Opera progressed toward a fixed status with a swiftness hardly paralleled in the history of any art. The soil was rich and fully prepared for the growth, and the fecund root, once planted, shot into a luxuriant beauty and symmetry, which nothing could check. The Church wisely gave up its opposition, and henceforth there was nothing to impede the progress of a product which spread and naturalized itself in England, France, and Germany. The inventive genius of Monteverde, Carissimi, Scarlatti (the friend and rival of Handel), Durante, and Leonardo Leo, perfected the forms of the opera nearly as we have them today. A line of brilliant composers in the school of Durante and Leo brings us down through Pergolesi, Derni, Terradiglias, Jomelli, Traetta, Ciccio di Majo, Galuppi, and Giuglielmi, to the most distinguished of the early Italian composers, Nicolo Piccini, who, mostly forgotten in his works, is principally known to modern fame as the rival of the mighty Gluck in that art controversy which shook Paris into such bitter factions. Yet, overshadowed as Piccini was in the greatness of his rival, there can be no question of his desert as the most brilliant ornament and exponent of the early operatic school. No greater honor could have been paid to him than that he should have been chosen as their champion by the Italianissimi of his day in the battle royal with such a giant as Gluck, an honor richly deserved by a composer distinguished by multiplicity and beauty of ideas, dramatic insight, and ardent conviction.
Niccolo Piccini, who was not less than fifty years of age when he left Naples for the purpose of outrivaling Gluck, was born at Bari, in the kingdom of Naples, in 1728. His father, also a musician, had destined him for holy orders, but Nature made him an artist. His great delight even as a little child was playing on the harpsichord, which he quickly learned. One day the bishop of Bari heard him playing and was amazed at the power of the little virtuoso. “By all means, send him to a conservatory of music,” he said to the elder Piccini. “If the vocation of the priesthood brings trials and sacrifices, a musical career is not less beset with obstacles. Music demands great perseverance and incessant labor. It exposes one to many chagrins and toils.”