Johann Adolph Hasse was an 18th-century German composer, singer and teacher of music. Hasse received the highest reputation across Europe during his lifetime, being called the padre della musica (father of music). In fact, few composers were more famous and more quickly forgotten today as Hasse; today, almost completely eclipsed by his contemporary George Frideric Handel. Hasse was married to the famous Italian operatic soprano Faustina Bordoni, the two became an unstoppable "power couple" and dominated the music world.
Hasse was the second of five children born to Peter Hasse, a church organist, and Christina Klessing, the daughter of the Burgomeister (town’s mayor). Hasse came from a long line of musicians; his great grandfather was an organist at the Marienkirche in Lübeck and a composer as well as his grandfather, father and brother successively held the position of organist at Bergedorf. Starting out as an operatic tenor, Hasse received his first musical education from his father. When Hasse was fifteen years old, he moved to Hamburg to continue his musical training in composition and singing and, shortly after, in 1718, he joined the Gänsemarktoper (now the Hamburg Opera) as a tenor under the direction of Reinhard Keiser (Handel had held the position of violinist there only a few years earlier). In 1719, he obtained a singing post at the court of Brunswick where he performed operas of Georg Caspar Schürmann (1672 or 1673-1751), Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681–1732) and Antonio Caldara (1670 or 1671–1736). Then, in 1721, at the age of 21, his first opera, Antioco, was performed at the court; Hasse himself also sang the title role of the production. Due to the success of his first opera, the duke sent Hasse to Italy to complete his studies. After initially travelling through Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome Hasse eventually settled in Naples and, in 1724, he started studying with Italian opera composer Nicola (Niccolò) Porpora (1686–1768), with whom, however, he seems to have disagreed both as a man and an artist. This led him to study with Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). Scarlatti was so impressed by Hasse's talent on the harpsichord, that he accepted him as his pupil. Scarlatti became a teacher, friend and mentor to Hasse, and Hasse is said to have altered his compositional style in several respects to reflect that of Scarlatti. Scarlatti organized Hasse's first commission in 1725, Antonio e Cleopatra.
Il Sesostrate was the first of Hasse's seven operas for the royal opera house of Naples, Teatro San Bartolomeo, within the spand of six years. Il Sesostrate was performed for the 9th birthday of the Princess Maria Theresa on May 13, 1726. Hasse's popularity in Naples increased dramatically at which point they named him "il caro Sassone" (the beloved Saxon [i.e., German]). In this period he composed his only full opera buffa in 1729, La sorella amante, in addition to several intermezzi and serenatas.
The year 1730 was a very defining year for Hasse. He visited the Venetian Carnival where his opera Artaserse was performed at the San Giovanni Grisostomo. This, more importantly, began Hasse's collaboration with the greatest Italian librettist of the century, Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), who would provide the libretto for many of Hasse's opera and would later work with Mozart on several operas. The English music historian Charles Burney (1726-1814) described this composer librettist pair by saying, "[Hasse] may without injury to his brethren, be allowed to be as superior to all other lyric composers, as Metastasio is to all other lyric poets." This opera included two of the most famous arias of the 18th century: Pallida il sole and Parto qual pastorello. These arias were performed every night for a decade for Philip V of Spain (1683-1746).
In Venice, where he went in 1727, he was introduced to the celebrated mezzo-soprano, Faustina Bordoni (1700-1781). Hasse converted to Catholicism and they secretly married around June 25, 1730 and they would later have three children Maria (Peppina), Cristina and Francesco Maria. 14 years into the marriage, Hasse's librettist Metastasio wrote "...never until now had I happened to see him [Hasse] in all his glory, but always detached from his many personal relationships in such a way that he was like an aria without instruments; but now I see him as a father, husband and friend, qualities which make an admirable union in him with those solid bases of ability and good behaviour, for which I will cherish him so many years..." he then added that Hasse and Bordoni made a “truly an exquisite couple.” Bordoni would appear in many of Hasse’s subsequent operas. Bordoni is the reason that Hasse composed primarily opera serie, since Bordoni believed that opera buffe would damage her voice. While Hasse was building a significant career, Bordoni had already received superstardom. Bordoni was known throughout Europe for being in one of the most intense diva feuds of history. She was brought onto the worlds stage in the 1720s by Handel as the "fresh face" of opera. Bordoni was loved not only for her voice, but for her sultry good looks as the Venetian beauty she was. This of course made Bordoni the rival of the reigning prima donna of the time Francesca Cuzzoni (1696-1778), who was well known for her bad looks and her heated temper.
