After a “philosophical” week with Ayn Rand, with Lorenzo da Ponte we return to one of our favorite topics: music. On the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of the Italian poet and librettist, known for his collaboration with Mozart, we tell you about his singular and sometimes unscrupulous life. And we do it with great pleasure, as he was born in the Veneto region, just like us!
From Emanuele Conegliano to Lorenzo Da Ponte
Lorenzo Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano on 10 March 1749, in what was at the time the Republic of Venice. To be precise in Ceneda, now Vittorio Veneto.
He was Jewish by birth, but in 1763-64, his father, a widower, converted himself and his children to Roman Catholicism to remarry. Then Emanuele, now a teenager, took the new name of Lorenzo Da Ponte, from the Bishop who baptized him.
Later Da Ponte himself took the ecclesiastical path and became a priest. In fact, he took minor orders in 1770 and was ordained a priest in 1773, the year in which he moved to Venice. In the city of the Doges he taught Latin, Italian and French. At the same time, he began writing poetry in Italian and Latin, including an ode to wine.
Leaving Venice and going to Vienna
In addition, today’s protagonist was professor of rhetoric in Treviso from 1774 to 1776. Although he was a Catholic priest, Da Ponte led a life contrary to the priesthood. In fact, he had a mistress with whom he had several children. He was then accused of “public concubinage” and “kidnapping of a respectable woman”. In court it was claimed that the priest even lived in a brothel where he organized all sorts of entertainment, including gambling.
While he was a lecturer in the seminary, Da Ponte found nothing better to do than publish an Enlightenment-inspired book that cost him the prohibition of teaching in all schools of the Republic.
Of all this Da Ponte was found guilty and was then banned from Venice for 15 years.
Da Ponte received a letter of introduction from his friend Caterino Mazzolà, poet of the Saxon court to the composer Antonio Salieri. With the help of Salieri, Da Ponte asked for and obtained the post of librettist at the Italian Theater in Vienna. After settling in the Austrian capital (probably in 1780), Da Ponte became an official poet at the court of Emperor Joseph II and in that capacity he wrote successful librettos for numerous musicians.
The Da Ponte – Mozart collaboration
It was in Vienna, in 1783, that Da Ponte made the acquaintance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the most beautiful period of his career began.
In fact, he wrote the librettos for Mozart’s most famous Italian operas: “Le Nozze di Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787) and “Cosi fan tutte” (1790). His version of the legend of Don Giovanni, in particular, had a lasting literary influence. In the same period he achieved his greatest popular success with the libretto of Una cosa rara by Martín y Soler. This was a comic opera, like most of the works exhibited at the Burgtheater during the reign of Joseph II. Another excellent collaboration with Martín y Soler was L’arbore di Diana, although some critics pointed to it as indecent.
All three librettos that Da Ponte wrote for Mozart show an intimate knowledge of the Italian literary and theatrical tradition that Mozart can hardly have possessed. Since he was fourteen, Da Ponte had also voraciously read Latin and French masterpieces, modern playwrights such as Goldoni and volumes of prose, poetry and history. And hundreds of opera librettos. And all this to look for material for Mozart.
Da Ponte also knew some of the greatest writers of the time, including Gasparo Gozzi, famous as one of the most skilled critics in Italy, as well as one of the purest and most elegant writers. All the evidence seems to show that Mozart was influenced by him to an extent that the composer would never have tolerated by any of his other librettists.
However, almost nothing is known about how the two men worked together. It is clear from Mozart’s letters to his father how demanding the composer was in what he required of his collaborators, and that he liked to receive a great hand in the librettos he set.
That the two were friends outside of their professional collaboration is unlikely, so different were their personalities; but as business associates they had extraordinary empathy.
For other composers Da Ponte sometimes wrote “bland” lyrics; but for “the divine Mozart”, as Da Ponte called him in the following years, he wrote librettos that are miracles of skill, poetry and knowledge of the human heart.
As we said, between Mozart and Da Ponte, on the professional front, there were numerous differences. The first believed, for example, that the Italian opera should be as comic as possible, while Da Ponte was convinced that painting different moods was essential to engage the listener’s sympathies.
