Amilcare Ponchielli

1834-1886, Italy

Amilcare Ponchielli (Italian:31 August 1834 – 16 January 1886) was an Italian opera composer, best known for his opera La Gioconda. He was married to the soprano Teresina Brambilla.

Life and work
Born in Paderno Fasolaro (now Paderno Ponchielli) near Cremona, then Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia, Ponchielli won a scholarship at the age of nine to study music at the Milan Conservatory, writing his first symphony by the time he was ten years old.

In 1856 he wrote his first opera—it was based on Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed (I promessi sposi)—and it was as an opera composer that he eventually found fame.

His early career was disappointing. Maneuvered out of a professorship at the Milan Conservatory that he had won in a competition, he took small-time jobs in small cities, and composed several operas, none successful at first. In spite of his disappointment, he gained much experience as the bandmaster (capobanda) in Piacenza and Cremona, arranging and composing over 200 works for wind band. Notable among his "original" compositions for band are the first-ever concerto for euphonium (Concerto per Flicornobasso, 1872), fifteen variations on the popular Parisian song "Carnevale di Venezia", and a series of festive and funeral marches that resound with the pride of the newly unified Italy and the private grief of his fellow Cremonese. The turning point was the big success of the revised version of I promessi sposi in 1872, which brought him a contract with the music publisher G. Ricordi & Co. and the musical establishment at the Conservatory and at La Scala. The role of Lina in the revised version was sung by Teresina Brambilla, whom he married in 1874. Their son Annibale became a music critic and minor composer. The ballet Le due gemelle (1873) confirmed his success.

The following opera, I Lituani (The Lithuanians) of 1874, had a three-night run in 1903 at La Scala, where the casting was particularly poorly reviewed; it was scheduled for performances in 1939 that did not take place because the Second World War broke out, and it was not performed again until 1979 when RAI recovered the score. It has been revived several times since then. His best-known opera is La Gioconda (1876), which his librettist Arrigo Boito adapted from the same play by Victor Hugo that had been previously set by Saverio Mercadante as Il giuramento in 1837 and Carlos Gomes as Fosca in 1873. The opera contains the famous ballet Dance of the Hours as the third act finale. It was first produced in 1876 and revised several times. The version that has become popular today was first given in 1880.

In 1876 he started working on I Mori di Valenza, although the project dates back to 1873. It was an opera that he never finished, although it was completed later by Arturo Cadore and performed posthumously in 1914.

A marble gravestone on the wall of a crypt

After La Gioconda, Ponchielli wrote the monumental biblical melodrama in four acts Il figliuol prodigo given in Milan at La Scala on 26 December 1880 and Marion Delorme, from another play by Victor Hugo, which was presented at La Scala on 17 March 1885. In spite of their rich musical invention, neither of these operas met with the same success but both exerted great influence on the composers of the rising generation, such as Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni and Umberto Giordano.

In 1881, Ponchielli was appointed maestro di cappella of the Bergamo Cathedral, and from the same year he was a professor of composition at the Milan Conservatory, where among his students were Puccini, Mascagni, Emilio Pizzi, and Giovanni Tebaldini.

He died of pneumonia in Milan in 1886, and was interred in the city's Monumental Cemetery.


Although, in his lifetime, Ponchielli was very popular and influential (and introduced an enlarged orchestra and more complex orchestration), only one of his operas is regularly performed today - La Gioconda. It contains a strong and memorable aria for contralto 'Voce de donna o d'angelo'(the Rosary song), the great tenor romanza "Cielo e mar", a well-known duet for tenor and baritone titled "Enzo Grimaldo, Principe Di Santafior", the soprano aria "Suicidio!", and the ballet Dance of the Hours, which is widely known thanks in part to its having been featured in Walt Disney's Fantasia in 1940, in Allan Sherman's novelty song "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh", and in numerous other popular works.

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