Also, in 1730 he was given the prestigious title of Kapellmeister for the Dresden court and the couple earned a combined salary of 6,000 thaler in addition to travel expenses (the average annual salary of a pastor in Saxony was 175 thaler). Hasse was quite significant in the development of the music scene in Dresden and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) the Genevan philosopher, writer and composer, described the musical scene in Europe in his Dictionnaire de Musique: "The greatest orchestra in Europe, as far as the number and intelligence of its performers is concerned, is that of Naples; but that which is the best distributed and forms the most nearly perfect ensemble is the orchestra of the opera of the King of Poland at Dresden directed by the famous Hasse." However, the couple did not arrive to Dresden until the July of 1731. Earlier in the year, Hasse took his first trip to Vienna where he supervised a performance of his oratorio Daniello at the Viennese court of Charles VI on February 25. He was delayed from leaving Vienna in June, which had been originally planned, due to an attack of gout which would trouble him throughout his life. Hasse finally arrived in Dresden on July 7, 1731 and on the 26th, Bordoni sang a cantata (now lost) by her husband to celebrate the name-day of Princess Ann of Holstein. On September 13, 1731, Bordoni premiered the title role in Hasse's Cleofide. It was premiered in the Electoral Theatre of the Zwinger where, over the next thirty-four years, he would produce thirty-four operas. In the audience there was a celebrity visitor from nearby Leipzig, the Thomasschule cantor Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) attended and, to the account of Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Hasse and his father had become good friends around this time.
Hasse’s position did not confide him to Dresden and, over the course of the next twenty-two years, he and his wife traveled frequently, usually to Italy. In October, Hasse left Dresden to direct premieres of his next operas in Turin and Rome.
On Febuary 1. 1733, just eighteen months after the first performance of Cleofide, Augustus the Strong died and so his reign was brought to an end. He was succeeded by the opera-loving Frederick Augustus II (1797-1854), who would become King Augustus III of Poland. Augustus II inherited from his father a magnificent cultural center and a love of the arts. Even though he also inherited a huge debt, the musical activity in Dresden increased significantly. As the court went into a year of mourning, Hasse was permitted to remain abroad where he went to Italy and many of his sacred works were composed at this time. On May 3, 1733, his opera Siroe was premiered in Bologna with Farinelli and Tesi in the title roles and, by June 21, it was repeated an impressive 25 times.
In 1733, Hasse went to London. People assumed he would develop a rivalry with Handel. However, Hasse merely remained in London long enough to oversee rehearsals for his opera Artaserse (first produced at Venice, 1730). For much of 1734, Hasse was in Dresden where, on July 8, 1734, he revised Cajo Fabrizio which was performed with Bordoni singing the role of Sestria (the first was performed in Rome on January 12, 1732). On November 3 1734, the court departed for Warsaw which gave the Hasse family the freedom to do as they wished until the court returned 18 months later. They went again to Venice and rented a house at the calle grande o di C'a Zen in 1735 and 1736. Hasse wrote a Salve Regina for the Ospedale degli Incurabili (one of four orphanages for girls in Venice that specialized in musical training), and Tito Vespasiano was commissioned for the opening of the Teatro Pubblico del Sole in Pearo in 1735. For Carnival in 1736 at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo Hasse presented Alessandro nell' Indie.
Returning to Dresden during 1737 but, when the court moved to Poland in the autumn of 1738, Hasse and Bordoni returned to Venice for the Carnival season and, according to the French writer and traveller Charles de Brosses (1709-1777), the popularity of Hasse was at its peak. Hasse revised Tito Vespasiano (first performed September 24, 1735 in Pesaro). Hasse entered a highly productive period where he composed five new opere serie all to librettos by the court poet Stefano Benedetto Pallavicino (1672-1742). Of these five operas, Irene was performed on the February 8 for the birthday of the Czarina Anna (1693-1740). Another, Alfonso, was performed on May 9 to celebrate the marriage of Princess Maria Amalia (1782-1866, Friederich Augustus II daughter) to Charles, King of the Two Sicilies (1716-1788, later to become Charles III of Spain). The Dresden opera house was rebuilt and redecorated for this lavish production which included the Kings own Life-Guard in the opera's battle scenes! In September, the court travelled to Poland and Hasse and Bordoni returned to Venice. The annual cycle of one or two operas in Carnival followed by an opera for the Kings name day was becoming established.
His next stay in Dresden was also his longest, between 1740 and 1744. In this time he revised Artaserse, composed new arias for Bordoni, and also wrote a couple intermezzi. In October of 1742, one of Hasse’s most successful operas was produced, Dido abbandonata. It was composed to an outstanding Metastasio libretto and was given at the theatre at Hubertusburg, the electoral summer residence.