Mozart also felt that the comic element in the comic opera must be violent and often absurd, as it is in The Magic Flute, while Da Ponte did not want to give up the literary and cultured tradition that was such a fundamental part of his being.
Mozart also hated rhymes as an end in themselves. “The verses are really the most indispensable element for music”, he wrote to his father, “but to rhyme, just for the sake of rhyme, is the most harmful thing“. Yet rhymes abound in all three operas, and to accompany them Mozart composed some of the most fascinating music ever written. In Cosi fan tutte in particular, the complex rhyming scheme is so skillful that the words almost sing by themselves.
Lorenzo Da Ponte goes to USA
In 1790, on the death of the Austrian emperor Joseph II, Da Ponte lost his patronage. He then resumed his wandering.
After a stint in London (1792-1805) where he worked as a librettist at the King’s Theatre, he emigrated to the United States to escape creditors. Da Ponte moved first to New York, then to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, where he briefly ran a grocery store, working as a distiller. He also gave private lessons in Italian and French.
He returned to New York to open a bookstore and settled there, where he devoted himself to teaching Italian language and literature at Columbia College and promoting Italian cultural activities. At Columbia College he was appointed first professor of Italian literature.
He was also the first Roman Catholic priest to be appointed to the faculty and, to be honest, also the first to be born a Jew! In New York he had the merit of introducing Gioacchino Rossini‘s opera and music to the Americans, through a concert tour with his niece Giulia Da Ponte.
In 1828, at the age of 79, Da Ponte became a naturalized US citizen. Five years later, he founded America’s first opera house, the New York Opera Company. Due to his lack of business acumen, however, the theater only lasted two seasons before being sold to pay off the company’s debts. This theater was, however, the predecessor of the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.
Lorenzo Da Ponte died on August 17, 1838 in New York. A huge funeral was held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, precisely here (yes, it is a site where you can find the graves of famous people and their tombstones, like the beautiful one of John Keats ).
Legacy of Lorenzo da Ponte
While Da Ponte actually wrote or adapted nearly 50 librettos for 19 composers, there is no doubt that his most famous works are the three he wrote for Mozart.
For many, these three works are important because of their changing tone, charming characters, and intriguing plot structures. In particular, “Le Nozze di Figaro” is cited as the greatest work ever created, and Da Ponte’s contribution is one of the main reasons for its success.
However, for nearly 150 years after his death, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s name remained in relative obscurity. It was only in the 1980s that he began to be recognized as one of the greatest librettists who ever lived. But what makes a librettist unforgettable?
It is precisely in his memoirs and in other writings that Da Ponte explains it to us. In fact, he lists the many qualities that, in his opinion of him, were necessary to make a good librettist. Among these were sentiment, the vivacity of affection, the truth of characterization, the grace of language, the poetic imagery. And the understanding of how to alternate “the meek and the ferocious, the light and the pathetic, the pastoral and the heroic”.
For Da Ponte, writing verses was as easy as breathing, but behind all this there was a vast knowledge of classical and contemporary literature. And, moreover, he also had the ability to tune verbal and musical harmony. Whether it was writing serious or comic lyrics, one of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s greatest gifts was his versatility and his ability to adapt to the needs of his composer.
But, above all, his greatness lays in his ability to give the viewer the feeling of looking at real human beings rather than standardized characters, and this is what made his works immortal.
Life according to Lorenzo Da Ponte
We leave you with a quote from the memories of today’s protagonist to make you understand what a bon vivant he was.
As soon as I got home I set down to write. I went to the table and stayed there for twelve continuous hours, with only a bottle of tocai on the right, the inkwell in the middle and a box of Seville tobacco on the left. A beautiful young girl of sixteen … came to my room at the sound of a bell, which in truth I rang very often, and singularly when it seemed to me that my inspiration was beginning to cool: she brought me now a biscuit, or a cup of coffee, or nothing but her beautiful face, always cheerful and laughing and made precisely to generate poetic inspiration and witty ideas.