Giovanni Battista Draghi, known as Pergolesi, was born in Jesi in the province of Ancona on 4th January 1710. He began to learn the organ and violin in Jesi and later, at the age of 15, was admitted to the Santa Maria di Loreto Conservatory in Naples, where he studied under Francesco Durante and Gaetano Greco.
In 1729 Pergolesi, a gifted violinist, was appointed capo paranza (today’s first violinist) in the orchestra of the Naples Conservatory.
He took his diploma in 1731 with the oratorio La conversione e morte di San Guglielmo. Between 1731 and 1732 the young composer wrote the opera Salustia on commission from the Teatro San Bartolomeo in Naples, which produced the work in January 1732. The demands of the veteran singer Nicolò Grimaldi and his successor Gioacchino Conti constrained Pergolesi to repeatedly rework many parts of the opera, compromising the outcome of this first important work.
The composer enjoyed his first big success with his subsequent opera, Lo frate ‘nnamorato, a comedy in Italian and Neapolitan on a libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico, produced for the first time at the Teatro dei Fiorentiti in September 1732.
Following upon this success, in November 1732, Pergolesi was appointed as organist at the Cappella Reale. This happy event, however, was soured by the upheavals that struck Naples at the end of the year – circumstances that lead to the suspension of the music season out of respect for the victims.
In this way Pergolesi had to wait until August of the following year to see his new opera, Il Prigionier Superbo, on a libretto attributed to Gennaro Antonio Federico, produced. During the two intervals of the opera a performance was staged of the two acts of La serva padrona, an intermezzo buffo that enjoyed a huge success with the public on account of its innovative form, freed from established models and traditions, and its light and mischievous subject matter.
1734 saw the production of Adriano in Siria, a drama in three acts on a libretto by Pietro Metastasio. Commissioned for the celebrations of the birthday of Queen Elisabetta Farnese and produced at the Teatro San Bartolomeo, the opera was coupled with another celebrated intermezzo buffo, Livietta e Tracollo, it too, as in the case of La serva padrona, destined to become more famous than the principal opera.
In February of the same year Pergolesi was appointed maestro di Cappella sostituto by the “Fedelissima Città di Napoli”, a prestigious position that allowed him to aspire to succeed the holder of the principal post Domenico Sarro.
In 1734, the busiest year in Pergolesi’s career, the success of the revival of Lo frate ‘nnamorato was even greater than that of the original production, transforming the work into the most important attraction at the Naples Carnival and resulting in the spread of the composer’s popularity beyond the confines of the city of Naples.
Later in the same year Pergolesi moved to Rome, following his patrons, the Maddaloni and Colonna families, who had sought refuge there after Naples had been taken by Charles de Bourbon. In Rome the composer wrote the Mass in F Major for six voices and choir, known as the Missa Romana, and in 1735 had the opportunity to stage L’Olimpiade, a drama in three acts by Pietro Metastasio, an opera which Stendhal considered the most accomplished of all the operas based on this highly successful drama by Metastasio.
Suffering ever more seriously from tuberculosis Pergolesi was eventually constrained to return to Naples, where he staged the Flaminio, on a libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico, a drama that combines parts in dialect, arie serie and comic moments depending on the character or situation in question.
In the last months of his life the composer took up residence in the Capuchin monastery at Pozzuoli, where he wrote Salve Regina and the Stabat Mater for soprano, contralto and string orchestra.
Pergolesi died on 17th March 1736.