On January 17, 1742 Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786, Frederick the Great) visited Dresden to sign a treaty. He also was able to attend the second performance of Hasse's Lucio Papirio and immediately became an ardent admirer of Hasse's music and, it was at this point, that Hasse's operas were performed regularly in Potsdam and Berlin at the command of Frederick the Great. He was also present at a performance of one of Hasse's Te Deum, and after, ordered a performance of Hasse's Arminio the following day and Hasse and Bordoni were asked to give chamber concerts every night of his nine day stay. Frederick the Great, being a talented flute player, it is likely that many of Hasse's flute sonatas and concertos were indeed written for Frederick the Great.
In January 1746 Hasse visited Venice and Munich, returning to Dresden on June 13, 1747 to stage his opera La spartana generosa, performed to celebrate the double royal wedding between Friedrich Christian and Maria Antonia and between the Saxon Princess Maria Anna and Bavarian Elector Maximilian Joseph. It was the largest event in Dresden since Friedrich August II's wedding to Maria Josepha in 1719. The festivitied surrounding the wedding lasted almost a month and including an elaborate production of Hasse's La Spartana generosa, with sets designed by Giuseppe Bibiena (1696–1757), ballets by the young Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) and an extraordinary cast made up of Bordoni, Rosa Negri, the castrati Giovanni Carestini (1704-1760) and Giovanni Bindi (whose range was said to go up to a high c), and the tenor Angelo Maria Amorevoli (1716-1798).
One of the brides, Maria Antonia, was an accomplished composer, singer and harpsichordist and was an avid patron of the arts. She studied painting with Anton Raphael Mengs
(1728-1779), poetry with Metastasio (also Hasse's librettist), lute with Silvius Leopold Weiss
(1687-1750) and even composition with Hasse. She brought Porpora (one of Hasse's early composition teachers) to Dresden to be her voice teacher in 1747. Porpora was then appointed to Kapellmeister which promoted Hasse to Oberkapellmeister in 1750.
In 1748 Hasse performed two of his earlier operas Ezio and Artaserse Bayreuth in the half finished Markgräfliches Opernhaus, for the marriage of Elisabeth Fredericka Sophie of Brandenburg-Bayreuth (the daughter of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth). Then the marriage of princess Maria Josepha of Saxony to the French Dauphin gave Hasse the opportunity to journey to Paris in the summer of 1750, where his Didone abbandonata was performed. In 1748 Hasse performed two of his earlier operas Ezio and Artaserse in Bayreuth in the half finished Markgräfliches Opernhaus, for the marriage of Elisabeth Fredericka Sophie of Brandenburg-Bayreuth (the daughter of Wilhelmine of Bayreuth). Then the marriage of princess Maria Josepha of Saxony to the French Dauphin gave Hasse the opportunity to journey to Paris in the summer of 1750, where his Didone abbandonata was performed.The 1751 Carnival in Dresden marked the retirement of Bordoni from the operatic stage, while still retaining her salary of 3000 thaler a year. Hasse remained in Dresden after the Carnival where a Mass in D minor and a Te Deum were performed on June 29 for the consecration of the (at that time, still-incomplete) Katholische Hofkirche (The Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony) by Gaetano Chiaveri (1689-1770).
On February 5, 1753 Hasse premiered his extravagant Solimano, where Bibilena once again designed the sets. Alan Yorke-Long recounts the spectacle of the opera in his book, Music at Court:
"At the twelfth performance Solimano, the Court ladies were still hiring Swiss Guards to keep their places in the theatre, to watch the elephants and camels in the Turkish triumph, and to marvel at [the] last scene of Turkish camp by the Tigris at night, with ships sailing on the river and the gardens of Babylon hanging dizzily in the distance. For Ezio in 1755 the great scene-designer Servandoni was fetched specially from Paris, and in the Roman triumph, which took twenty-five minutes to pass on the stage, four hundred soldiers and more than a hundred horses from the royal stable were deployed."
The level of opulence was certainly raised that night!
