony in the early 17th century, Emanuele was well-educated as befitted a child of his rank. Due to an early display of music talent, his education also included tuition in music. In his early twenties Astorga left for Rome where he became part of the circle surrounding the Spanish papal ambassador, the Duke of Osseda during which time he met the poet Sebastiano Biancardi who later became his principal librettist.

According to one story, when the composer and librettist went to Genoa they were robbed and, in order to raise funds wrote an opera Dafni. The story has it that the Habsburg claimant to the Spanish throne, Charles III was in the audience and was so impresses that he summoned Astorga to his court at Barcelona and following Charles’ coronation as emperor went with him to the court in Vienna where Charles granted him a large pension. This income notwithstanding, Astorga left Vienna in around 1714 with considerable debts behind him.

His decision to support Spain during the wars of the Spanish Succession meant that he forfeited his estates in Sicily and the title he inherited upon his father and brother’s deaths. His mother and sister however reclaimed both, made them over to him, and he became Barone.

The rest of his life is largely unknown except for the date of his wedding in 1717 and the fact that a number of works were published in Lisbon in the period 1721 – 1726. Theories abound and the English historian John Hawkins claims that Astorga “…passed a winter or two in London, from where he went to Bohemia…” but little else is known. His last dated manuscript was 1731 and by 1744 the family estates had been sold by his wife and sister in tremendous debt. The date and place of his death cannot be confirmed, being known only from a notation in a manuscript in the Santini collection in Münster.

Astorga’s most popular and performed work is his c minor Stabat Mater which was copied and circulated widely during his lifetime and beyond. It was, however, for his chamber cantatas that he was most highly regarded during his lifetime. There are more than 150 surviving examples and it is within this genre that his complex harmonic language becomes most apparent. He set involved cantata texts using a palette both colourful and dramatic in recitative and aria. The music is very ‘singable’ yet full of interest in both structure and melody.