Mercadante was most famous in his own lifetime as an opera composer, but unlike most of his Italian operatic contemporaries he was also a prolific composer of instrumental pieces. Particularly in his later years he deleberately tried to foster an Italian instrumental style comparable to, but distinct from, the German repertoire he knew and admired.
As a child he learned to play guitar and clarinet, and in 1808 he entered the Conservatorio di San Sebastiano in Naples, where he also studied flute, violin, singing, and composition. It was during this time he wrote what is now his best-known work, the E-minor flute concerto.
His first opera in 1819 was a success and launched an operatic career that spanned several decades, but the 1820s saw him relocating repeatedly within and outside Italy in response to the political turmoil of the period, eventually becoming director of the royal opera houses in Madrid and Lisbon. In the mid-1830s he became familiar with the works of Rossini, Auber, and Meyerbeer in Paris. The experience prompted his "reform" operas, in which he experimented with elements of the tableau technique of French grand opera and with a less florid, more dramatic style of vocal writing.
From 1833–40 he served as maestro di capella at the cathedral of Novara, but by 1840 he had returned to Naples to assume directorship of the conservatory, which he retained at least in name until his death. In 1862, however, a stroke rendered him blind; although he continued to teach, he was forced him to relinquish his operatic conducting posts and delegate much of the running of the conservatory to his subordinates.
Mercadante adhered to the older idea of the composer as a professional craftsman, increasingly displaced in the nineteenth century by the idea of the inspired artist producing art for its own sake. Consenquenty he produced music in nearly every genre.
Most prominent in his own life were the more than fifty operas he produced between 1820 and 1857; other stage works included a handful of ballets as well as contributions to ballets by other composers. During his stint as maestro di cappella in Novara, he withdrew from operatic composition for a year, during which he wrote a great deal of sacred music to meet the needs of the cathedral. Other vocal works include a great many songs and salon pieces with piano accompaniment.
His instrumental output was equally extensive. His orchestral music includes numerous programmatic works and roughly twenty concertos or other works for solist and orchestra. His chamber music for the most part avoided the standard string chamber combinations, favoring wind instruments or unconventional ensembles; his solo music includes a handful of piano works as well as several fantasias and variation sets for unaccompanied flute.
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