In the five years between 1751 and 1756, Hasse composed a last seven operas for Dresden. On August 29, Frederick the Great led his army in a surprise invasion of Saxony, thus starting what we know today as the Seven Years War. On October 14, the court at Dresden retreated to Warsaw, at which point Hasse lived mostly in Italy, traveling to Poland solely to supervise productions of his operas. In the autumn of 1760, he moved to Vienna where he stayed for the next two years. Over the period of the war, Dresden and Saxony became a battleground and it suffered terrible damage and ruin to the economy. Included in the damage was the destruction of the Kreuzkirche, destroyed in 1760 by Prussian bombardment. Charles Burney, an English music historian upon visiting Dresden post-was, described Dresden, the city that had once been called “Florence on the Elbe”:
"Dresden is at present a melancholy residence; from being the seat of the Muses, and habitation of pleasure, it is now only a dwelling for beggary, theft and wretchedness. No society among the natives can be supported; all must retrench; the court is obliged to abandon genius and talents, and is, in turn abandoned by them!"
On returning to Dresden in 1763, Hasse found much his home destroyed and the musical apparatus of the court opera wrecked. Amid the wreckage of the country, Hasse’s Siroe (an earlier work from 1733) was given on August 3, and in October of 1763 a new opera, Leucippo, was performed. However, on October 5, 1763, while on the way to the dress rehearsal for Hasse's Leucippo, Friedrich Augustus II suffered a stroke and died. This would be the end in the magnificent, profligate drama that was Dresden’s Augustan Age; there would be no more lavish opera productions, no more grandiose architectural projects. For his funeral, Hasse composed one of his finest sacred works, the Requiem in C Just by looking at the key of C major, one can notice that this is not a requiem of grief, instead, a festive procession through with joy and pomp. His successor, Friedrich Christian, inherited Saxony; severely ravaged by war and economically drained by the expensive opera productions. On October 7, Hasse and Bordoni were released without pension by Friedrich Christian. After only a very short reign, Friedrich Christian died of smallpox on the December 17. Hasse performed his final duty for Dresden by writing a Requiem in E flat. At the end February 1764 Hasse and Bordoni left Dresden for Vienna. After more than 30 years of service, it was the last time either would see Dresden.
The couple was given a warm welcome in Vienna and, for the most part, they remained in Vienna until 1773. Hasse was commissioned to write a festa teatrale, Egeria for the coronation of Joseph II in 1764 and later the opera Romolo ed Ersilia for the wedding of Archduke Leopold to the Spanish Bourbon Princess Maria Luisa in 1765. Vienna was also the place where Hasse discovered the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). In 1765, the nine-year-old Mozart included the following dedication to his Opus III, K10-15 to Queen Charlotte:
"Let me live, and one day I will offer to her [the queen ] a gift worthy of her and of you [the Genius of Music]; because with your help, I will equal the glory of all the great men of my country, I will become as immortal as Handel and Hasse, and my name will be as famous as that of [Johann Christian ] Bach."
This admiration was reciprocated by Hasse noting, "This youngster will surpass us all to oblivion." Hasse's last opera, Ruggiero, ovvero l'eroica gratitudine was a royal commission for Empress Maria Theresa which he completed despite serious misgivings regarding the libretto. At this time he was also suffering from gout so he had to dictate the parts to his daughter Peppina to transcribe. Hasse travelled to Milan in August 1771 to begin rehearsals and, one of the first to visit him, was Mozart who had been commissioned to write the serenata Ascanio in Alba for the same occasion. Mozart was impressed by Hasse, and wrote a few days later:
"Tonight is Hasse's opera; since however Papa is not going out, I cannot see it. Luckily, I know almost all the arias by heart, and thus I can stay at home and see and hear it in my mind…"
Hasse had succumbed to bankruptcy after his music started to become irrelevant in Vienna's developing music scene. Because of this, and on request of Bordoni to return to her birthplace, Hasse retired to Venice in 1773 where he led a quiet life with his wife and daughter, taught, composed cantatas and religious music and revised earlier compositions. Faustina Bordoni died on November 4, 1781 and Hasse survived her by just over two years. His last composition was a large scale Mass in G minor written in 1783 (the same year as Mozart's Mass in C minor). Hasse died of chest inflammation brought on by a severe attack of gout on December 16, 1783. Two years after his death, he was almost completely ignored, until F. S. Kandler, who had also written a biography on Hasse in 1820, paid for a proper gravestone for Hasse in Venice, where he is buried.
Scarlatti organized Hasse's first commission which was from a wealthy banker. The piece was a serenade for two voices entitled Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra. It was performed in 1725 in Naples at a family celebration of a wealthy merchant by the most famous singers of the day: castrato Carlo Broschi (also known as Farinelli, 1705–1782) and soprano Vittoria Tesi (1700-1775). Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra can be said to mark the end of his apprenticeship, his acceptance by the Neapolitans and the commencement of an international career. Recently, Houston, Texas based Ars Lyrica recorded the complete Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra and it received a 2011 Grammy Award nomination.