Regent and woman in art
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Maria Antonia Walpurgis, the fascinating librettist of three cantatas recorded by Ensemble Diderot
By now the importance and influence of the baroque music composed and performed in Dresden is well documented in writings and recordings. One needs only to reflect on outstanding composers and musicians such as Johann Adolph Hasse and his wife Faustina Bordoni, Johann David Heinichen, Jan Dismas Zelenka, Johann Georg Pisendel, Silvius Leopold Weiss and Johann Joachim Quantz to name a few, to realize the standards of artistic perfection achieved during the reign of Saxon Elector and Polish King August II (1670–1733), and his son and successor, August III (1696–1763). In the summer of 1747 the musical life at the Dresden court received a welcome boost when Crown Prince Friedrich Christian married his 22-year-old first cousin Maria Antonia, daughter of the Bavarian Elector and Emperor Charles VII, and Maria Amalia, sister of Maria Josepha. When the young Bavarian princess arrived in Dresden she already was an aspiring poet, a fine singer and a competent keyboard player and lutenist, having received a solid instruction in music in Munich with the court composers Giovanni Battista Ferrandini and Giovanni Porta. To further continue her musical education the Dresden court lined up four outstanding composers and musicians: Hasse (composition), Nicola Porpora (singing) and Weiss (lute), while Giovanni Alberto Ristori was assigned to the Hofstaat of the crown princely pair and asked to move into their Kurprinzenpalais, thus ensuring Maria Antonia had constant access to the Italian composer for keyboard instruction, musical advice and accompaniment. The three years Ristori lived in this palace proved to be a fruitful period for both, during which Ristori composed a large-scale cantata in honour of the crown princess (I lamenti di Orfeo, 1 January 1749), and set music to three librettos of Maria Antonia that are heard on Ensemble Diderot‘s anthology.
The earliest of the three cantatas, Didone abbandonata, was almost certainly conceived during the summer residency of Friedrich Christian and Maria Antonia in Pillnitz in August and September 1748. Archival records show that Ristori was the only musician of the Hofkapelle who stayed with their entourage for the whole duration, no doubt for consultation and musical performances, both as a soloist and accompanist. Earlier that year Maria Antonia had been accepted into the Arcadian Academy in Rome (as Ermelinda Talea Pastorella Arcadia) and this set her on a creative journey of poetry and composition that culminated in the operas Il trionfo della fedeltà (1753) and Talestri, regina delle amazzoni(1760), for which she wrote both the music and text. Taking on the legend of Didone showed Maria Antonia’s ambition, considering that Metastasio’s earliest dramma per musica, first set to music by Domenico Sarri in 1724 and later by Hasse and many of the most famous composers of the day, was so well known and cherished.
During an afternoon concert on Sunday 6 October 1748, Maria Antonia, accompanied by Ristori and a small group of virtuosi from the Hofkapelle, sang Didone abbandonata in the presence of the members of the court and the nobility. The correspondence of Friedrich Christian’s Grand Master, Count Joseph Gabaleon Wackerbarth-Salmour, with the Saxon Prime Minister Count Heinrich Brühl, who was then based in Warsaw with August III and Maria Josepha, records the good reception of the performance, but his postscript interestingly reveals that Friedrich Christian had tried to influence Maria Antonia’s setting of the text. When Metastasio received a copy of the libretto a couple of months later he praised it unreservedly and was astonished to see that the young crown princess could present such an excellent verse. A few weeks later a teacher-student arrangement had been established between Metastasio and Maria Antonia, with the latter sending the former her texts for opinion and advice. However, their contact came to an abrupt end less than one year later when the crown princess accused the Imperial court poet of having ‘cruelly mutilated’ an early draft of her Il trionfo della fedeltà.
Before the unexpected end of his promising relationship with Maria Antonia, Metastasio had also expressed his admiration of Lavinia a Turno, which received its first performance on the evening of 12 November 1748. In his letter to Brühl, which was accompanied by a copy of the libretto, Wackerbarth described the ‘admirable’ singing of Maria Antonia, while adding that Ristori had forbade him disclose who the author was. Instead, the prime minister was supposed to find this out by the ‘sublime’ style of the text, which of course was penned by the crown princess. After the second performance of Lavinia a Turno six days later Wackerbarth praised Ristori’s beautiful music and its great reception with the connoisseurs in attendence. We do not know exactly when the cantata Nice a Tirsi first was heard in Dresden, but judging by a note in the score copy it must have been in 1749. Once again, Maria Antonia must have been the singer in this cantata. Each cantata is kept as a beautifully bound score and a set of parts once belonging to the private collection of Maria Antonia. A distinguishing feature of Ristori’s settings of Maria Antonia’s texts is the extent of the highly dramatic and very lengthy accompanied recitatives.
An interesting account of how these cantatas once might have been heard in the context of private music making at the Dresden court comes from the English music historian Charles Burney: In August 1772, when visiting Munich, he had the good fortune to hear Maria Antonia sing. Now in her late 40s, she performed an entire scene from her opera Talestri.The Dresden composer Johann Gottlieb Naumann accompanied her on the harpsichord and her brother, the Elector of Bavaria, was one of two violinists. From Burney, we learn something of the style of Maria Antonia’s singing, especially her manner of performing her own accompanied recitative. He wrote: ‘She sung in truly fine style; her voice is very weak, but she never forces it, or sings out of tune. She spoke the recitative, which was an accompanied one, very well in the way of great old singers of better times.’
This text is taken from Jóhannes Ágústsson's and Janice B. Stockigt's booklet notes to ADX13711.
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