What’s in a name?

Thoughts on the anniversary of the death of Francesco Durante (died 30 September 1755)

No, I hadn’t heard of him either until I came to look into the history of the Pergolesi Magnificat. Durante was an esteemed Italian composer who settled in Naples in 1728, making his name mainly in the realm of church music, and he would perhaps be completely forgotten today had he not given composition lessons to the much better-known Pergolesi, whose reputation was on a par with his teacher’s but much enhanced by a suitably romantic early death at 26. Wily publishers soon found that compositions of doubtful provenance sold better if they had Pergolesi’s name attached, and he became almost as productive in death as he had been in life. Stravinsky’s 1917 ballet Pulcinella was based on various themes attributed at the time to Pergolesi, most of which have now been shown to have had no connection with him whatever.

Which brings me to the Pergolesi Magnificat, a delightful, sunlit piece long popular with choirs. Except it’s not by Pergolesi. From the incontrovertible evidence of an autograph manuscript, it was composed by Durante and misattributed to Pergolesi by the German composer and editor Robert Franz, who published a much-altered edition in the nineteenth century, with the original five voice parts boiled down to four and whole sections re-composed. Later editions perpetuated the misattribution, which was not exposed until recent times. I admit to a Sherlock Holmes-like ‘aha’ when I examined Durante’s manuscript from the Naples library and saw a much better piece than the four-voiced version with Pergolesi’s name on it. At the same time I felt sorry for Durante: he never established a strong brand name, and his first-rate little composition was doomed to join the ragtag army of mis-named musical orphans . . . the Purcell Trumpet Voluntary, the Albinoni Adagio, the Victoria Ave Maria, the King John of Portugal Crux fidelis, even the John Barry James Bond theme (and it took a court case to sort that one out). Moral for composers: make sure you put your name at the top of your manuscripts.

Listen to Durante’s Magnificat on Spotify, Apple Music or Deezer

The Durante Magnificat is included in the Oxford Choral Classics volume Sacred Choruses, edited by John Rutter and published by Oxford University Press, and is also published separately.

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